Education’s Invisible Problem

Education’s Invisible Problem

By Lee Jenkins, Ph.D.

One afternoon while sitting on my back patio in Scottsdale, Arizona, my eyes caught a beautiful, green hummingbird flitting quickly between my desert blooms. Intrigued, I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture as the hummingbird took a break resting on an ocotillo. Later, while I was studying the photograph, I noticed a thin line protruding from the bird’s beak. I zoomed in on the photo and was surprised to see that it was coming from the hummingbird’s mouth. A quick search on Google revealed that the little line I captured was actually the hummingbird’s tongue. Hummingbirds zoom back and forth in my yard daily, yet never had I seen their tongue. I learned that it is rare to see a hummingbird’s tongue because it goes in and out of its beak approximately 13 times per second. The tongue is basically invisible. However, it is also essential for the hummingbird’s survival. 

              This example fittingly describes the invisible epidemic affecting students and schools across the country. I conducted a survey of over 3,000 teachers, asking them two simple questions: (1) What grade level do you teach and (2) what percent of your students love school? A quick glance at the graph below depicts a negative curve. One can easily see that students in higher grade levels have lower levels of enthusiasm towards learning in school. Sadly, it reaches its lowest point in grade nine. This data was created by averaging the responses from all kindergarten teachers, then grade one teachers, and so on.

              I call this data invisible because very rarely, if ever, is data collected on how much students actually enjoy the process of learning in school. Instead, they are continually tested on their short-term memory for 50 minute test periods. Enthusiasm towards learning is essential for academic success and survival. Yet because enthusiasm, or intrinsic motivation, is the last thing on teacher’s, administrator’s and law maker’s minds, the actual love for or lack of love towards learning goes unmeasured and untapped, leaving students to feel bored and antsy in school.

              Astute observers of the graph will notice that there is an upward tick in high school after grade nine. Unfortunately, it is a slight tick and the percent never rises quite as high as grade eight. There are three probable reasons for this upward trend: (1) more interest-driven electives for students in their junior and senior years, (2) impending graduation dates, and (3) the data does not include dropouts. As we dig further and ask educators what percent of their high school students love school for the classroom learning, the results are a shocking five to eight percent. The other students who still love school do so for sports, extra-curricular activities and friends. It is important to note that I have never met even one teacher or administrator who purposely created this loss of enthusiasm for learning. It is a systemic problem that runs deep into the roots of American education. But there is hope.

              In order to fix this problem, we first must understand it. The graph shows what John Hattie named, “The Jenkins Curve.” It is almost impossible to see the Jenkins Curve because it is invisible.  But the effects of the Jenkins Curve are apparent in classrooms across the United States and beyond. Why the loss of enthusiasm? For the answer, we actually have to examine how teachers are taught to teach. Educators receive the terrible advice that it is their responsibility to motivate students to learn. This creates a terrible psychological imperative causing teachers to try rewards, bribes, progress charts and public recognition all in the name of motivation. But, it is not educators’ responsibility to motivate students to learn. Students arrive in kindergarten already motivated, with their brains seeking new knowledge to soak up. Their hands teem with excitement at the thoughts of learning to read, making friends, figuring out math problems, and exploring the world around them. These students come prepackaged with all intrinsic motivation they need for life. Educators must unlearn the crummy advice they have been given.

              Educators, parents, and administrators need a completely different attitude. Instead of thinking, “What can I do to motivate these students,” it ought to be, “What can I do to help my students maintain their level of intrinsic motivation?” And for those students who have low intrinsic motivation, educators should state, “Instead of trying to motivate my students, I will listen very carefully to them regarding their loss of motivation and work with them to restore it.” A team approach between students and teachers will lead to both parties feeling and becoming more motivated to learn.

              In my book, How to Create a Perfect School, I define a perfect school as one that maintains the kindergarten level of motivation for all students for all of their educational career. It is through this book and the LtoJ process that educators and parents partner together to accomplish this goal. Few, if any, have ever imagined what could occur in schools around the world if they were filled with intrinsically motivated learners. But it is possible. I dream of the day when the number one teacher complaint is, “There is just not enough time to prepare everything that these students want to learn.” I personally have observed the reality of this dream. It is now time to spread the dream far and wide for all students. The steps have already been discovered. The time is now.