Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Getting Students to Work to Their Potential

An education writer I know recently asked me to respond to a parent's question about her son who "is mainly a 'B' student and seems to be fine with that even though he puts in very little effort to achieve those 'B's. He is in the mindset that B grades are good even though he is quite capable of A work with a little effort. How do I get him to work up to his full potential?"

Here are my thoughts on that difficult question:

Not to be cliched, but this is really a classic "You can lead a horse to water ..." issue.  Student motivation is our greatest challenge, especially in asking them to internalize that which they don't find immediately or intrinsically valuable.  Often the subject is a complete abstraction, as in, "when am I ever going to use algebra?"  The simple answer is that, regarding the using algebra or the names of Civil War battles or the make-up of a cell, they won't ever "use it." However, they will use the more developed brain that comes from acquiring knowledge and information and thinking critically about it.  Alas, that is a rather tough bit of wisdom for the average young person to get his mind around.

Some kids, of course, simply accept it and do what they are told.  Others question that logic, and in many ways we should applaud kids who question and challenge such conventions of society and education.  It is, obviously, in asking why and why not that our greatest advancements have come.  Additionally, for a student making Bs - even if (especially if) they come easily  - it's tough to argue he should strive harder when Bs will arguably serve him well and are evidence enough that he is above the curve.  Clearly, striving for mediocrity is never a good goal.  However, a "B" in my class is not an easy achievement and can even be a badge of honor.  Thus, I occasionally have to cringe when a child is told that an 87% is "not good enough."  I can tell you I've been the only "only B in high school" for a few kids over the years, and while it traumatized their parents at the time, it didn't prevent their child from any opportunities.

The child has to want to work to his potential, and there's no easy answer to how to make him want it.  I must admit that I have a child who is truly inspired by individual achievement and academic excellence, and I can't really explain why.  It is, seemingly, in his nature.  I didn't cultivate it in him any more than my other child who is certainly a good student but not obsessively curious and always wanting to know everything.  As parents and teachers we do what we can to help students value education and even excellence.  There are certainly helpful analogies and examples of why to value it, though society has far too often erred on the side of financial reward.  We encourage children to value education so they can "get a good job," and there is a part of that motivation which can be quite shallow.

Ultimately, we cannot "get him to work up to his potential" unless he wants to or is willing to give in to our demand or expectation or request that he do so.  Sometimes it is a maturity issue and students simply become more responsible.  Other times a certain subject or teacher will inspire such aspirations.  It can simply be moving on to college where the student has more autonomy and choice.  Alas, there is no simple answer to this, but I guess I have effectively evaded the question.

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