What happens to four-year-olds?

(Updated, 2016, Education Follies post)

As I was nearing 50 and beginning to think of myself as an actual adult and educator, I had the distinct feeling—which continued until I retired in 2014—that I had been tilting at windmills the entire time for no apparent reason. My frustration was not with my middle and high school students, but with myself, my Boomer colleagues, and those younger colleagues who followed. I was frustrated by many things, but one thing that was particularly disconcerting was that none of us seemed to be able to explain human motivation as it related to what was going on in our classrooms. If we were unable to do that—explain why a student does what she does—weren’t we flying blind?

One of the handicaps of being a middle-class, white, Boomer cum educator is the educational environment in which we were raised. A couple million of us went into teaching out of college in the late 60s and early 70s, and most of us came from well-managed schools designed in the early part of the century to give kids a solid background in math and language arts before leaving eighth grade for high schools that were designed to sort kids. Yep, sort kids. You can look it up. The best way to sort kids in high school is to present material and rely upon each of us to figure out what it was we were supposed to know and be able to do, which meant that our assessments were a mystery to us.

Really smart kids and really conscientious kids took very good notes and did their best to learn everything with the hope that their shotgun approach to memorization would allow them to do well on tests and use their resulting good grades to get them into college: the ultimate goal of many middle-class Boomer kids. (Note: Boomers who were both really smart and really conscientious went to places like Yale and the University of Chicago). The kids who were not as smart or as conscientious as the future Elis or Phoenixes got more B’s and C’s than A’s, and the challenged and/or lackadaisical students dropped out. All by design. We Boomers were sorted, and much of the result was as dependent upon motivation as it was on aptitude: those who learned at the highest levels were motivated to go to college.

The problem we Boomers encountered when we were given our own middle or high school classroom (I will leave it up to someone else with elementary school experience to elaborate that reality) was that we were confronted with kids, many of whom did not look like us or did not come from the same suburban environments. We expected that the strategies our favorite teachers had used with us would work with our students; man, were we wrong.

First, we did not know that our teachers had been using strategies designed to sort kids and not to bring them to mastery of what it was they were supposed to know and be able to do (those research-based mastery strategies may be addressed in a future post). Second, the Skinnerian strategies of reward and punishment that we used because we knew nothing about the psychology of motivation proved to be a relative disaster.

It was around the time of these frustrating awakenings in 1993 that I was selected for a life-altering opportunity: I was to be a school district, instructional specialist (in science) for two years. The expectation was that I would have the freedom to immerse myself in educational research, to travel and take courses from remarkable educators like Bob Marzano, and visit the classrooms of teachers deemed by administrators to be effective, all for the purpose of my then distilling and sharing what I had discovered for the benefit of my colleagues. The superintendent who created four such positions, one for each major academic subject area, thought of our roles as pollinators, and as a very large bee, that assignment began a two decade quest, which evolved into my trying to ascertain why so many kids—especially disadvantaged kids—were failing to learn.

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of motivation was one of the things that I quickly found to be lacking among all educators from first year teachers all the way up to superintendents, and not surprisingly, something that was (and still is) missing in the course offerings of schools of education: why kids do what they do. Early on in my explorations this question occurred to me: why is it that normal four-year-olds—all of whom (according to my non-scientific sample of one) seem to have a remarkable capacity and eagerness to learn by exploration and experimentation—become fifth graders who are either emotionally disengaged from learning, or are students who appear to be motivated solely by the acquisition of gold-star stickers, dollar (or larger) bills for A’s, or recognition as student of the week.

As a middle school and then high school teacher, virtually all of my students were these ubiquitous fifth-graders grown up. Was this just the normal development of humans, I wondered; were we born with an innate curiosity that was aflame as a small child but was destined to flicker and go out as we approached our adolescent years? Prima facie evidence suggested this was the case, but there was other evidence that suggested something else was at play.

There were moments in my classes when, exposed to demonstrations filled with cognitive dissonance (e.g. Wait a minute! How can that piece of cardboard keep water in the cup when the cup is turned upside down?) or challenged by questions never before considered (e.g. The heat and light—the energy—coming from the burning candle you’re holding has come from the sun, which is 149,600,000 km away: how could that possibly be?) nearly every student became imbued with the same intense curiosity—the strong desire to learn—one sees nearly every day in a typical four-year-old. But I had observed instances in my classroom among the highest achieving students that seemed to refute this observation.

