In the beginning was motivation

No educational movement has had a greater impact on American schools this past decade than test-based accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is the best-known exemplar of an education model committed to the idea that students need to study certain core subjects and then get measured on what they learned. So it comes as something of a surprise to us that the Texas Public School system — a forebear of NCLB — is questioning the very model Texas inspired throughout the nation.

Before we point a finger at a likely reason for Texas’ reappraisal, it is only fair to say that the high school graduation rate in Texas rose from 63 percent in 2007 to 72 percent in 2011. On the surface, this dedication to frequent testing appears to have borne fruit. Yet about half of Texas high school graduates who enroll in community colleges need to take at least one remedial math class. We’re clearly looking at a paradox of a good graduation rate on the one hand and student unreadiness for higher education on the other.

Why this is happening we cannot knowledgeably say without examining data, evaluating the curriculum and assessing a host of other relevant factors. What we do want to suggest, though, is that for all the effort that goes into a testing and standards-based curriculum, the outcome falls far short of the goal: To make students care about their education.

We’re hardly going out on a limb by saying that high-stakes accountability systems are themselves part of the problem in U.S. education. The joke is that the students, teachers, administrators and state regulators who have come to find the various standards-based accountability systems problematic could fill Yankee Stadium. Most famously, Diane Ravitch, the NYU professor of education and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution — once a proponent of standards-based testing — now asserts that testing itself is undermining education. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch says that students ultimately “master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself.”

The accountability system has led to many troubling consequences. One of the most serious was the so-called Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal. An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released in July 2011 ascertained that 44 out of 56 schools cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, a set of state-administered standardized tests. Turns out that a group of teachers raised students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and filling in the right ones.

If the accountability system worked, Atlanta Public Schools would not have had to cheat.

Bad stuff. But an even more lethal consequence of these poorly designed accountability systems is the effect they have on students’ motivation to learn. The same students who entered kindergarten happy to explore the classroom and the wider world through play, games and story-time find themselves mentally exhausted and bored by the drill-and-kill mindset they encounter in first grade. Learning becomes something you do to pass a test. It has just about nothing to do with discovery.

What the adherents of accountability and testing miss is that human beings are motivated and motivating by nature. That’s plain old Maslow, but there’s hardly a major thinker on education or society who hasn’t talked about motivation as a driver of human aspiration: Plato, Machiavelli, Skinner, Cecil Alec Mace and many others.

We’re not talking rocket science here. Think of math or music or language as a mountain and a bicycle as the tool to help you climb it.

You can let someone take you to the foot of a mountain and tell you to ride your bike up to the summit. Without knowing any better, you take the most vertical approach up and start pedaling. The journey is so hard you want to give up.

Along come the teachers and administrators. They say, “Well, the biker isn’t biking hard enough. Let’s create state standards around bikes that ensure that as many bicyclists as possible will make it at least halfway up the mountain. That’s all we really expect most of them to do.”

That’s our educational system today. It’s based on pain and lowered expectations. What biker — or student — would struggle only to get halfway up the mountain? Where’s the pleasure in that? What have you really gained? The biking “system” denies the bicyclist the high that comes from embarking on the full journey.

Can we at McGraw Hill design learning paths that consist of enjoyable challenge? The “s” on “paths” is intentional. It should be evident by now that students learn in different ways. Somebody really might be able to rev that bike straight up the mountain. But most people are going to profit by taking detours, and by retracing a particular route before gaining the mastery to pedal all the way up the hill.

Our hope is that an effective online learning model will offer students a variety of learning paths because we know there is no one-size-fits-all way to learn anything.

The learning tools McGraw Hill seeks to create will reflect the way people naturally want to learn. If it is to succeed, our online learning system must embrace a kind of “knowledge without borders.” The subject of Samoa, say, is going to interest students whether they are studying anthropology, psychology, geography or Margaret Mead. The subject of Steve Jobs is going to interest students studying technology, innovation, business, marketing or social mavericks. It never even occurs to us searchers to filter our curiosity through some set of search categories.

The designers of search at Google recognized fifteen years ago that the motivation to learn respects no categorical boundaries. Yahoo meanwhile had gone to a lot of trouble to categorize knowledge on our behalf. We don’t even need to ask which mode of search won out. If nothing else, just compare Yahoo’s stock price with Google’s.

At the same time, we have to say that the “Google way of learning” offers no silver bullet. We bring it up here only to float the idea that categories are not the way to present knowledge. They are also not necessarily the way to organize the classroom. A more useful way to organize students is through cohorts — and in the case of online learning through digital cohorts.

Online gamers already know what we’re talking about. They sign on for a game and over time get better and better at it. Eventually, they’re invited to join a guild so they can go on a quest with other gamers. At first they’ll be among the weakest players. With time and effort, though — and maybe even by dint of some innate “addiction cycle” associated with the activity — they will rise through the ranks. And they will rise because they are being constantly challenged by better players. What gamers have in great abundance is the motivation to get better at the game.

Can we in the digital learning space use this idea of the cohort to motivate students to learn? Keep in mind that we’re not talking about plunking a student down into a Massive Open Online Course. So far, MOOCs have succeeded in educating a tiny handful of hyper-motivated students who do not mind sitting in a room alone, interacting with a Web-based program and satisfying the course requirements — all without any consistent contact with the professor or other students. Digital cohorts operate on the premise that we are social animals who can really only learn with other people.

It’s one thing to ride up the mountain yourself. It’s another to ride up with your friends.

Our goal as a company that wants to be an online learning leader is to create digital cohorts based on an individual’s natural motivation to learn and keep learning. To bike another ten steps. To take the more challenging road up the mountain. An online learning system that recognizes the supremacy of motivation over subject matter is an online system with staying power. School itself couldn’t quash the excitement of learning.

Texas, are you listening?

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