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Steve Nelson: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

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Author: dianeravitch

Steve Nelson, head of a progressive private school in Néw York City, writes vividly and cogently about the inevitable failure of so-called reform.

The corporate reforms fail because they are built on extrinsic motivation, that is, a regime of carrots and sticks to drive teachers and students to comply with reformers’ demands.

Extrinsic methods tend to depress motivation. People resent being compelled, and they lose the desire to do what they would have willingly done without the whip hand over them.

Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, brings out the best in people.

Nelson writes:

“Intrinsic motivation is driven by factors that emanate from within: Self-satisfaction, desire for mastery, curiosity, fulfillment, pleasure, self-realization, desire for independence, ethical needs, etc. Intrinsic motivation is a powerful innate characteristic of all humans, across cultures and societies. Anyone with children or working with children observes the natural intrinsic motivation of young children – a nearly insatiable curiosity, drive to explore, and desire for mastery.

“A considerable body of research confirms that intrinsic motivation is more powerful, long lasting and important. But intrinsic motivation steadily declines from 3rd grade until 8th or 9th grade as extrinsic structures dramatically increase. The stakes get higher. Tests increase in frequency and duration. Expectations around college and achievement ratchet up. Grade point averages, honor roles, valedictorians, salutatorians, class ranks, honor societies . . . all of these forms of extrinsic motivation are ubiquitous.”

As Jerome Bruner points out, “learning becomes steadily de-contextualized as children move from grade to grade. As school becomes more controlled, more about instruction than exploration, more about abstraction than experience, children’s natural intrinsic motivation declines. The learning is unrelated to their lives. Why would they care?”

Nelson concludes:

“Students and teachers are being subjected to increasingly punitive extrinsic structures: Scores, grades, evaluations, assessments, punishments, discipline, rigidity, standardization, absence of context, divorced from individual experience.
All the factors that stimulate and perpetuate intrinsic motivation are disappearing.

“To say education reform has it wrong is a monumental understatement. Policy makers and educational reformers seem hell bent on beating students and their teachers until their morale improves.

“That’s just stupid.”

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