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Alvin Toffler on Student Motivation

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"Why is everything massified in the [education] system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system--everybody reading the same textbook at the same time--did not offer."

That is the perspective of Alvin Toffler, the well-known chronicler of our nation's social and technological prospects and the author of Future Shock, as expressed in a question and answer session with edutopia magazine.

To be sure, the idea of educational customization has been around for decades in different forms. But Toffler tells edutopia he thinks that technological innovations and the need to educate people to be fast and flexible learners are coalescing more than ever before, creating not just opportunities, but reasons, to customize learning.

Of course, he is not alone. There has been some recent political traction in support of customization. See Customized Learning Plans for ALL?. And there are an uncountable number of educators and parents who believe in this approach to learning.

What is particularly worth noting is that Toffler argues in the Q & A that customization would have a major impact on student motivation. "You need to find out what each student loves," he says. "If you want kids to really learn, they've got to love something."

Toffler says in the Q & A that if he were designing the curriculum for a school, he would put together a sequence of courses on sports that would include the business, culture, and history of sports. Now that is a sequence of courses I undoubtedly would have pursued with unusual passion in high school.

Still, educators should evaluate Toffler's argument with a healthy bit of skepticism. If we created schools that catered primarily to what interested students, we'd have a thousand kids studying the sports sequence (and I would be among that group) and maybe five signed up for chemistry or physics. Science and math are hard for most folks, but once you get beyond the frustrating, difficult parts, they can be very fascinating and rewarding subjects to study.

What do you think? Is Toffler right? Or is there some balanced point we need to reach between where schools are now and what he envisions?

4 Comments

The only way to educate a young mind is with the cooperation of that young mind. If sports, for example, is the motivating factor for a student, then that student should definitely be encouraged to read about, write about, and discuss sports. In fact, motivation should be the foundation for decisions on all curriculum and should be individualized on a student-to-student basis.

Once an interest in school and studying is achieved through this interest, other non-related curriculum can be introduced with greater success.

As an educational publisher (www.scobre.com) interested in motivating students to fall in love with reading and learning, I feel confident in saying that once that fire has been lit, a myriad of materials can be successfully thrown on it. The key is getting a young person to experience excitement and success through their interests first, and then introducing more mundane and boring topics ... like math, science, and history!

Sports can be used as a theme which would pull in many other topics such as physics, mathematics including calculus,history (ancient to present), reading, writing in many genres, etc.

In fact, just about any topic can be studied in this type of depth. Homeschoolers often use this approach to both personalize and keep learners highly motivated over time.


In order to develop an individualized education plan for every student schools would need to: (1) abandon the paradigm about how they have functioned in this country for the past century; (2) guarantee a commitment for professional development on an unprecedented scale; and (3) instill in all teachers, preK-16, that all students are different, that they show up every September with different strengths, weaknesses, and levels of readiness, and from there THEY ALL PROGRESS AT DIFFERENT RATES.

Individualized instruction (not differentiated) is the most pragmatic, egalitarian approach to instruct every student in every subject.

Other than the reorganization of the school day for teachers and kids, the most prominent paradigm shift for teachers would be the requirement to handle the curriculum a year and a half to two years above and below the designated grade level.

EXAMPLE: Ms. Wilson has a sixth grade math class of 20 students starting in September. On that first day of school there might be kids in the class who still are lacking in addition, multiplication, etc., facts while kids at the other end of the spectrum might actually be ready to start pre-algebra or even Algebra I. So why should she start everyone on the same page on the same lesson and keep it that way throughout the year? She shouldn't, unless she wants to lose many of them before Thanksgiving, which happens all too often under traditional whole group instruction.

If medical doctors or attorneys attempted to run their practice(s) this way, they'd be out of business in no time.

Why haven't teachers gone to this more obvious child-centered approach of individualizing instruction for each child? Perhaps because (1) they were not taught that way when they were in school, (2) they were never trained to teach this way in college, or (3) because they know individualizing instruction is more work than whole group instruction.

Individualizing instruction empowers kids. It gives them a feeling of ownership, rarely experienced in traditional classrooms. They experience a level of control, previously impossible to realize in a class where every subject is taught to the whole group. Kids who need more time to grasp a concept or a skill have it. Kids who pick things up from the initial lesson can move at a much faster pace.

The only concept the teacher needs to reinforce every day is that everyone is at their respective level and not to concern themselves where anyone else is, that as long as everyone does the best they can at their own level, everyone will be satisfied, parents and teacher included.

As a public school teacher who used this method for 33 years I can tell you this system works and parents love it as much as the kids.

To develop an individualized education plan for every student schools would need to: (1) abandon the paradigm about how they have functioned in this country for the past century; (2) guarantee a commitment for professional development on an unprecedented scale; and (3) instill in all teachers, preK-16, that all students are different, that they show up every September with different strengths, weaknesses, and levels of readiness, and from there THEY ALL PROGRESS AT DIFFERENT RATES.

Individualized instruction (not differentiated) is the most pragmatic, egalitarian approach to instruct every student in every subject.

Other than the reorganization of the school day for teachers and kids, the most prominent paradigm shift for teachers would be the requirement to handle the curriculum a year and a half to two years above and below the designated grade level.

Why haven't teachers gone to this more obvious child-centered approach of individualizing instruction for each child? Perhaps because (1) they were not taught that way when they were in school, (2) they were never trained to teach this way in college, or (3) because they know individualizing instruction is more work than whole group instruction.

Individualizing instruction empowers kids. It gives them a feeling of ownership, rarely experienced in traditional classrooms. They experience a level of control, previously impossible to realize in a class where every subject is taught to the whole group. Kids who need more time to grasp a concept or a skill have it. Kids who pick things up from the initial lesson can move at a much faster pace.

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