In my last blog, I wrote about a school work experience coordinator who was a self-confessed under-achiever in high school. My own adult kid recently mused that she didn’t apply herself in the slightest in school, either. Neither spoke of these experiences with any recrimination of others. They just weren’t into the whole going to class and studying thing.
This doesn’t lead me to a conclusion that schools are always blameless when students don’t fare well. Both Jack and my kid have offered some pretty cogent critiques of public education. But their comments also carry a good measure of something that is, in my humble opinion, far too rare in recriminations of education systems: an accounting of personal responsibility on the part of the student.
Failure to Teach? Failure to Learn?
A few teachers out there may relate to this story once recounted to me by an elementary school teacher: Little Johnny (he never gets old) is working beneath his potential and making a royal attention-hogging pain in the ass of himself in the classroom while he’s at it. When Johnny is confronted about his behaviour, he tells his teacher: “You’re not teaching to my learning style.” Seems Johnny is a “kinaesthetic” or hands-on learner, and long division practice in math class isn’t doing it for him .
So my question is this: To what extent should Johnny’s failure to learn be recast as his teacher’s “failure to teach?” This might sound like I’m out to defend the status quo in terms of how children are taught in schools, or to wag a finger at Johnny for being more, errr… “active” than his fellow students. Not at all. There is much room for improvement teaching, for kids and adults alike. And Johnny, bless his heart, isn’t the only kid out there who really freaking hates sitting still .
My concern is, instead, that Johnny has, at his tender age of whatever, already acquired the lingo and wherewithal to shift the responsibility for his learning to someone else. What’s worse is he probably got it from his parents, and the well-intentioned teacher who assessed his “learning style” in the first place. What’s even worse than this is that everyone in the game has become well versed in an officially sanctioned vocabulary and set of beliefs about education that consistently rob students of much of the responsibility for their own successes and – hey sorry, life stinks – failures.
You Can Lead A Horse to Water…
There seems to be genuine confusion about whose job it is to actually do the learning. My basic contention is this: earnest efforts to provide quality teaching seem to have obscured the other half of the successful learning equation: a willing and committed student with a work ethic.
Perhaps this statement seems obvious. It’s in the “lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” vein, right? So when it comes to the accepted state of affairs in education I’d extend the analogy this way: You can lead the horse to water and he will drink if he likes the water, if the time of day is right, if he likes the way you look, and if you give him an apple before or after or during the exercise. Unless it’s a Tuesday.
All of this might be well and good if there were some general acceptance that if the horse doesn’t want to drink… well we’ve done what we can. He’ll drink when he’s damn good and ready to. Similarly, if you accept this logic, some people – kids and adults alike – are either unwilling or unable to learn. This may or may not change depending upon their life circumstances, their maturation process, and a host of other contingencies one can’t start to imagine. This recognition and acceptance might locate some of the responsibility for learning in the hands of those who are supposedly to benefit from it.
In both K-12 education and my own world of post-secondary education, instead of looking at students’ individual efforts and motivation, it’s common to blame the hell out of the teacher and the institution when students fail to “achieve.” In public education, this usually takes the form of teacher bashing. In higher education, it manifests in the growth industry of college level remedial education. Both trends are anchored in an underlying belief that if a student hasn’t learned, it’s someone else’s job to create just the right learning environments and strategies to “fix it.”
There are at two significant problems with this belief. First, it yields a weak focus on the structures and conditions outside of education systems that flood schools, colleges and universities with kids who can’t or won’t learn . For example, schools and teachers are pummelled when kids fair poorly, despite overwhelming evidence that socioeconomic status and parents’ education are the key determinants of school success. Schools and teachers have no influence over these factors. In post-secondary education, grade inflation and adult remediation accompany expanding enrolment in post-secondary education, yet there is scant examination of the conditions that thrust non-academic students into colleges and universities.
The second problem accompanying the first is a weak focus on the individual, and by extension the parents that raise him or her. Teachers regularly lament that lack of parental support and involvement makes their work more difficult. “Helicopter parents” may be even worse; some actively blame teachers and schools when their kids don’t do well. Twenge and Campbell’s (2009) work on narcissism in college students has its challengers, but has resonated widely among educators and cultural observers who identify an increasing sense of entitlement among youth who consequently think they should succeed in school without trying too hard .
So the deal is that the “education system” generally, and the teachers/instructors who face students on the front lines every day in particular, get it with both barrels: they are blamed for the social ills that make learning tough, but also bear the brunt of what I would argue is a declining public discourse around the individual responsibilities that ought to accompany loud and frequent defenses of individual rights and entitlements.
I wouldn’t argue with anyone who points to social and economic conditions that make it hard to succeed in school. They play a strong and undeniable role. Further, I have little patience for the (usually wilful) sociological blindness that breeds the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” arguments that would happily kick the likes of Little Johnny to the curb, no questions asked. I do however believe the balance of responsibility for learning has shifted much, much too far, such that kids and the families are armed with an arsenal of strategies to blame everyone but themselves when education is not a great success story.
I just wonder why kids and parents are not made “accountable” in the way that teachers and institutions are. All the money and effort in the world to improve “learning opportunities” cannot succeed without the will, on the part of the individual, to try, learn, sometimes fail, and then try again. Further, there are important life lessons in trying hard and still being average . Not sure where or when these have taken a back burner.
Do you think that students, generally, feel more “entitled” than they used to? If so, what’s causing it? Love to hear your thoughts… Please comment below!
Notes and References
 For an explanation of learning styles (“learning modalities”), see this discussion by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. Or if you prefer an audio-visual modality (hah!) check out this YouTube explanation, resplendent with awesomely cheesy stock photos. For teachers: Willingham is clear that a rejection of learning styles theory is not justification for teaching in a uniform way that does not recognize students’ differences. Differentiating instruction is good; it’s just that differentiating by learning styles isn’t the way to go.
 I actually have the same problem myself. I don’t know how I’ve survived three hour graduate seminars, seriously. Recent observations that women now make up the majority of higher education students, and that girls consistently outperform boys in K-12 education have led to questions of whether schools structurally disadvantage boys. Here’s a thoughtful article on the topic by Janice Wallace: What about “What About the Boys?”
 Critique here is almost always endogenous, that is, it focuses on “inside” conditions, like the teachers, or the schools, or the stuff kids learn, or the testing systems: basically anything that happens, in this case, within the walls of schools or universities. “Exogenous” or external conditions might include, for example, kids’ constant exposure to mass media, growing social inequality, or the decline of well-paying jobs that do not require higher education. All of these conditions, again, are outside of or “exogenous to” educational institutions but have a profound inpact on them nonetheless.
 For quick overview of Twenge’s work and some fun stuff about self-aggrandizement in song lyrics check out this NY Times article. It’s important to note that the “evidence” of an increased general sense of entitlement on the part of students is not rock solid. As Greenberger et al. (2008) note, much of the evidence is anecdotal. Nonetheless it is commonly cited enough to warrant further investigation. (See Greenberger, Lessard, Chen & Farruggia (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting, and motivational factors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 1193–1204. Here’s an uptake of Greenberger et al.’s research: Student expectations seen as causing grade disputes, (New York Times, 2009).
 Ask me about my 10K and half marathon times, for example.