I’m not too worried about the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores, which revealed that American teenagers are lagging behind their counterparts all around the globe. I’m not worried about being outperformed by Estonia, Poland, and Ireland in reading, and I’m not worried that we’re only one spot ahead of Lithuania in math. After all, we’ve been here before.
Jordan Weissman’s points out in the The Atlantic that our teens have tended to botch these internationally benchmarked exams for almost 50 years now, but that hasn’t spelled economic doom for us. In 1983, we were A Nation At Risk. Relative to the rest of the world, we weren’t a nation at risk then, nor are we now.
But I am concerned that the discouraging test results might reveal a motivational divide. Is this a general sign of coddled students? An indictment of the high-stakes-testing-saturated nature of our public education system? Perhaps a combination of both? Or is it something else?
Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times:
The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.
The “motivational divide” is already playing out in classrooms around the United States–mine included. It bothers me to no end to work with students given tools, skills, and opportunities to take advantage of digital media and constant connectivity, only to push aside learning in favor of distraction and leisure on their phones. But I also see the benefits of those students who do have the self-motivation, grit and persistence to elevate their learning explorations to new levels. It’s amazing to see.
If a motivational divide exists between teens in the United States versus teens in other places in the world, then one cause could be relative material comfort and standard of living.
Many of our disadvantaged students have a material standard of living much greater than those students who are outperforming them, and I wonder how this informs their effort in school. Why value education when I have everything I need?
It’s easy to have relative material wealth and modern comforts in the United States without being well-educated. I doubt it’s the same in many other places around the world.
Do you think there’s any truth to my theory? We obviously still have far too much poverty in the United States for such a wealthy nation, but could it be possible that for many students, cheap consumer electronics, ubiquitous smart phones (instant entertainment), and other material comforts weaken motivation to do well in school?