Why Value Education When I Have Everything I Need?

I’m not too worried about the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores, which revealed that American teenagers are lagging behind their counterparts all around the globe. I’m not worried about being outperformed by Estonia, Poland, and Ireland in reading, and I’m not worried that we’re only one spot ahead of Lithuania in math. After all, we’ve been here before.

Image from www.neatoday.com
Image from http://www.neatoday.com

Jordan Weissman’s points out in the The Atlantic that our teens have tended to botch these internationally benchmarked exams for almost 50 years now, but that hasn’t spelled economic doom for us. In 1983, we were A Nation At Risk. Relative to the rest of the world, we weren’t a nation at risk then, nor are we now.

But I am concerned that the discouraging test results might reveal a motivational divide. Is this a general sign of coddled students? An indictment of the high-stakes-testing-saturated nature of our public education system? Perhaps a combination of both? Or is it something else?

Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times:

The “digital divide” will soon disappear. Fairly soon, virtually everyone will have a screen and an Internet connection. In that world, argues futurist Marina Gorbis, the big divide will be “the motivational divide” — who has the self-motivation, grit and persistence to take advantage of all the free or cheap online tools to create, collaborate and learn. And third, countries that thrive the most will be the H.I.E.’s — the high imagination-enabling countries — that attract and enable talent to be constantly spinning off new ideas and start-ups, the source of most new good jobs.

The “motivational divide” is already playing out in classrooms around the United States–mine included. It bothers me to no end to work with students given tools, skills, and opportunities to take advantage of digital media and constant connectivity, only to push aside learning in favor of distraction and leisure on their phones. But I also see the benefits of those students who do have the self-motivation, grit and persistence to elevate their learning explorations to new levels. It’s amazing to see.

If a motivational divide exists between teens in the United States versus teens in other places in the world, then one cause could be relative material comfort and standard of living.

Many of our disadvantaged students have a material standard of living much greater than those students who are outperforming them, and I wonder how this informs their effort in school. Why value education when I have everything I need?

It’s easy to have relative material wealth and modern comforts in the United States without being well-educated. I doubt it’s the same in many other places around the world.

Do you think there’s any truth to my theory?  We obviously still have far too much poverty in the United States for such a wealthy nation, but could it be possible that for many students, cheap consumer electronics, ubiquitous smart phones (instant entertainment), and other material comforts weaken motivation to do well in school?


  1. Interesting question. I think there are many reasons American students might not feel terribly motivated to achieve. The larger culture feels determinedly anti-intellectual — nerds, etc. You’re either a movie star or millionaire athlete or…or what? You take a cube job for 40 years? I wonder how much connection students really see between academic excellence (and all the slogging that it requires) and a life beyond the next new toy…

  2. What is the “thing” that gets in the way of one of the wealthiest, successful countries on earth in educating its children at the highest levels? That is certainly on my mind as an elected representative of the community to see to that goal. Could student motivation be the “thing?” It is one of those things that comes to school with students that teachers and administrators sometimes can’t touch. Does building relationships with students help? I think and I hear that it does. What a list of responsibilities teachers have! This is a community and parent issue, as well. We need to work hard to make high education a real value among all young people. I would like to hear more about this. Is motivation a “thing?” If so, what do we do? How do we turn it around? Keep talking…

  3. I can’t agree that “fairly soon” everyone in the world will have Internet access and a screen. Maybe on a cellphone, but it will take a *long* time for everyone to have access to a large enough screen and a reliable Internet link at a fast enough speed to fully participate in Internet-based activities. (For one thing, you need reliable access to electricity for both of those).

    And given the number of people in the world who don’t have access to things like clean drinking water or adequate housing, I have to think that Internet access isn’t the most important issue “dividing” parts of the world from each other.

  4. Hello, I do agree with Angus and bluegrasspb, but am also not to worried about these results (the UK isn’t doing much better and is similarly obsessed with electronic and modern communication media gadgets as ‘learning devices’).

    I heard yesterday, in a discussion about this, that in Singapore (I think came No.1) only half the number of students took part, than for example in the UK. Now this made me wonder if that means that more UK pupils are on average worse than Singaporean pupils- or if maybe only the top performers in Singapore were selected to take part in this ‘test’. Also, were they leisurely taking this test or are there some real pressures behind not only taking part but getting it absolutely right, in an international competition? Here Brits can be accused of maybe not taking such things too seriously…

    Baring in mind that education is a potential income generation for countries (including the US and UK) by attracting lots of foreign students these tables and numbers are basically just another statistic- and nothing tangible, really.

    Just another pointless headline, distracting from having meaningful debates about the quality of education, children and adults should be able to enjoy…

  5. Angus,
    Thanks for stopping by at the ‘Stew!
    There is no doubt that our gadgets provide a plethora of options, but it’s hard to compete with leisure and entertainment, especially when dealing with kids.
    What is a HIE country? I haven’t heard that acronym before.

  6. I have been working in education in Central America for the last few years and I am constantly shaking my head (maybe with disappointment, but probably not surprise) as I see that the primary use of technology e.g. phones and computers is entertainment and distraction. I think the idea of a HIE countries is fascinating. How does a country become a HIE without getting distracted by the bells and whistles of mind numbing entertainment?

    The organization I work with now is exploring the idea of using e-readers to promote literacy in Guatemala. One of the appealing things to me about a kindle or something like it is that (as far as I know) reading is its primary function.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s