How Do Students Get Better?

In his 1999 track “Fear Not Of Man”, rapper Mos Def muses on the future of hip-hop: “If hip-hop is about the people, and hip-hop won’t get better until the people get better, then how do people get better?” For educators of conscience, this question should also be at the center of our pedagogical praxis.

In ten years of teaching, I have encountered a wide variety of students. Young people vary in all sorts of ways, from general ability to confidence level to learning style. Today a great many educators, education reformers, pundits, politicians, and other people have become fixated on a few specific elements in the equation, to the detriment of a more macroscopic perspective. This has led us away from the path of truly rewarding education and toward a system of routine, banality, and insufficient training.

Abraham Maslow pointed out in his 1943 Theory of Human Motivation that each person must achieve a foundation of basic physiological needs (food, sleep, etc) and a sense of security (for one’s body, property, and resources) before tackling higher- level challenges. Obviously we humans are a constant work- in-progress, and most theorists would agree that we are capable of transcending the structure in some ways. Still, the theory makes sense as we look at who achieves feelings of esteem and self-actualization (and why).

As educators, we should note that most of the skills we ask students to practice (creativity, problem- solving) are located in the top layer of Maslow’s hierarchy. It makes sense, therefore, that a student who is unable to find belonging among friends or family will have significant difficulty approaching the challenge of examining her assumptions (to give just one example).

At the same time, this is forever a cyclical process. Sometimes, by participating in a classroom activity in which all students examine their assumptions, the student may find the belonging she seeks. This may make it easier for her to self-reflect further in the future. On the other hand, if a student lacks a sense of security with regard to resources (belief that future employment prospects are dim, for example), he may be unwilling to participate meaningfully in the assumption-examination activity, and therefore miss out on the sense of belonging achieved by others. (Still, he may find a perverse counter-belonging belonging by connecting with others who also refused to participate meaningfully in the assumption-examination activity.)

In the Dark

One of the biggest problems we face as educators is that very often we don’t know which needs are being met for students, and which are not. Sometimes the student herself cannot understand (or explain) which needs aren’t being met. Ironically, it is often only through self-actualizing internal interrogation that she can begin to understand what may be missing from other levels of the hierarchy.

We do heroic work to help students meet all of their needs — the kitchen staff and custodial crew work tirelessly to help students meet their most essential physiological needs; many different staff members, but especially administrators and police liason officers, handle security issues; the good people in
student services take the lead on belongingness and esteem needs; and then (hopefully) the students are ready for the self-actualizing activities in the curriculum. But at any given time, our roles can be shifted and suddenly a member of the kitchen staff offers a kind word, helping a student feel a sense of belonging. Or a classroom teacher might remove a dangerous insect, providing a sense of safety.

One of the reasons why I am so troubled by the business-model high-stakes testing-driven approach to education reform is that it ignores this entire framework for understanding human motivation. By enshrining test scores as the sole altar of our attention as educators (and insisting that teachers alone are responsible for their rise or fall), the narrow view attempts to substitute short-term point gains on decontextualized exams for the long-term betterment of young minds that should be the true goal of all quality education. (And, as a recent investigative article in USA Today points out, some schools may be fudging the numbers to show even the short-term gains.)

Worse, the short-circuit approach of forcing students to self-actualize right away on a standardized test (often with the belief that it will affect their basic sense of security in the future, in the form of job opportunity or less free time because of remedial work) has the potential to eviscerate the more substantial motivating factors that make us want to learn in the first place. Put another way: a student who is drilled endlessly on basic memorization tasks trains her brain in that direction, and becomes less willing to try creative problem-solving and intertextual connectivity. (Which is not to say we don’t have to memorize things sometimes. Please don’t send me angry emails, math and science people!)

No Shortcuts

Education historian Diane Ravitch and political economist Jean Anyon have pointed to the urgency of addressing poverty among students, but there are obviously many other factors as well. A student from a background of economic comfort might wrestle with other areas of insecurity, such as abuse, neglect, or divorce; degraded self-image; lack of rest due to a hectic after-school work schedule (either because his family needs the money or because he wants to buy some electronic gadget); or a combination of these and/or other factors. (To add yet another layer of complexity, sometimes a student will feign one obstacle to success, while the actual problem lies elsewhere.)

I do not believe that educators can do nothing to help students deal with the various deficits in their individual hierarchies of needs. But I know — from my own experience, and the decade I have spent in the classroom — that a journey into authentic self-actualized intellectual exploration is a long and complicated expedition. Perhaps Student A needs patient understanding and empathy, while Student B needs stern discipline. (And the reverse may be true the very next day!) Like many teachers, I sicken myself with worry that perhaps I’m not being rigorous enough with some students, or that I’m being too demanding of others. Ultimately (as with all areas of life) it is a matter of balance.

