What Happens to Four-year-olds?

[Based upon a chapter in Education Follies: four decades of tilting at windmills for no apparent reason by Jeff Lee Byrem, (c) 2016.]

For many years, I struggled to understand why normal four-year-olds—all of whom (according to my nonscientific sample of one) seem to have a remarkable capacity and eagerness to learn by exploration and experimentation—become fifth graders who are either emotionally disengaged from learning, or are students who appear to be motivated solely by rewards. I encountered these fifth graders everywhere I went, and as a secondary teacher, virtually all of my students were these ubiquitous fifth-graders grown up.

Was this just the normal development of humans, I wondered; were we born with an innate curiosity that was aflame as a small child but destined to flicker and go out as we approached our adolescent years? What I observed suggested this was the case, but there was other evidence I observed in my classroom, which suggested something else was at play.

During a six-year hiatus from Education (1978 to 1984), I worked as a human resources executive. Business management courses and professional development exposed me to findings from decades of research conducted in the fields of Industrial and Organizational Psychology regarding motivation; research, interestingly enough, that I have discovered over the years has been ignored for the most part by educators.

What I was learning challenged the Skinnerian approaches to which I had been exposed as an American undergraduate, approaches that espoused treating kids like pigeons: we were taught to reinforce desirable behaviors with rewards. I found solid research that confirmed rewards directed at motivating a specific behavior in certain situations like classrooms almost always eliminated any intrinsic motivation to practice the desired behavior a student might have had.

In other words, by the time those four-year-olds are in fifth grade, their natural, intrinsic motivation to learn has been gold-starred, dollar-billed, student-of-the-weeked and atta-boyed away.

It was not until the late 1990’s, while investigating Marvin Marshall’s Raise Responsibility System, that I encountered Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Motivation by Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste. For me, it was a dense and challenging read about what has come to be known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT), but the effort was worth every minute that I put into it. For the first time in my professional career, I began to more fully understand and appreciate why we humans (adults and children) do what we do.

As I dove more deeply into SDT and one of its six mini-theories—Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET), which plays a critical role in fostering intrinsic motivation in Education—I also began to understand a root cause of Education’s failure to effectively address the immoral achievement gap that exists between the advantaged and disadvantaged children in American society.

In an email exchange I had with Edward Deci, he shared his incredulity at the relatively limited interest Americans have in SDT, especially given the number of countries around the world in which educators accept SDT as a foundational tenet of professional practice. My communication with Deci and my own experiences have led me to the opinion that most American educators do not have a sound understanding of motivation theory.

This professional ignorance is but the tip of the iceberg. My experiences providing professional development and training to administrators and teachers is that American educators are more likely than other professionals to exemplify the following 1913 quote from Francis Cummins Lockwood: We must view with profound respect the infinite capacity of the human mind to resist the introduction of useful knowledge.

Teachers think nothing of repudiating (e.g.) the findings of Marzano’s meta-analysis of over 4000 pieces of juried research focused on instructional best practices because “my favorite teacher growing up, Mrs. Smith, she didn’t teach like that, and I want to be a teacher just like her.”

Laypersons would be astonished at how many teachers ignore research-based instructional practices in order to teach the way a favorite teacher taught twenty years before, a teacher who herself would have been unlikely to have applied research-based practices because they had not yet been identified. Imagine if your family doctor practiced medicine just like the doctor he remembered from his childhood thirty years before. You might eventually find reason to sue that doctor for malpractice, but as a society, we tolerate such malpractice from teachers.

Returning to the topic at hand—motivation—I posit that if American teachers understood and practiced the tenets of Cognitive Evaluation Theory in their classrooms—especially in the classrooms that are filled with poor children—more of those children would be intrinsically motivated to succeed.

Research-based practices, I argue, are less important in classrooms of advantaged children because those students are usually responsive to traditional teaching approaches that require the ingestion of material, which is later regurgitated on tests and quickly forgotten thereafter. But for our Nation’s disadvantaged children, imagine the improvement in their achievement that would result from applying not only motivation theory, but other research-based practices known to improve student achievement.