For example, I recall a high-achieving student asking me, after an inquiry-driven lesson that had generated significant student engagement from students not usually thought by my colleagues to be motivated to learn, “Why didn’t you just tell us what we needed to know instead of expecting us to figure it out? What a waste of time.” I chatted further with the high achiever and discovered she just wanted to know what she needed to know for the test, so she could get her usual “A.”

It was that conversation that touched something I had learned about motivation outside of education. During a six-year hiatus from Education (1978 to 1984), I worked as a human resources executive with a retail firm, and later, with a university. Business management courses and professional development exposed me to findings from decades of research conducted in the fields of Industrial and Organizational Psychology regarding human motivation—research, interestingly enough, unknown to most educators. What I was exposed to as an H.R. manager seemed to challenge the Skinnerian approaches to which I had been exposed as an undergraduate in educational psychology: the assertion that kids are like pigeons, i.e. desirable behaviors can be conditioned or motivated by appropriate positive and negative stimuli (rewards and punishments).

In 1981, a management workshop facilitator was the first to raise what was a very significant challenge to my then way of thinking: he provided synopses of industrial psychology research showing that extrinsic rewards directed at motivating a specific behavior almost always eliminated any intrinsic motivation a person might have had to, in fact, practice the desired behavior. (The term extrinsic means something apart from the essential nature of someone–something that comes from outside a person. Intrinsic means something that is essential to who a person is, something natural that is a part of us.)

When I recalled the 1981 workshop and revisited the concepts presented, a hypothesis quickly came to mind as to why my high-flying student had been critical: the “best” students as measured by GPA are the students most likely to have been rewarded extrinsically throughout their school experience, with the consequence that they may have a significantly-reduced intrinsic motivation to learn like a four-year-old.

It was not until the late 1990’s, while reading Marvin Marshall’s Discipline without Stress, that I encountered a recommendation to read Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Motivation by Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste. Why We Do What We Do was a dense and challenging read but worth every minute that I put into it. For the first time in my professional career, I began to understand and appreciate why we humans (adults and children) do what we do.

I also began to understand and recognize that the failure of American Education to adequately teach all children (there is a massive body of metrics that justifies that strong statement) has at its core the fact that what has been discovered and verified about human motivation is not known by most American educators.

I was able to verify this assertion in the years following this personal epiphany as I worked with teachers and administrators in my school district, then as a high school principal in another school district, and then as I traveled across Pennsylvania on behalf of the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Instruction. In the latter position I interacted via training with over 1500 upper level administrators, including superintendents, and in none of those interactions did I encounter one educator who was familiar with Deci’s and Flaste’s research, which long has been known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a theory that is based upon nearly fifty years of research and has been accepted by most educators and academics around the world … except for American educators.

In an email exchange I had with Edward Deci in 2016, I asked why American educators seemed to almost deliberately ignore SDT despite the fact that 1) Deci is a world-renowned Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, and 2) the theory has worldwide support. His response was that he had never been able to figure out the answer to that question.

As a glimpse into the application of SDT, I will leave you with an excerpt from Publisher’s Weekly that can be found on the Why We Do What We Do Amazon page:

If you reward your children for doing their homework, they will usually respond by getting it done. But is this the most effective method of motivation? No, says psychologist Edward L. Deci, who challenges traditional thinking and shows that this method actually works against performance . The best way to motivate people—at school, at work, or at home—is to support their sense of autonomy. Explaining the reasons why a task is important and then allowing as much personal freedom as possible in carrying out the task will stimulate interest and commitment, and is a much more effective approach than the standard system of reward and punishment. We are all inherently interested in the world, argues Deci, so why not nurture that interest in each other? Instead of asking, “How can I motivate people?” we should be asking, “How can I create the conditions within which people will motivate themselves?”

If you would like to begin investigating SDT, there is a very user friendly website you can visit: Self-Determination Theory. And if you do begin to learn about SDT, you may wish to query your educator friends or your kids’ teachers to see if my assertion is still true: SDT is something that most American Educators do not know about, let alone apply it to how they plan and implement instruction.

It will only be after American educators have the intrinsic motivation to learn the answers to the question—How can I create the conditions in my classroom within which my students will motivate themselves?—that all American children will be receiving the education that American Mother Culture professes is the promise of equality of opportunity. At this moment in our history, that promise—as it had been during my entire career—is an undeniable and immoral lie for millions of our children.