Why do we bribe and entertain students?

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Tue, 09/05/2017 - 20:04

Like anyone else, kids must see a purpose in their education, and not just a general purpose—a purpose that impacts them personally, where they are and in terms of their developmental capacities to understand. Otherwise, it falls flat. Telling a first-grader that he needs to learn to read so he can go to college and get a good job accomplishes nothing. Connecting reading to stories about other children like him and experiences he’s had is another thing. The college and good jobs “purpose” must wait. So what do teachers do get their student engaged?  Bribe and entertain.

It starts in the early grades. Rewards we give must make sense—and be earned, and that the rewards we promise are the ones we deliver. Otherwise, we teach nothing except that we are confusing and untrustworthy. But over time, there becomes an expectation by the students that I will get a reward if I do the basic tasks.

Add to the rewards that life is often boring, an education mandate encroached into the classroom, ‘students must be engaged.’ Let’s face it—life is often boring. But no matter how unentertaining a process, if we can keep our eyes on the purpose for whatever we are doing, we will go beyond the boredom, tedium, and minimum requirements and perform anyway. With apologies to the philosopher Nietzsche, “He who understands why he is doing something and agrees that he thinks it’s a good thing can bear anyhow.”

External rewards, however, even when consistent and rational, are not sufficient alone. The value of learning must become an intrinsic value. In other words, once a child reaches an age where the approval of parents and teachers (about age 12, generally) is declining in power as a reinforcement (external), the experience of learning must become more internal—not unlike the joy of learning we see in the two-year-old who crows at the discovery of his own power to throw his bowl of cereal across the room. We have created a population of children that are motivated by rewards and entertainment. (Extrinsic versus Intrinsic learners) These children have grown up into adults and must be entertained and rewarded. This issue is cross-cultural issue that has made teacher’s jobs harder, and caused employers’ management styles change.

The fact that many kids seem not to know what to do with “free time,” how to “entertain” themselves, is symptomatic of this disconnect. Their lives have been scheduled for them by their parents from day one—daycare, sports, play dates, piano practice and recitals—free play is foreign to many students. Parents send their children outdoors to play and they are at the door 20 minutes later wanting to come back in.

Just like other species—from lion cubs to puppy dogs—play and games are instinctual training grounds for life as an adult. We humans have an instinctual need to be connected with other humans, but technology has contributed to the need to be entertained. Unwittingly or otherwise, we have created a world of shorter and shorter attention spans and have taught our children that they are incapable of entertaining themselves, learning what they are required and expected unless they are rewarded and/or entertained. Learning has become an extrinsic when our society needs citizens with intrinsic motivation.

As a result, many kids today expect to be entertained by their teachers. If not entertained, they act out, disrupting class, or say they are bored. I’ve actually had parents (and even administrators!) tell me that it is my responsibility to make the material I’m teaching less boring, with no recognition at all of their own accountability in not giving their children opportunity to be bored and discover alternatives for themselves. As a society, we seem to have conflated engagement with entertainment. The former is a two-way street, the latter something “done” to another. It is a teacher’s job to engage not to entertain. I call this “Edu-tainment.”

If we have to bribe, trick, entertain, and/or otherwise try to enhance the experience to get buy-in, it will not work. The connection between what we do in class and fulfillment of purpose is the only thing what will. The will and desire to just do something without being bribed or entertained is lost.
It is not an accident that more kids drop out between the 9th and 10th grades than at any other time. Nor is it a coincidence that one of the most frequent reasons given is the failure of education to connect the subject matter to the things that are important to them in “real life.” Why? Because increasing numbers of students arrive in high school genuinely shocked to discover that they have responsibility and accountability for their own academic achievement and are consequently unprepared for the complexities of subject matter that await them. And, for the most part, it isn’t their fault.
Having said that, it’s clear that every generation of parents and teachers have said children were different from when they grew up. In the 60s and 70s, it was “rock and roll” that ruined them. In the 80s, the “Me” generation arrived. Next came the “X” generation, and more recently, the “Millenials.” Life changes and moves forward. Music, clothes, hair styles, tattoos come and go. Different generations have different fads, interests, and/or favorites. I know we will get through this but it is going to take honest conversations that many do not want to hear.

Though I’m increasingly concerned about what I’m seeing in the students who come to my classroom every day, let me hasten to say that many children are still active participants in the process of learning. They learn for the sake of learning or trust—even when they aren’t completely sure what the purpose is—that what we teachers are talking about will be of some value to them at a later date. They are curious and compliant with school (and society’s) rules and procedures. More on these students in another blog.

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (www.teachertimmullen.com)