Imagine for a moment that a physical education program has been created to help students lead a healthier life.  Part of the program includes the goal of having students do 50 sit-ups every day.  Unfortunately, a large number of students are disinterested in doing sit-ups, even when they get punished with bad grades for not doing them.

The PE department decides it is important to have data about this problem, so the teachers are required once a week to record how many sit-ups each student does.  After several weeks, there is no significant change, so teachers are required to record the number for each student every day, then several times per day.  It’s thought that perhaps parental involvement will help, so a computer program is created and teachers post sit-up data twice a day.  Still no change.

At this point, the administration decides the teachers aren’t trying hard enough, so they link the teachers’ pay to the number of sit-ups their students can do in an annual sit-up exam.  This causes a great deal of anxiety and a plunge in morale on the part of teachers.  Inevitably, there is a scandal when several teachers get caught boosting their numbers.  Aside from that, little changes.

Finally, in desperation, it is decided that the problem is that the program isn’t rigorous enough, and the goal is raised from 50 to 100 sit-ups daily.  Of course, students don’t do more sit-ups because of this change — all that happens is that the scores go down.

In this analogy, it is clear that the one factor which has been utterly ignored is the students’ motivation, or lack of it.  Do the students believe that doing sit-ups is important or useful?  Some do, but many don’t.  Do they even think that sit-ups will make them healthier?  No one is asking.

Clearly, every effort that has been made has been from the outside in, trying to force students to do more sit-ups.  Just as clearly, their lack of motivation will ultimately prevail over any such effort. Even if a teacher discovers that by having students “cram” just before the annual test and learn a few tricks to temporarily raise their numbers, there would be little or no improvement in the student’s health, which was, after all, the original intent of the program.  And, to be honest, perhaps the number of sit-ups a person does isn’t very important in the big picture of his health.  For instance, most adults, even healthy adults, don’t do 50 sit-ups every day.

Some adults may have learned how to be healthy in school, but most figure it out on their own as adults.  Sadly, many won’t do sit-ups in part because of their memories of what it felt like being forced to do them in school.  For all too many people, the same is true for reading Shakespeare or solving mathematical problems or writing an essay.

Believing that making learning goals harder will cause unmotivated students to learn more is an exercise in magical thinking, and there is plenty of evidence that it simply doesn’t work.  Our focus should instead be on the learners and their motivation to learn.  Learning goals that don’t pay attention to these realities are counterproductive.

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