The Case Against Endurance

Schools everywhere select mostly for endurance.

This comment came in response to my tale of Wastelands and Meadows. No further explanation was provided and, in the context of my story, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I chewed over its meaning for a while. Lou, the student who inspired my story, lacked in endurance – the comment implied. That’s why he fell through the cracks. Agreed, but was that ok? Did the comment also imply the problem was Lou’s and not the school’s? That endurance matters the most and it’s worth the losses, the sacrifices, the wastelands? Here’s the conundrum schools face, I thought.

Should schools select mostly for endurance?

No doubt endurance is a valuable ability. It gets us through prolonged hardship and pain. When life strikes, it helps us survive. It’s a skill useful to us in circumstances that are difficult, stressful. But usually, if we find ourselves in situations that call for endurance, it’s not by choice. And there is often a price we must pay; we don’t reach the other side unscathed. In other words, that which must be endured is, by definition, unpleasant. Should school experience be, for the most part, unpleasant too? Because, for most students, it is. Is this what we want?

Personally, I don’t think so. In fact, we want just the opposite. School should be, for the most part, enjoyable, pleasant. We want students to like learning, not think of it as drudgery. Our goal is that students engage in learning, not suffer through it. And yet, schools everywhere reward endurance above all else. This has dire consequences. Most alarming of all is the recent finding that student motivation may have become irrelevant and even detrimental to achievement. Indeed, it was found that “in numerous countries, as motivation went down, scores rose”, which puzzled the researchers. It’s counterintuitive – they said.

But, if you think about it, this result makes sense. If school is mostly drudgery – i.e. something that must be endured – those who can keep going, even in the absence of joy and motivation, have the highest chance to succeed. Maybe we shouldn’t try to nurture student motivation anymore – some contemplated after the report came out. This anomalous thinking is symptomatic of the confusion present in our education systems.

What should schools select for, if not endurance?

In my imaginary world students go to school happily because learning is tailored to their individual curiosities, talents, and passions. School’s goal is to unlock each kid’s potential. To awaken in students the desire to add value to the world, to make a difference, to grow. My dream school is, for the most part, enjoyable, pleasant. Students like what they do, they don’t have to suffer through it. Key to all of this is students’ intrinsic motivation. It’s what my dream school values the most. And it’s what schools should nurture above all else.

It’s easier said than done, you’ll say. For schools to foster intrinsic motivation and to select for it, they’d need to change radically. Essentially, the learning environment would need to be reinvented. The very concept of learning would need to be revised. This would be challenging, I agree, but if we don’t do it student self-motivation will continue to decline – an unacceptable prospect.

As classroom teachers, we have been trying to boost our students’ intrinsic motivation for a long time now. It’s clear to us how important it is that learning is engaging, meaningful, fun. We realize that autonomy, relevance, choice, self-direction, play – the pillars of self-motivation – are hugely beneficial to learners, to people in general. But these can’t be fostered in a school culture which selects mostly for endurance. In this culture it’s their opposites that prevail: authority, standardization, compliance, rules. Hence, our endeavour is contradictory. Our efforts are doomed. Here it is, again, the conundrum I mentioned at the beginning. And therein lies the problem, and not with Lou – just saying it, loud and clear.

Many people hold the misbelief that endurance requires self-motivation, that these two qualities are linked. In their view, if you lack in endurance you’re likely unmotivated as well. In reality, intrinsic motivation pulls in the opposite direction than endurance does. As I explained here, there is a tug of war between them. I hope the fallacy will be recognized sooner rather than later. And schools will set out to reclaim the wastelands.




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