Motivation To Learn Is A Cultural Process

Teachers Need More Freedom

By Dr. John Trotter

[This article first appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dealing with a discussion about the performance of African American children in urban schools.]

   All children CAN learn.  African American children CAN learn.  But, not all children WANT to learn.  This is the issue.  The MOTIVATION to learn is a culture phenomenon.  The asian children WANT to learn more intensely than the white children, the African American children, and the hispanic children.  (All four perfect scores on this year's SAT came from Asian children.)  Obviously, family environment makes a huge difference -- as studies have shown that if a child comes from a two-parent household, he or she has a significantly higher chance of being successful in school.  There is the same positive correlation between social economic status (SES) and student achievement.  Some children just start their "hundred yard dash" ten yards behind the starting line.  That's why we celebrate so much when a child from dire economic and familial circumstances performs so well academically.  We celebrate this because it is simply so unusual.  I personally love to hear stories about children growing up in terrible conditions who overcome the social and economic obstacles to get accepted at Yale or Princeton.  This is inspirational because we know that this child has overcome much more in his or her success than a child born and raised in Alparetta or Milton or Suwanee with two parents at home who have provided him or her with all of the tools and nurture which enable the child to start the formal schooling process with all the requisite  readiness skills. 

   I too have observed this "acting white" phenomenon.  This is a reality among African American children.  I published a research article on the peer pressure perceptions of "academically able Black male adolescents" in The Journal of Negro Education (Winter of 1981).  Often times, a young African American student will simply have to withdraw from from his or her peer group in order to be successful in school.  The anti-academic peer pressure is simply that great.  Our daughter admitted to her mom taht she purposely made lowered grades in high school because she did not want to endure the criticism of "acting white."  She flawlessly speaks the "Queen's English," is very articulate, and loves to read.  Often times, these traits, for a "child of color," are a liability among his or her peers.  This is sad, but this is just a fact.  I have observed that this is particularly strong among "children of color."  African American children have so much to overcome.  This is why teachers should be freed up to be creative to be able to reach these children, to be able to find ways to MOTIVATE academically these children. 

   Putting teachers in pedagogical straight jackets and requiring them to teach from some inane cookie-cutter pattern only creates more and more tedium and boredom in the clasroom.  (Research has demonstrated that one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hindrance for keeping the students from learning is simply their claim that they are immensely "bored" by the schooling process.)  Teachers are not allowed to be creative.  In fact, creativity scares the administrators.  Of course, administrators appear easily scared these days.  Three MACE colleagues and I visited one of Atlanta's middle schools yesterday, and from the reaction of the principal, you would have thought that I was Darth Vader.  All of the secretaries happily jumped up in apparent excitement that we arrived at the school at the end of the day and were signing in the visitors' log, but the principal did not apppear too excited and began making phone calls.  She asked me to talk with one of her apparent superiors downtown whom I have known for years.  This central office administrator, in repsonse to my stating that we had done nothing out of the ordinary -- nothing different from the other unions, jokinly said, "Now Dr. Trotter, you know that they see you as John Wayne."  We made a trip downtown and apparently have this little snafu worked out, but this just illustrates how nervous the administrators are these days.  They apparently want NO CREATIVITY.  They apparently want teachers to teach boringly with their heads down. They seem to be very scared people, as a whole.  This is sick.

   All children are different.  They are not inanimate objects floating down a educational conveyor belt.  All children CAN learn.  But, these days we need to (1) free up the teachers to be creative and (2) support the teachers when it comes to discipline.  The worst thing that we can do for children is to coddle and pamper them.  They need strong stuctured environments where they perceive that the teacher cares -- even loves -- them.  Then, the chances for children to respond positively to the learning is enhances.  The key to learning is MOTIVATION, and MOTIVATON to learn is indeed a culture process.

   For the curious...the school was Turner Middle School in Atlanta.  (c) MACE, September 18, 2009.

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