Inspiration… and Teachers and Students

There are and have been quite a few teachers in my family, as far back as my grandmother, and they include those who have taught or are teaching at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and post-graduate/doctoral levels. Every single one of them, at one time or another, has been singled out as an excellent and inspirational teacher. And every single one of them who is still living is concerned about a trend in American education that has received very little attention.

Oh… there is a great amount of concern about the state of education and whether students are getting the education they need to succeed in an ever-more complex and technological society. There are the proponents and the opponents of more testing to ensure accountability. There are those who favor more inclusive curricula and those who favor a “back to basics” approach. There are those who push merit pay for “better” [I quote this, because to date, I haven’t seen any good and fair way to determine exactly what determines “better”] teachers, and those who oppose it.

But… while someone, somewhere, may have pointed out the trend I’m about to mention, if they have, it’s certainly been lost amid all the other “teaching issues.” And it shouldn’t be. It’s very basic.

The responsibility for learning has been quietly but dramatically shifted over the past two generations. Long years ago, when I was in school, and longer years ago, when my parents and grandparents were in school, the responsibility was very clear. Regardless of the circumstances, the student was the one who was responsible for learning, and the teacher was responsible for teaching. Today, everywhere I look, and everywhere the teachers in my family look, the responsibility for both has been placed on the teacher. Today, teachers must inspire; they must create the atmosphere in which children will learn; they must create a climate where student self-esteem promotes learning. Everything must be positive, despite the fact that, outside of school, life has a tendency to provide far more sticks than carrots, and that “life lessons” can be brutal.

It has gotten to the point where most students take little or no responsibility for learning, particularly if the subject is difficult or “boring.” I’m sorry, but learning well the basics of most disciplines can and will be boring. It takes practice and more practice. Everyone seems to understand that in terms of athletics, but it’s a point apparently lost in school and academics. Learning beyond the simple basics is work; work requires effort; and it shouldn’t be the teacher’s responsibility to provide the student’s motivation.

Whether this is the result of a media culture that spoon-feeds, simplifies, and dumbs down everything, or a tendency to over-protect children, or results from other societal factors is, frankly, secondary. What is being overlooked is that no teacher, no matter how good, talented, and inspirational, can be more than marginally effective when faced with large classrooms filled primarily with students whose motivation is not to learn, but to get through without working or to obtain good grades with the least amount of effort. And all the educational reforms, all the merit pay, all the “back-to-basics” movements, all the testing, and all the legislation will not improve education significantly until parents and society recognize that students have a responsibility for their own education… and act to instill that responsibility.

The actual will to learn has to come from the student, and until our society understands that — and acts on it by emphasizing that students are personally responsible and by letting them fail, horrible as that sounds, when they are not responsible — all of the other “reforms” will result in little improvement in the education of the majority of students.