Learning as an Investment

According to a new study by two University of Michigan researchers children are more likely to do their homework if they see it as an investment and not a chore.

The researchers presented information to the students about either the education-dependent earnings of college degree recipients, or about the earnings of actors, musicians, and sports figures. After the researchers left the classroom, teachers assigned students an extra-credit assignment relevant to current class material. Children who saw how adult earnings were related to education were eight times more likely to do the extra credit homework as those who saw the presentation showing adult earnings independent of amount of education.

“We find that very subtle cues can influence academic performance. Failing to see connections between adult identities and current actions puts children at risk of low effort in school.”

The study focuses on homework motivation, but it’s really an indictment of an American education system that’s fact-obsessed and clueless about how to build skills.  It’s clear that a 12-year-old is not going to understand how knowing the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 will benefit him in life (it’s even hard for a 25-year-old to understand.) Even things that are ostensibly more useful (for example, the parts of a cell) bore students and sap their motivation.

Instead of flooding kids with potentially trivial, one-dimensional pieces of information, our schools need to challenge them with problems that require actual thought.   When a student works through various situations to find a solution he gets an immediate reward and a preview of how the skill he just developed might benefit him later in life.

Our current debate over testing, standards, and teacher performance is completely misguided.  Before we can even think about those issues we need to figure out what skills we want to impart on our youth. I’m fine with ensuring students reach a set of benchmarks, but we need to re-evaluate what those benchmarks should be.

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