The prospect  of training our enormous National Cadre of teachers is daunting. Dividing the responsibility among states as opposed to Federal control makes logistical sense, and it also allows those states where the majority party does not care a fig about the poor to ignore them regardless of Rousseau’s warning: When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich. Pushing the full responsibility down to school districts would be a mistake because that is a sure way to ensure sporadic, ineffective implementation; therefore, implementation at the State level makes the most sense.

Such training in all things related to effective instructional practices would require competence in implementation management (the challenge: finding enough such people) and significant funding, and it is the latter that highlights the major difference in the educational philosophies of Conservatives and Progressives.

Conservative politicians fight to reduce the amount of taxpayer money spent on education unless that money is targeted toward successful schools, which are, incidentally, the schools their children attend. This means that the money available for professional development, along with related technology and other resources, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on poor districts where teachers—much more so than their colleagues in advantaged districts—must know and apply research-based instructional practices if their students are going to have a chance to achieve.

The Progressives’ approach is to throw money at Education with too little concern about accountability. A grand experiment of the “throw money at schools” philosophy occurred from 1985 through 1997 in Kansas City, Missouri. According to a post by Rod Dreher, the findings of a Federal Judge resulted in the Kansas City School District getting more money per pupil than any of 280 other major school districts in the country, and it got it for more than a decade … students enjoyed perhaps the best school facilities in the country (but the experiment) was a complete disaster. (See also America’s Most Costly Educational Failure) 

Working in various capacities and relationships with the Delaware and Pennsylvania departments of education, my experience has been that producing tangible implementations (e.g. publication of a major website, establishment of programs in schools even if the programs later disappear, etc.) is more important than tangible improvement in student achievement, and when achievement is part of the equation, standardized tests are inappropriately used as measures of success. (See: Standardized Tests: Opt Out or Not?)

As a concerned American educator, I cannot endorse the Conservative approach because it ultimately requires the immoral elimination of equality of opportunity for all Americans that is espoused by the Declaration of Independence, nor can I endorse the Progressive practice of throwing money at schools. There needs to be a balance where money is provided where it is needed—poor school districts—with the clear expectation that the money be used for training and related materiels, that implementation is not optional, and that positive results are expected with no excuses accepted for failure.

The expectations of implementation and results may appear unusual to anyone who has spent any time in corporate America, but too many teachers work in too many schools with cultures where implementation of what one has been trained to do is perceived as “elective.” If taxpayer money is being spent for training, it should be spent for good reason, and the first level beneficiaries of the training (teachers) must be made to understand that they are expected to apply in their classrooms what it is that they have learned.

Motivation theory would be at the top of my training/P.D. wish list for American teachers. It is essential for everything an educator hopes to accomplish with her/his students. For advantaged kids, like I was back in the Fifties and Sixties, there is an intrinsic fear of not meeting parents’ expectations coupled with the fear of not being accepted to college, which drives such kids to meet expectations in spite of occasional encounters with teachers who are clueless about motivation theory. Not so with disadvantaged kids who arrive at school and find too many teachers who convey in ways subtle and direct that they do not believe poor kids can learn. (See: Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement)

If you are a practitioner and cannot wait for politicians to establish and fund effective training programs for teachers in your State (don’t hold your breath!), you can engage in personal enrichment by 1) beginning with the SDT website, 2) digest Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions by Ryan and Deci, and 3)  tackle Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Motivation by Deci and Flaste.

Of course, professionals realize that personal growth is significantly enhanced when two or three colleagues join together to tackle a goal, such as: How can we ensure our classrooms are places that welcome and resurrect within each of our students the remarkable capacity and eagerness of four-year-olds to learn? If you don’t have such a colleague readily available to address your learning, contact me and we can begin a conversation.

3 thoughts on “What Happens to Four-year-olds?

  1. We have an epidemic of finding ways to reward kids for anything and everything that they do. And parents demand it be so.
    We have forfeited the competitive drive to succeed. Only those who are driven and self motivated rise to succeed.
    Is it as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it’s us.”
    Time to grow up and take personal accountability for our outcomes.


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