Alas, the more focused we are on pushing every student toward a uniformity of thought and activity, the less able we are to help students become metacognitively aware of their own academic, social, emotional, and intellectual needs. In the end, however, this awareness is precisely what each student needs, because it is the only way for them to grow and get better.


This collection of headlines from The Simpsons is worth a laff. (Especially if you know the stories behind them.)

Today I’m listening to: Mos Def! (I don’t know why this person decided to put stupid scribbles all over the picture of Mos Def.)

3 comments to How Do Students Get Better?

  • RobotArmMonkeyBrain

    How well can a teacher who’s worried about meeting her / his basic needs (due to draconian budget slashing) or who’s constantly having her / his professional accomplishments and contributions demeaned in public help students self actualize?

    Also, hey, there’s lots of creative problem solving in math and science! It’s not all memorization, you English teacher you.

  • If students don’t read, they don’t know and will never find out..One of the greatest obstacles to successfully narrowing this nation’s ever-widening academic achievement gap between African Americans and their white counterparts is the inability of African American students to adequately read and comprehend Standard American English(S.A.E)..The huge achievement gap and associated high drop-out rate of African American children and youth can at best be only partially addressed through teacher training on African American Vernacular English (AAVE)..We must recognize that when children go to school, they not only bring their homework and textbooks, but their language, culture, and identity as well! The Oakland Resolution did bring to national attention the fact that while existing methods of teaching English work superbly for White middle-class student, they fail miserably for working-class African American children..Several studies show that the longer African American inner-city kids stay in school, the worse they do..One good thing about the Oakland decision is the fact mentioned that the mass of African-American youth come to school speaking African American Vernacular English(Ebonics), which is not the same as slang but is a highly structured and systematic language..Given this fact, it is possible to do contrastive analysis between African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard English and shortcut the process of helping African-American Vernacular English speakers master and successfully bridge from AAVE to Standard English (John Rickford)..Those of us who act as this nation’s educators must put into practice findings from over three decades of research both in this country and abroad (e.g; Sweden) that show teaching methods which do take vernacular dialects into account in teaching the standard, work better than those which do not..For instance, Hanni Taylor(1991)reported on a study where she tried to improve the Standard English writings of inner-city university students from Chicago using two methods..With the experimental group, she raised students’ meta-linguistic awareness of the differences between Ebonics (African American Vernacular English)and Standard English through contrastive analysis and tailored pattern practice drills..With the control group, she did not do this, but simply followed traditional English Department techniques..
    After nearly three months of instruction, the experimental group showed a 59% reduction in the use of Ebonics features (AAVE) in their Standard English writings, while the control group, using traditional methods, showed a slight increase in the use of AAVE features..Other studies have shown similar results for the teaching of reading..Evidence that teaching children to read first in their vernacular and then transitioning (bridging) to the standard, has led to better reading results both among African- American students and in Europe (Simpkins and Simpkins,1981)..Another program called “Dialectal-Communication” has been in operation for over a decade in DeKalb County, Georgia’s school district.This program teaches fifth and sixth- grade students to switch from their “home speech” to “school speech”.The program, designed by Kelly Harris-Wright, has demonstrated rising tests scores in reading and language arts and is supported by federal Title I funds for low-income areas..The teaching methodology of the “Bridge and associative programs promotes the Standard English Proficiency (SEP) program, an ongoing federally funded program for the past 21 years which uses contrastive analysis and foreign language teaching methodology to move students from non-standard English to Standard American English (SAE)..In the case of,the Bridge and associative teaching methodology the foreign language is the home language of a large percentage of working-class Blacks (African American Vernacular English)..Standard English can be taught by helping children develop an awareness of the contrast between the two speech varieties and learn how to use one without losing their pride in the other..African American varieties of English, which range from that spoken by children and some adults with limited education to those spoken by adults with advanced degrees, are based on the cultural, social, historical and political experiences shared by many people of African American descent in the United States..
    This experience is one of family, community, and love as well as racism, poverty, and discrimination..Every African American does not speak African American English(AAE)..It is not surprising that the Black community separates its views of AAE, which range from loyalty to abhorrence, from issues surrounding the literacy education of their children..Sooner rather than later, this nation’s educational system must address its exclusion of cultural and dialect differences in the teacher training and school curriculum of its educational system (John Rickford)…”Between the Rhetoric and Reality” Simpkins&Simpkins; Lauriat Press,2009;