Monday, February 06, 2012

Motivate Me

Locally, our alternative weekly has been mostly milquetoast on the subject of public education "reform" and privatization in the schools - cover stories in the past few months that tout an education think tank and two education reformers, one of whom got censured by the AAUP for de-tenuring Tulane faculty in the wake of the levee breaches (which was not mentioned in the current article) aren't exactly examples of a critical look at education at work. The closest the Gambit gets to any critical stance of privatization is in the publication of a two-part article by Lisa Rab on the Mavericks high schools in Florida, a series of schools that has relied on a matched set of smoke and mirrors - technology and location, all publicly funded - that have collapsed under intense scrutiny of the corruption that dogs their very existence and their m.o. Forget that the Gambit won't turn a similarly critical eye on what is happening right in its hometown...what jumped out at me from part 2 on the Mavericks schools was this:
Part of Mavericks' problem may be the teaching model: Parking troubled kids in front of a computer and hoping they'll learn — instead of watching the latest Kardashian viral video on YouTube. Research shows that for virtual learning to work, "Students need to be very self disciplined and have supportive environments," Miron says. "If they're not self-guided and self-motivated, then it's gonna be a hard match."
Yes, Louisiana does have a virtual classroom - an entire virtual school, in fact. There are good reasons to take courses online - I myself have taken some college-level courses online - but I question the level of commitment to learning kids under eighteen will have when plunked in front of a screen and keyboard. And I'm not the only one:
I’d like to consider (an electrical engineer-turned-high school math teacher's) more fundamental idea, which is that technology in schools can be, in many ways, more a distraction than a solution.  
 “The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in student success, which is the student’s attitude toward learning and motivation,” wrote my new friend the math teacher.  “The truth is that if students are motivated to learn, they will learn, pretty much regardless of the specific format or technology that is used in the lessons themselves.  Conversely, if a student is not interested in learning, the details of how lessons are presented, technology, etc. don’t matter very much…the student will find whatever way is available to avoid learning…they may socialize with their neighbors, or frequently ask to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, or simply try to tune out and take a nap during class.  Thus, while we focus on how teachers teach, I’m finding that the real key to student success is not so much how you teach but how you go about motivating students to want to learn, and how the systems you use in the classroom help support and encourage students to succeed even when they are not intrinsically motivated by the subject.”  
He’s correct. In an ideal world students want to learn and teachers want to teach and the two meet in a common space where knowledge is transferred. Except how often and how well does that really happen?
Robert Cringely goes on to address the use of technology in education further in two more articles that are a good read - one of which states that for technology to really motivate the student to learn, it must function as a hired companion would, on a one-on-one responsive basis with each student. I keep imagining that kind of relationship as going something like this:

"Hello, TeacherBot, how are you today?"
"Doing fine today, Leigh. Let's talk about the effective use of titles to your posts..."
"Aw, do we have to?"
"There's nothing like an effective title to draw your readers in, Leigh. This is a learning experience."
"You keep repeating a part of the mammalian anatomy. We aren't discussing that subject right now."
"Teach, if this were up for publication, then yes, I feel a title would be warranted, but I see this as more of a diary."
"Your entries are public, Leigh. Readers make quick judgments these days. A title must grab the reader and make the reader want to peruse your writing further, thus giving your work some proper attention and a chance for it to get more feedback and then more readers for your next effort."
"Oh, well, when you put it that way..."
"Leigh, it is a worthy exercise. I'd put the sarcasm away as well, if I were you."
grumble...mumble..."Okay, let me get to work..."

Ah, motivation. The Holy Grail of teaching. Motivated students will follow you everywhere and simultaneously challenge you at the same time to keep up with them and stay a few steps ahead - but only if you as a teacher are willing to go there. It is a two-way street.

Even before privatization cranked into full gear here, it was tough finding motivated teachers - low pay didn't really compensate for the long hours, the many out-of-pocket expenses, and the largely inadequate facilities many teachers had in the New Orleans public schools pre-8-29-2005. The testing manias, the rage for TFA-ers over certified, diploma'd teachers, and the low pay plus little-to-no benefits make the atmosphere for motivated teachers even more stifling in the traditional public schools and the charters. A move towards Mavericks-style setups here in Louisiana would only work if the old GIGO was taken into account - that is, "garbage in-garbage out." From both the student end AND the teacher's end of the virtual classroom, if you throw garbage at each other, all that will come from it is a virtual landfill. The one-on-one via PC is not close to perfect unless embraced fully by both student and teacher...and I don't think we're even close to that situation in many of the traditional teacher-student relationships, much less the virtual ones.

I have no problems with technology being used in concert with a traditional teacher-student learning situation. Replacing the traditional entirely with technology, however, isn't feasible and should not be advisable.

There have been many hints and allegations that there might be more of a push from within the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to make entire K-12 schools virtual. Good for the students? It's probably only good for the state's coffers.

If that does actually come to pass, it would be a huge mistake atop the many others BESE is intent on making.

Update, 1:50 PM: Just to add to the tech in education debates:

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