08/09/2010 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: What Makes Students Want to Learn?

Recently I have come across a number of articles that propose educational innovations to improve student learning. One by Mike Rose, a professor of social research at UCLA and printed in the Chronicle of Higher Educationis titled "Why America Needs a Smithsonian of Basic Skills." In it, Professor Rose argues for recognizing the importance of teaching students who are difficult learners the "basic skills" of reading and math so they can have more rewarding educational experiences in their futures. Early intervention and best practices can be of great help to them in catching up instead of their being relegated to the "learning disabled" category. Rose sees that one of the problems in establishing an effective program is due to the "low-status" of difficult learners as well as those "tutors" who instruct them. If more attention and recognition to remedial teaching and learning were given, he believes, such as at an "Institute," then the problems in teaching these learners would be better addressed. What I question is what makes some children -- who are not severely developmentally disabled -- poor learners and others willing learners?

I think that students are motivated to learn when they see a clear purpose in learning that gives them either immediate gratification or hope for future rewards. These need not be monetary. Babies learn to do certain things because they are rewarded almost immediately for doing those things such as crawling, learning how to walk, manipulating objects, speaking: with food, approval, or frequent attention. This extends to the more complex levels of rewards for effort as the learning process moves into higher forms of performance and thinking.

In Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, Outliers (which I realize should be taken with more than a grain of salt) the author cites a study in which researchers "shadowed" two groups of parents to determine how they "taught" their children. They expected to see a variety of approaches but only found two basic behaviors: the higher socio-economic parents were frequently talking with their children, questioning them, giving them a sense of self-esteem so they had the "social capital" to be successful in the world of work. Those from the lower socio-economic scale did not interact with their children as mentors nearly as frequently. They regarded that the responsibility for these young learners' education was not theirs but their schools'. Their children did not get nearly as much positive reinforcement for mastering skills as did their more fortunate peers. This does not mean that I think lower-class parents are indifferent to their children's learning. It's that they might not understand as well how to be effective in encouraging their children to learn and how to navigate around the "education system" to maximize their children's opportunities as do those parents who were themselves successfully nurtured in that system.

My point is that no matter how effective a best practice might be, those who are taught must feel some sense that "hard work pays off" in order for them to want to learn. If they are surrounded with failure, they have little reason to believe that they, too, will not be failures, regardless of their efforts. If they see a realizable goal to their hard work, then they have a greater incentive to work hard. They become self-motivated. This is an economic issue as much as an educational one and although I have little hope that the blatant economic injustices that seem to be the status quo will be soon addressed -- and under what social conditions I shudder to think! -- there should, in my opinion, be a coupling between education issues and socio-economic issues. Otherwise, we may find very effective best practices of education but an increasing number of discouraged, unmotivated learners. In any discussion of the needs of the New York City school system, this issue of the economic impact on learning must be part of the discussion. Whatever the test scores are, they do not measure the most important factor in motivating a child to want to learn: Hope.