A Difficult Question
(Picking up from Part 1): How does this happen to so many students?
How is it possible for a person to believe in some part of their mind that they truly want something that in fact doesn’t really matter to them? Because again, if it truly mattered to them, they wouldn’t be in this situation. (Again, please spare me the exceptions...I know sometimes life interferes and makes things too difficult...I’m not talking about that here).
How can a student believe he wants to go to college, but then miss class, use foul language, make excuses, not turn work in, plagiarize and copy from other students, or never do homework?
How does this student have any confidence that college success (let alone admission...that’s the easy part) is within his grasp? Such a student has a dream, but if you asked him, he would call it a goal. But a goal is not a dream. A dream is something off in the distance, out of practical reach. A goal is attainable if I do this series of steps and find favor or fortune with the right people or at the right moment. I can dream of being an NFL coach all I want, but it isn’t going to happen. I can set a goal to write a dynamic blog read by millions, and I’m already only 1,999,000 readers away.
This disconnect between dream and reality for students is a question not easily answered. And my goal here is not to find someone to blame for it, because any single source of blame would be overly simplistic.
The Greatest Factor?
My first goal, in fact, is simply to make people aware. When we listen to the education reform babblers, they talk about standards, about high expectations, about professional development, and about accountability.
But none of these things acknowledges this issue many students face. How do standards do anything to help a student who thinks success happens in an instant? What is holding a teacher accountable going to accomplish if the students think they can just “make up” a semester’s worth of work in two weeks, and that this is what education and school are about?
Further, how are any reform efforts, including snazzy new curriculums, going to make any difference for students who recoil at the notion of homework?
So before we attempt the philosophical exercise of answering the question of why some students think this way, we need to acknowledge how great an influence this has–greater in fact, than all the above mentioned obsessions of the educational elite–on the ability of students to receive and optimize their educational opportunities.
This is not about motivation. Student motivation and apathy occupy a ton of educational research. But what I’m talking about here isn’t really about motivation. If I were to ask the girl who declared “I need a C!” if she is motivated, she would probably say yes. She’d admit a few areas she could do better next time, but would still think she’s a motivated student.
Her problem is, she’s motivated for about two weeks.
Or, from her perspective, perhaps she was always motivated, but just wasn’t doing her best.
So, this is a third category of student. It sits between the apathetic and the motivated. Let’s call them SINO: Students In Name Only. Or, the delusional achievers. I would venture that up to a fourth of high school students fall into this category. They raise their hands eagerly when asked if they plan to attend college. If someone interviews them, they sound like great students. Sometimes they get their picture in the paper. The superintendent might do a photo-op with them. They probably even take notes (if in a lecture-based class), but often lose them, and don’t really think about what they’re writing. They could be in student government, but don’t usually get recommendations from the faculty advisor who gets tired of their failure to follow through.
This kind of student is good at “serious face,” when the right people are in the room.
But in class, they leave a record of mediocrity, distraction, frustrated teachers, and the worst thing of all–unmet potential. Not unmet because of apathy, but because of the delusion they are a good student.
Somewhere, the delusional achiever learned that education is about what you say and how you feel, rather than what you do. They think turning in work is the point of doing the work. And that, my friends, is what I believe to be the primary answer to the question of how these students come to think this way.
(Part 3 comes next, where we examine the first two principle forces behind the delusional achiever: The self-esteem movement and parental influence)