The learner needs a reason to care about the subject and the task at hand

Yesterday, I took my dog, Barkley, to visit my friend Cheryl, who loves little dogs.

Barkley is 9 months old. In maturity and outlook, he is a lot like a human 3-year-old right now. He will happily participate in activities that make sense to him — going on a walk to take a leak, sitting up or rolling over in exchange for a treat, cuddling on the couch. But if we want him to do something he doesn’t feel like doing — having a bath, getting his nails clipped, coming when we call — well, then, he’ll just sit there. Sometimes, he even tries to hold our hands away from him using a gentle mouth, or he just runs the other way as fast as he can.

We were in Cheryl’s backyard, and she called Barkley to come. He decided he didn’t have to. She thought his failure to obey was because he didn’t know the command, “Come.”

Barkley knows several commands for “Come”: the actual word, patting a lap or a couch cushion, pointing at the floor directly in front of the person giving the command, and beckoning with one hand. If he has a reason for obeying, he will come immediately.

He decided he didn’t have a reason to come to Cheryl.

Cheryl went and got a long lead, one she had used to train her own dogs. She attached the lead to Barkley’s harness, walked several paces away, and commanded him to COME. He sat there. She pulled the lead in and forced him to walk to her, where she pushed him into a sitting position. Then she walked away and did the whole thing over again.

After the fifth or sixth repetition of this sequence, Barkley just lay on his side and let her drag him across the lawn like a corpse.

Ever have a student like Barkley? I do. Every semester. It’s always a careful dance, giving them a reason to stay and work on something they are predisposed NOT to enjoy.

It’s hard to be the teacher when students don’t see the need for the skills and perspective you are trying to give them. It’s harder when you are passionate about your subject and you can’t understand why your students aren’t.

You have to give them a reason to care.

Their reasons for caring may not be your reasons.

One of my best students in my second-semester freshman comp course stood in my doorway yesterday, at the end of the semester, and told me she never understood why, in the first-semester course she took from a different teacher, she had to write so many different kinds of papers. She said it really got old.

She said the teacher would sit at his desk before he handed papers back and excoriate the class for not following his instructions — instructions he never explained in sufficient detail for his beginning writing students to understand. Each paper came back with a low grade scrawled in huge handwriting at the top.

If that were my teacher, I’d want to see him twist in the wind of his own frustration. I might lie down, like Barkley, and let him just try to drag better work out of me. Silently, I would rail against him for depriving me of the tools I needed in order to achieve in his class.

Barkley is just a dog. Legally, he is property. He is not an adult human, like our students are. But even Barkley the dog needs a reason to perform in accordance with our desires. Even Barkley gets frustrated when my instructions to him are unclear. Even Barkley resents being treated unfairly.

It’s a matter of respect.

Do we respect our students enough to explain in terms that make sense to them our reasons for giving them a learning task?

Do we respect them enough to tie new ideas into things they already know, so those new ideas are easy for our students not only to make sense of, but easy for them to make use of?

Do we respect the reality of their lives enough to use that reality to give them reasons to learn in our classrooms?

When I teach how to write college-level research papers, I give my students a list of the skills they will learn in my class via our learning tasks. During classwork, I explicitly correlate reasoning and formatting tasks with situations they will confront in their everyday, out-of-school lives. (For examples of how I do this, check the category, learners require reasons. I add new examples from time to time.) I invite students to share their experiences in these “real life” situations. At the end of a class period, I often ask, “What did you learn today?” to give my students the chance to make for themselves those connections between what we did and what use they can make of it.

This should be part of the Learners’ Bill of Rights for every class, for every age, culture, socioeconomic status, and species:

Learners have the right to require a reason that makes sense to them to care about the subject and the task at hand.

Our students are not our slaves. They are not our pets. They deserve a better reason than “because I said so.”

Heck, even my dog wants better than that.

[BTW, when Barkley disobeys me, I do pick him up and make him do what I want. But that is after I have spent considerable time and mental and physical effort figuring out how to explain to him what I want him to do and why. He’s just a dog, but he’s a smart little dog with a strong sense of self-direction. When I teach him in a way that respects his intellect, he learns to trust and obey my commands.]



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