When I hear pundits complaining about the state of American education, I want to invite them to our school. Hard work and inquisitiveness and ingenuity are very much alive, not only at my school, but throughout the country. Maybe we’re not as intense as other countries in our pursuit of higher test scores, but I would suggest that we turn out a more well rounded graduate. Also, what the complainers conveniently forget is that in America, everyone’s scores are included in the holy data, unlike many countries that only report the top tier of scores. If we played by the same rules, I suspect we’d fare very well. (I don’t deny that some of our lowest performing schools need major rehauling—today—but I’m tired of hearing people assume that young students today are unmotivated.)
Let me offer an example of the maturity I witnessed this week. During this unit on learning we’re plowing through, I asked them if they would be motivated to study harder if the school paid them for grades. Many of them admitted that maybe they would, but the general consensus was that paying for grades would place too much emphasis on the reinforcement, the money, maybe even encouraging cheating, and not enough on genuine learning. Did you catch that? I feel I should copy and paste that last sentence, italicize or boldface it for emphasis. Young people are curious; they want to learn; and they can smell bullcrap a mile away, usually in the form of state assessments that measure information devoid of context to their lives. The worst are the boring writing prompts that are collected and graded in minutes. Why should any student extend much effort on such foolishness? On an essay they will never see again? On a prompt created for the masses? For some end goal that is meaningless?
We did have some fun this week. Students volunteered to be pigeons in the huge Skinner box that our classroom became. One student would leave the room, while the rest of class decided on a target behavior: pulling down the projector screen, waving out the window, dancing on the desk. Skinner had pigeons playing ping pong and bowling with miniature pins. We used applause rather than Skinner’s food pellets to shape behavior, but the similarities between students’ quirky and halting behavior and that of real pigeons was uncanny.