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There’s a conversation happening, in many homes I visit, between parents and their unmotivated or disobedient kids. It often starts like this: “As your parents, we are worried and frustrated by your behavior. All you care about is having a good time, and you don’t seem able to put immediate gratification aside and do the work required to be successful in school.” The second, more detailed part of this conversation depends largely on gender: for girls the parents will likely mention excessive socializing (phone, text, and social media) while for the boys they will usually discuss movies, video games, and internet surfing.

In most cases, children are all-too-familiar with this accusation; they are exposed to this same cocktail of concern and disapproval from their teachers, who prescribe more effort, guidance counselors, who prescribe more tutors, as well as from psychiatrists, who prescribe more medication.

Within the family, the school, and the mental health community, there’s a powerful and unstated assumption driving this conversation: that there is something wrong with kids who cannot get motivated to put forth effort in school. The premise here is that this problem originates within the individual student, from some combination of:

• neuro-chemical imbalances that makes focusing and learning difficult

• character flaws such as laziness or stupidity

• fear of failure or of the discomfort of sustained effort

Whatever the particular cause in any particular case, the assumption is that the problem (and therefore the remedy) lies WITHIN the student. More discipline, more effort, more tutoring, and more drugs.

Several years ago, a teacher of mine (the cosmologist Brian Swimme) opened my eyes to another interpretation. In his opinion, the reason many students are refusing to work is not that school is too hard, but that it’s not hard ENOUGH! Swimme’s view is that many children today understand (often wordlessly) that the challenges we are setting before them are meaningless and undeserving of their energy, and they are registering their disappointment on this score by acting out (with drugs and disobedience) and acting in (with apathy and depression).

As I reflected on this idea, it began to make perfect sense to me that some children simply cannot motivate themselves to write a 3-page paper on the theme of the American dream in The Great Gatsby. I imagine that if they could find the words, they might say something like this: “This same exact paper has been written by every single high school student for the last 40 years. So, there are already 100 million copies of this paper already in existence. What possible benefit could there be to my writing another one, especially since it will  be read by only one person, who has himself read several hundred of the same damn paper every year for decades?”

I should say that this is not true for every student. For some kids (myself included), there IS something that feels engaging and important about understanding how novels deal with abstract ideals and universal themes. I don’t mean to imply that this exercise is useless for all students. However, it feels equally naive to assume that it would be useful for all students, and then to blame and stigmatize those children who disagree.

After two decades of working with young people, I find myself convinced that there are indeed certain children whose motivation can only be activated by profound challenges. The energy and vitality of these students needs to be awakened by a deep sense of purpose, and (perhaps not surprisingly) memorizing the battles of the Civil War fails to meet this test (especially now that this information is available right in their pockets, on any tablet or phone).

As an example of an alternative approach to use with this kind of student, we could task a group of 10 students with building a robot that can rescue a person trapped in a burning building. Or, as another example, we could say, “Hey kids, clearly the adults of this world have not been able to solve the problem of capping carbon emissions. And if we don’t do something about it, billions of people and animals will suffer greatly. So, solve this problem. Tell us what resources you need to figure this out, and then present us with your best answer.”

John Taylor Gatto, in his acceptance speech for New York City Teacher of the Year Award touched on this same theme, arguing that the elite educational systems of past centuries used this approach extensively. “Everywhere in this system, and at every age,” he explains, “you will find arrangements to place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump, but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his ability to do anything?” Gatto’s speech is truly remarkable, and you can read the full text of it here.

In addition to challenging these students with a problem worthy of their energies, there is a powerful subtextual message in this approach, which is that we believe in them, and that we respect them enough to entrust them with solving a problem that actually matters. (Conversely, we can think of what message we communicate to young people today by forcing them to spend years of their life on problems that have already been solved millions of times, and that most adults find so useless that they cannot solve them.)

What feels most important about this line of thought is that it sheds light on the usually unquestioned assumption that a student’s lack of motivation is the result of a strictly personal failing. In contrast to the dominant narrative, this view suggests that the problem may not lie with the students, but rather, with the work we are demanding of them.

To some of these apathetic students, their resistance to doing homework may come from the fact that, in their minds, it is the equivalent of digging and then filling holes for several hours a day. Is this analogy that far off? We might counter their claim by arguing that, while schoolwork might feel that boring, it’s not as useless because at the end of the day it leads to lasting knowledge. However, it feels important to point out that, in my experience, more than 95% of what students learn for any particular test in high school is TOTALLY forgotten within 2 weeks. From this perspective, then, the holes are continuously being filled in, leaving little trace of their effort, stress, and sleepless nights.

This may be an interesting abstract theoretical conversation, but what’s far more fascinating is that it can actually be tested out with apathetic students, to see if it generates different results. Over the years, I have had the chance to do just that, and I have found the results to be remarkable. As one example, I was once hired to help 40 Hawaiian children in rehab for crystal meth addiction paint two large murals. These children were the most apathetic and disempowered group I had ever encountered. However, once I made it clear to them that their murals would be the center pieces of a giant show at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center in just over two weeks, their attitude began to change. After they realized that their names would be printed on the wall next to the piece for the whole world to see, they became yet more focused. And, once they agreed amongst themselves that their goal was to give pictorial form to the destruction of the Hawaiian culture over the course of their lives (a subject that they all felt was DEEPLY important and personally relevant), they became intensely dedicated to their project. It was awe-inspiring for me to see how, after these young people came to believe that this mural was their chance to share a dire and essential warning with their community (which was ready to honor their voices and truly listen), they found access to unbounded energy and focus.

What this example suggests to me is that we should be very careful about blaming students for their lack of motivation. For many students, the fault may lie in the stars we teach them to reach for, rather than in themselves.

January 31, 2015
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