Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reaching the Intentional Non-Learner

I've sometimes said that we Americans are very good at identifying problems; we are less proficient at finding solutions. That seems to be what I did in my last blog. I identified that there are students who are intentional non-learners, those whom the education system has failed, and that we cannot afford to fail any students. (I'm not talking about the policy in Grand Rapids where students no longer receive an F.) So what do we do? How do we motivate underachieving students.

I found this information, credited to Mike Muir (I haven't had time to research much on Muir, but I found this to be good.) Muir suggests there are nine essential elements to motivating underachieving students:
  • Positive relationships & school climate
  • Feedback and helping students succeed
  • Hands-on, active work
  • Variety and attention to learning styles
  • Tying learning into interests and making it interesting
  • Avoiding bribery rewards
  • Giving students voice and choice
  • Making connections and higher order thinking
  • Putting learning into context and making real world connections
There is much to consider here, and I want to post some thoughts on each of these. I'll begin tonight with positive relationships and school climate. See you then. Have a great day.


  1. Most of these seem to make a lot of sense to me--I am a bit confused on "bribery rewards". I guess this means rewarding things in order to get what YOU (the teacher) want. Am I right on this? If so, I can get with that--but I do think rewards can be motivational in the classroom, even if the teacher is using them to get students involved in class participation; this could be seen as a bribery tactic, but it is my belief that this can actually get students involved in spite of their egos and fears of their public image.

  2. It is difficult to determine what is meant from the generalities that one poses as guidelines. That is why I feel compelled to provide some discussion about each of these. I did research Muir some. He is a professor in Maine. He's working with a group called ResulTech that are focused on working with the unmotivated student. I'll post some links.

    I agree with your take on "bribery rewards." I believe rewards are okay--although responding to rewards places one at the lowest level of Kohlberg's levels of moral development. However, rewards used as a last resort is admitting defeat. The student is in charge and the teacher succumbs to behavioral extortion: offering pay to get kids to behave. The kids might as well join the mafia and the teacher should hang it up.

    I think it is important to consider what rewards are appropriate and when they are appropriate. And I suggest that a teacher use rewards sparingly. Being idealistic, I will suggest that is better to build a relationship of respect and to appeal to the students' interest and natural curiosity.

  3. Yesterday, the principal said about my son (who is in 5th grade), "He's not a learner." This is the same kid who asks me so many questions at one time I have to tell him to stop and take a breath. The subjects he learns in school are often non-stimulating to him whereas subjects found out of school can be far more stimulating. For example, the writing prompts given in class are often limited, while writing prompts he or I might create are far more engaging and tailored to his interests.

    Whatever the case, I found the principal's remark shocking. I searched on the web and found this "intentional non-learner" label is everywhere!

    What a terrible negative connotation to pin on students. Labeling them is essentially condemning them. It's placing them in a rigid category in the educator's mind. If the educator thinks that will not color that child's motivation to learn and growth as a student, the educator is fooling himself.

  4. It's been a long time since I revisited this posting. I was researching intentional non-learners and it led me back to my own blog, where I found this very interesting comment left by itzcosmic.
    First, the comment that your principal made, that your son is not a learner, is blatantly stupid and insensitive. You point out in your comment that your son shows enthusiastic curiosity, which is the motivation behind learning. Your son is a learner. But this is quite different from the intentional non-learner.
    The intentional non-learner is a student who has found school to be alien and unfulfilling. When he tries, he fails; therefore, why try. This is not necessarily the fault of the student, but is symptomatic of our schools' inability to address the needs of all students, or in some cases to care about the needs of all students. Let's face it...It is easier to teach the kids who conform and get it the first time.
    Identifying intentional non-learners is not a means of labeling kids so that we can dismiss them. It is a way of labeling kids so that we might better address their needs.