Monday, January 30, 2012

Motivation: The Power of Why

I was at a presentation today that began almost mid-stream, with the presenter launching right into the features of the software she was demonstrating. She didn't begin with explaining what the overarching benefits were, or what the product was for.

In other words, as we got underway I had no concrete idea why it was I was sitting there. It got me thinking: We start off our new semesters laying down the law, explaining to kids what to do, and how to do it.

We get angry when they don't listen, and by gosh, there are consequences! Our students need to know what we are teaching them, and we will try strategy after strategy, from mild to extreme, to get the job done.

Do we ever tell them why?

Why they should bother to jump through what they likely perceive as our endless supply of hoops? "Because I said so," and "I'm an adult!" have certainly never worked with a stubborn donkey like myself. Why should abstract lines of reasoning, and seemingly arbitrary rules, work for our kids?

Maybe we should begin our instruction - all instruction - with why. Why leads to an explanation of our common, collective values. Why also leads to explaining the equation of hard work + responsibility = success.

Taking for granted that our kids understand the reasons behind instruction might be a misguided idea. Shifting values and sketchy environments have served as corrupting waves, washing away what were once safely assumed, collective societal anchors.

But knowing why leads to everything from buy-in, to heightened motivation, to ... dare I say ... genuine excitement for learners. I'm going to start with why, from now on - as a reminder to my students, and to myself.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Pretty Paint

"In 1960, there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws, and far fewer lawyers — and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later."

- Historian and cultural critic Victor David Hanson discussing California - and comparing it to Greece - in a recent article.

Hanson points out that history is packed with examples of societies that slid backwards, sometimes rapidly, and argues effectively that America is on a similar slope. "In America, most would prefer to live in the Detroit of 1941 than the Detroit of 2001," he writes, and I'd agree.

I think back to my own childhood in the 80s, and how we bounded unsupervised from our houses in the morning, not to return until late in the evening ... sprinting home through neighbors' yards when we heard our mothers calling from the front porch.

It was a different time: There were no school shootings (many kids in Ohio brought guns to school during deer season!), and our parents had far less worries about abductions and the like.

Our entire lives were less structured, and more innocent, than what kids generally experience today. I'm talking about the 80s! Not some distant past, but a couple of decades ago ... before a kind of viciousness started to take root in our nation. Gun sales are not soaring because a Democrat was elected ... Americans are arming themselves because they are afraid. We sense this underlying coarseness, and it disturbs us on a deep level.

It's against this backdrop that I've, so far, defined and shaped my personal educational philosophy. A student said to me recently in a letter, "You taught me a little bit about history, and a lot about life."

She gets it. She sees what I'm trying to do: Impart values and character first, and content second. It's why I became an educator. Few students will remember the details of the Peloponnesian War; however, I'm pretty sure 31 freshman left my class with a firm understanding of where it is freedom comes from.

"The average Californian, like the average Greek, forgot that civilization is fragile," Hanson writes. "Its continuance requires respect for the law, tough-minded education, collective thrift, private investment, individual self-reliance, and common codes of behavior and civility."

He concludes with, "Washington, please take heed." I agree, and would ask my fellow educators to take heed as well. If we don't focus on values - and on what we collectively value as Americans - we are just applying pretty layers of paint on top of a serious problem.