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Learning in School

by Ty Rainey

I wrote this reply to a teacher who wondered how to motivate her AP students who focused only on meeting the requirements for an A and not on learning. -- Ty Rainey

Online, I've met a lot of kids like the ones you describe. It might make you feel better to know that many of them are only unmotivated to learn in school, and still learn and do all sorts of interesting things outside of school. When I talk with a "gifted unmotivated" student, the first thing I ask is if they have anything they like to think and/or learn about outside of school. Many do... On the other hand, many don't, and I especially worry about these.

Most seem to have been born with a love for learning (I think everyone is), and started school with high hopes. Then came the experiences that told them *they* weren't supposed to learn in school. Maybe they wrote a heartfelt story or essay and were accused of plagiarism. Maybe they were "taught" a mathematical method that they'd known for years, and they cooperatively did half the practice problems that way; but they wanted to learn. So they (re)invented a "new" way, and it worked, and they did the other half that way. And they were told only that this was "wrong," or that they needed to turn their brain off until the others caught up.

In "Dicey's Song" (by Cynthia Voigt), 13-year-old Dicey has poured her heart into a poetic essay about her institutionalized mother, and been accused of plagiarism. Her grandmother says, "I see this paper of yours as a kind of...reaching out for that school.... And I'm sorry, the way it turned out. Because somebody's slapped your hand back good and hard."

That's what has happened, over and over, to a lot of these kids. That's why they're no longer motivated to learn. In school only, if they're lucky; anywhere, if they're not.

In adjusting to my acceleration, I found I needed to connect with that pain I had, from all those experiences of being "slapped back." In order to try learning in school again, I needed to work through that pain. And face the fact that these things will continue to happen at times, and decide I'd keep "reaching out" in spite of that. But not everyone will. Maybe not everyone should.

My dad has always told me to focus on school just enough to meet the requirements for an A, then go back to my "real learning" outside of school. But I can't do that -- I get so deeply involved in the "real learning" that I forget to attend to the school requirements. In order to do well in school, I have to be learning there. So I've *had* to learn to "keep reaching out." But if you don't -- if you *can* give just enough attention to school to get A's, and still learn outside of school -- well, maybe you should. It would probably be less painful, and you'd probably get better grades. I may become a teacher; if I do...well, I may change my mind by then. But right now, I think if / when I encounter a student like that, I won't worry too much.

I'll save my worrying for the ones who've been turned off to all learning, in or out of school.

 I know people who've never had to work--not in high school, or college, or even grad school. The thing is -- in life, you always have to work. Well... Some of these people don't have to work (intellectually) in order to hold down a(n "intellectual") job -- but these people who treat their jobs like they treated school are usually very unhappy. They're bitter. Everyone's an idiot, the world is going to hell, etc... The thing is, they may be right from their perspective, but why are they so unhappy? Because they know they're not doing anything to improve things, and they feel powerless. And they know they're not working up to their abilities, and they feel stifled. Because all through school, they *were* powerless and stifled. They need to work through those years of pain. Many can't, after all these years. So...maybe people with these experiences *do* need to start working through them in high school.

Ty Rainey


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