Where does the energy go?

Success cannot be simply results-based, because that’s not how children learn. The only way children can learn is if they want to.

August 29, 2011 23:54
School children celebrate vacation

School children celebrate vacation 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

Today is a special day. I’m wearing a new shirt and trousers; my backpack is full of supplies.

I even have a new haircut. I’m full of anticipation at seeing friends I haven’t seen in months. I’m ready for a change because lately I’ve been bored. Today has an exciting new feel to it. It’s the first day of school.

For some students, this excitement and energy lasts about a week. Then it reverts to what school has always felt like. The new clothes are no longer new. The missed friends turn out to be the same bullies with the same insults, and a new boredom has replaced the old. For other students, it only takes a few hours to lose the initial excitement.

The biggest change is for students who begin school with a hopeful attitude about doing well this year, only to find the same old grind that has haunted them throughout their school career.

Interestingly enough, teachers go through the same feelings. They start school with new professional clothes, haircuts and supplies. They hope for exciting new classes with students who are eager to learn. They have visions of reaching that child they couldn’t reach last year.

Soon they are shouting again, impatient with students who don’t do what they are supposed to.

Many of the great lessons they spend hours developing have far too little appeal to the students they were designed to reach.

So what happens? Why does the energy dissipate so quickly – and more importantly, how can we make it last?

THERE ARE many reasons that attitudes turn so quickly back to tedium. They range from the realization that hopes for a better year will go unfulfilled, to the numbing routine that most schools follow. Teachers who are seen as too nice often lose the respect of students who try to take advantage, leading to power struggles. Other teachers start tough and quickly lose the majority of the class, which needs a more caring environment.

At home, many parents care more about grades than what students learn, mistakenly believing these are the same.

Conversations tend to be like this: Parent: “What did you do in school today?” Child: “Nothing.”

What can parents do about this? The first thing they can do is elevate learning as the highest goal for school. This means removing those artificial goals set by well-meaning parents who do not understand that rewarding children for good grades undermines learning as the most important aim. Stop the use of rewards and celebrate the idea that your child has learned something new.

Second, teach respect for school, and especially teachers. This is better done by teaching the value of learning than with threats of punishment. Be a good role model and always show respect for children’s teachers.

Also, communicate with teachers regarding any changes at home that might affect your child’s behavior, such as a new baby or a sick grandparent.

Ask a lot of questions. When your child says, “Nothing,” ask what kind of nothing he means: “Can you tell me which class had the most nothing? Which kind of nothing helped you learn the most today?” Play quiz games at dinner in which children get to test adults on things they learned in school that day, then reverse roles and quiz your kids (if you know anything about their subjects).

In general, make learning one of the highest family values, along with respect for those who help create it.

MEANWHILE, THERE are many things teachers can do to keep the energy alive. It doesn’t matter what they teach, it only matters what students learn. It is the teacher’s job to motivate students.

Most important is to understand that school is not a business or profession. Success cannot be simply results-based, because that’s not how children learn. The only way children can learn is if they want to. School success should be defined as trying their best, not getting the highest scores, and until Israel embraces this truth, it will fall behind countries that understand how children learn.

This means teachers must make it clear to students that if a student tries, he or she cannot fail. Students who fail even after their best efforts lose hope and give up. They find another way to succeed – by being the best at being the worst, at being rude, by not doing assignments and by not caring about failure.

In addition, while teachers cannot always choose what they teach, they can choose how to teach it. Boredom is one of the biggest killers of motivation. Teachers need to spend a great deal of time developing lesions that are fun, challenging, creative and full of humor.There are those who think school should be miserable, like work. But though work might be hard – after all, you’re getting paid to do it – most people find satisfaction and even joy in it. And those who don’t are continually looking for work that has meaning.

STUDENTS SHOULD also be included in decisionmaking.

One of the most important principles to remember is that school is for students, not teachers. Teachers come to school for students, not the other way around. This simple truth leads to many classroom strategies based on the idea that kids need to feel ownership of their learning. This includes both academic and behavioral say in what happens. Giving students shared control keeps the energy for learning alive.

One way to give students ownership is to let them have a say in what the rules are. Of course, the teacher does not have to agree with a rule that goes against the values and goals of the class – we can hit anyone who insults us, for example.

But students can think of many excellent rules.

They may even be allowed to come up with a rule or two for the teacher to follow. Most of these are reciprocal, such as “If you can have coffee, we can have water.” The consequence for the teacher can be to offer a plan to solve the problem. Teachers who try this technique generally love it, especially since it provides an opportunity to model non-excuse-making behavior.

Another way to let students feel ownership of the class is to assign homework no more than three nights a week, and let them vote on which days.

When school begins, students are eager to be there. This is the best time to teach them how rewarding learning can be, even if their clothes aren’t new.

The writer is the author of 20 books on education, motivation and discipline and is currently a professor of education at David Yellin College in Jerusalem.

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