Monday, February 3, 2014

The Myth of the Lazy Child

Kids, tell me what’s the matter with kids today? – Bye, Bye Birdie (Strouse and Adams, 1960)


Recently, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote a column where he charged that “too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel.”

The column, Obama’s Homework Assignment, praises Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his statement throwing parents and children under the school bus. He thinks Duncan is telling the hard truth to parents when he says, “To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

Friedman’s column and Duncan’s comments can best be seen as a part of the ongoing blame game in the education reform movement. Blame the teachers. Blame the parents. Blame the kids.

But in the column Friedman also quotes extensively from someone who by all appearances is an exemplary English teacher and who had worked tirelessly to ensure that every one of her students was successful. She expressed her frustration because she was told by the school administration that the 10 percent or so of her kids who had failed were “not allowed to fail.” According to her report, administrators said to her, “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” She wondered, “What am I not doing for them?”

Friedman went on to cite the concerns of another veteran teacher who noted that 30 years ago he might have had 1 or 2 students in a class who refused to do the work, now it is more like 30% of kids. “The difference is that back then, although they didn’t want to, they would do the work. Today, they won’t.”

I have no wish to disparage hard working teachers, but Friedman has brought them into his column to further his thesis that kids are not working hard enough and parents aren’t pushing them hard enough. So are “kids today” simply not putting in the effort they must?

I have heard from more than a few educators that “these kids today” are just not as dedicated as students as those of yesteryear. Actually, I first heard that sentiment in 1969; my first year as a teacher. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now.

There are no lazy children. In my forty-five years as an educator, I never met a lazy child. What we call laziness or lack of effort is a symptom. As educators we need to look behind the symptoms to find the root causes. Here is how one child psychologist put it.            

Children are not lazy. They may be frustrated and discouraged, anxious or angry; they may have become disillusioned or defiant, self-critical or pessimistic, and they may lack confidence in their ability. But this is not laziness. The misconception that kids are lazy is one of the most common, and most destructive, misunderstandings of children. (Barish,2012)

My son was a bright, but indifferent student. He spent little time on his studies in school and even less time on them at home. At the end of a typical school day, when he was about 12 or 13, he would dash into the house, throw down his book bag, dash up the steps to his room and appear a few minutes later in full soccer regalia and dribbling a soccer ball between his feet. He would dribble the ball out the door, calling over his shoulder that he was going to the field to “practice his skills.” He would then spend two hours, often by himself, practicing. His grades suffered, but not because he was lazy. His energies were, shall we say, “other directed.” By high school the soccer ball had been replaced by a spiral notebook filled with sketches and his scribbled writing. None of this writing was school assignment related. When I found the notebook under his bed and asked what it was, he told me he was “working on a novel.” This kid who was working on a novel was also barely passing English in his senior year.

The novel became a play, the play was produced by the wonderful high school drama teacher, Mr. Mann, who recognized his talent, and it was eventually produced professionally. Today, this “lazy” kid has a college degree and makes his living as a writer.

Many, if not most, kids who may be labeled lazy students are, like my son, other directed. These kids may take many directions to becoming indifferent to the school work in front of them. For some, it is discouragement. If learning to read or write or compute is difficult, as it is for many children, these children may become discouraged and give up. Few of us persist in areas where we are not successful. Other kids may be hyper-critical of their own efforts, and refuse to do work because they feel like they are not competent. Defiant children may be hiding their discouragement or anxiety behind an angry mask. Others may rebel because they feel like they have no voice or choice in what they are being forced to study.

What is the teacher to do when confronted with unmotivated and often defiant children? Understanding what motivates children is a place to start. Psychologists would suggest that motivation is a combination of interest, success, relevance and achievable goals.

Interest: My son was interested in soccer and then in writing. While it is not always possible to craft lessons that will meet these interests, it is possible to listen to children, find out what their interests are and craft assignments that tap into those interests. It is also helpful to give children some choices in their studies, so that they can explore an interest that is still relevant to the topic under study. A great example of this is the “I-Search paper, proposed by Macrorie (1986), in which the student writes a research paper based on an area of personal interest and expertise.

Success: If a child does not feel that an assignment can be done successfully, it will be difficult to motivate that child. The first step here is to acknowledge the child’s frustration. We should talk to them about times we have been frustrated or discouraged. Then we must build on a student’s strengths as they relate to learning. If the student is not a strong reader, lengthy reading assignments are not going to help with motivation. Perhaps the student is a strong visual learner and an assignment can be crafted that helps the student get the relevant information through video presentation. Yes, all students need to learn to read and write, but modifying assignments while simultaneously making sure a student gets help with skills that are still developing would be the ideal way to approach the situation.

Relevance: If we expect children to invest their time in something we want them to learn, it is incumbent on us to demonstrate how it is relevant. As teachers we should always be ready with real world examples of why what we are learning about is relevant. We should always be ready to answer the question, “Why does this matter?” in a way that the children we are teaching can understand it. We must also make sure that children can answer the “So What?” question for themselves.

Achievable Goals: Students, generally, want to please their teachers. Years of failure or feelings of incompetence may make the child defiant or disengaged, but nearly all children would like to feel successful. It is important, then, that teachers assist students in developing their own goals that are achievable. With disaffected students it may be best to start with short term goals and build up to longer term goals. The important thing is that the student gets a feeling of success by achieving a personally developed goal.

Nothing said here is a panacea and even the best, hardest working, most dedicated teachers will fail in their efforts to motivate some children. The real problem for our English teacher above is not that her efforts fell short or that her students were lazy, but that she and her students were trapped in an antiquated evaluation system that forces teachers to label kids as failures for lack of apparent effort.

A former school superintendent that I worked with used to ask all prospective teaching candidates this question in an interview, “Is student failure teacher failure?” My answer to that question would be a qualified, “Yes.” It is the responsibility of every teacher to do his/her best to meet the needs of every student and to find a way to motivate and educate even the most recalcitrant student. When we fail to do this, we have, in some sense failed. We must, however realize that it is impossible to reach all, and though we might fail on occasion, we need to face the challenges of a new class and once again set a goal to reach every student, even if we know that goal is a stretch.

Friedman and Duncan may feel comfortable blaming America’s parents and children for a lack of effort, but as teachers we cannot fall into that trap. Ultimately, where professional educators must come down is on the side of the children and assert that there are no lazy students. As teachers we must not blame the students; we must peel back the layers of disaffection the child uses for protection to find the key to that individual student’s wants, needs and desires. That is in every teacher’s job description.