Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Your students are just not that into you.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews two books that explore a sad phenomenon: today's college student lacks an intellectual life outside of the classroom.

That is, if you're having fantasies that your in-class discussion of Plato spilled out into the hallway and slowly evolved into some late-night, "meaning of life" bull session....well, let's just say you might not want to click on the link above.

In fact, it might make you furious. Anthropologist Susan D. Blum, whose book is reviewed in the article, believes that teachers should lower their expectations:

"My reaction," she wrote in an e-mail, "was largely relief, fascination, and despair, all entangled. Knowing what college life is like now for many students at residential colleges explained a lot about my experience with students, and it has ended my tendency to get upset when students didn't seem to be focusing as much attention on their coursework as I thought appropriate. I think my expectations are much more realistic now, so the entire experience of teaching is less depressing than it was when I couldn't understand why I couldn't motivate students to be absorbed in their work."

In other words, don't push them. They're just not that into you.

I think something else is going on here. And I think there is plenty of evidence in the world of economics to prove it. A good introduction is Dan Pink's book Drive. The video below provides a good overview, but here's the main point as it relates to the Chronicle's depressing book review: The more incentives you offer students, the less interested they will be.

Education, of course, is currently all about incentives. Surprise! They're bored and unmotivated and just want to get in and get out.

Pink covers 30 years of economic, sociological, and psychological research (research which was, incidentally, verified by the Federal Reserve and mainstream economists at places like the University of Chicago) and concludes that people perform far worse and are less engaged when external motivations are involved (namely cash, but this also applies to grades, credits, and diplomas).

Commission actually leads to fewer sales. Bonuses lead to more mistakes. Even worse, if you pay someone to do an activity she loves, she will quickly grow to hate it.

If you require students to take X class, to work for X grade, to get a piece of paper to get X job, to make X per year, don't be surprised if their eyes look like X's.

If you make education feel like a job, they'll treat it like a job.

Most people I know don't want to talk about work during the off-hours....only to vent, complain, or express their desire to quit.

When did we make learning into a chore?

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