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September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Overview / Why People Learn

“I've been reading his stuff very carefully, and I find lots of examples of where he says one thing one place and then contradicts himself someplace else.” I was talking a few days ago with an ASCD member who told me his concerns about a well-known writer on education. I told him I hadn't noticed any such inconsistency, but confessed that I probably hadn't read as much of the author's work, or examined it as thoroughly as he had. My friend explained that he had been studying it because he is preparing to take preliminary exams for his Ph.D.
It's hardly an unusual circumstance; for as long as anyone can remember teachers have relied on tests, term papers, and class recitations to get students to carefully study material they might otherwise skim, or avoid. The method works—when conditions are right. But these days, although “You'd better know this because it'll be on the test” still works for graduate students and some eager youngsters, it is working less well for lots of others.
Perhaps that is the biggest challenge to educators in this challenging age: students are not in tune with the entrenched traditions of schooling. Some see no connection whatever between their priorities and what teachers expect of them, so they disrupt lessons and refuse even to try. Others realize they must play the game, but go through the motions with minimal attachment to what they are supposedly learning. Teachers, thwarted by resistance or passivity, complain that students are unmotivated, and either search valiantly for novel approaches or resign themselves to routines they no longer expect to be productive.
Alfie Kohn (p. 13), who has collected and interpreted mounds of research on motivation, points out that it doesn't make sense to describe anyone as “unmotivated” or to think we can “motivate” another person. His book, Punished by Rewards (1994), makes the controversial claim that rewards are no better than punishment in their effects on behavior, especially children's behavior. For a generation of educators trained to think they should always try to use praise and rewards to motivate students, Kohn's message is unsettling. Some are sure to dismiss what he says unrealistic.
Most of the writers in this issue, though, would undoubtedly agree that if we want students to be more deeply engaged, we need to rethink our notions about motivation. Susan Skolnik (p. 34), a high school chemistry teacher, taps her students' inquisitiveness by having them encounter phenomena in their lab activities that they can't explain. After that, she reports, they enjoy discovering the underlying concepts for themselves. Judith Zorfass and Harriet Copel (p. 48) report that students at Lawrence Middle School on Long Island use a process known as I-Search. With teacher guidance, they individually devise questions such as “How do submarines expand our knowledge of the ocean?” and then consult a variety of resources to prepare a presentation on the topic. Ana Andrade and Delia Hakim (p. 22) tell about a 1st grader who, with their encouragement, took complete charge of a group of 38 other youngsters (and two teachers) to show them a “game” she had invented that was actually a very good way to learn base-ten mathematics.
These accounts remind us that the principles of human motivation apply to all of us, from eager graduate students to precocious 1st graders to mildly curious middle schoolers. People learn when they have a reason. What makes this so exasperating for educatorss is that our reasons, which may be eminently sensible, may not appeal to our students, who are concerned only with reasons that make sense to them. An essential part of teaching is helping students find their own good reasons to learn.

Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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