Schools and Culture: Math and the Undermotivated Student

Summary: Mathematics learning requires consistent attention to task, which leaves the many indifferent students marooned well behind the pace of the class.

The most frequent conversation I have with my students revolves around their failure to thrive in their studies, and then most consistently around mathematics. Why math? Well, there is generally a correct answer in math, and much of the time a very limited range of means to arrive at that correct answer. There is more latitude, appropriately enough, in other subject matter, such as English or social studies, in which the bright enough but poorly engaged student can approximate the material closely enough to at least pass the class.

Not so with math.

Sometimes by the kid’s initiative, sometimes by mine, sometimes by the parents’, many of these kids find their way into my office where I am to somehow heal their math spirit, often thoroughly ground into the dust, to the point that a typical student feels he or she “just doesn’t get math.” Never mind that they haven’t done much, if any, of the homework, or have been more focused on socializing in class than applying themselves to the subject matter. Any stretch of work thus unengaged in a subject like math leaves the student marooned on their own island, having missed the linkages to the current body of work. Thus when parent or counselor or teacher or even student clangs the alarm bell, and even if the student vows a heroic effort, the truth is by now said student has to learn the linkages already sunk to the bottom of the ocean while simultaneously absorbing the current topic.

Generally, that ain’t gonna happen. Maybe the brightest can pull it off, but the generally run of the mill intellect will not. In math we are generally talking a full year course of study that builds one topic upon another. Not only does the student fail the first semester under this scenario, but often the second as well. Even those who pass the first semester by the proverbial skin of their teeth are set up to fail the second.

That we need to find ways to motivate such a student to work the material consistently from start to finish goes without saying.

In my own school there are promising efforts under way in our math classrooms, using individual student data, to intervene on a daily and weekly basis when individual students and groups of students do not comprehend specific material. Hopefully and ideally, such detailed efforts will pull the unmotivated back onto the ship before it passes beyond the horizon.

Instructional renovation of this type is clearly needed in order to adapt to the contemporary student.

These scenarios still beg the question, however, how do we as a culture bring our students to the point of internalized motivation in math, or in any other subject, to a degree that doesn’t require their teachers to pull them through, kicking and screaming? We will continue to have difficulty remediating at the skills level while too many students lack accountability, academic resilience, and a sense of personal efficacy.

It is difficult to see how we are to address these latter issues by other than increased staffing, but harder yet to perceive where even more money will be found, when we already spend more with poorer results than many comparable First World societies.

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