I recently had an opportunity to read student evaluations of a class we ran in a local school. What a roller coaster! Despite all my excitement over big score improvements, glowing recommendations, and insightful feedback, I was equally dismayed by comments revealing indifference or dislike. The constructively critical points were, as always, welcome. Harder to make use of, however, were the reviews from students who took pains to point out that their parents forced them to take the class. What can you do when a student doesn’t want to learn?
No, really… what can you do when a student doesn’t want to learn?
You can provide opportunities to learn.
You can force attendance at learning opportunities.
You can encourage engagement with learning opportunities.
You can offer rewards to learn.
You can threaten punishment for failure to learn.
You can connect learning to desired short-term outcomes.
You can connect learning to desired long-term goals.
You can nag, harangue, wheedle, cajole, entice, inspire, and demand.
YOU CANNOT FORCE SOMEONE TO LEARN.
Parents and teachers alike grapple with this unfortunate truth every day. We set the table and describe how delicious the food is, how healthy it is, how skilled the chef, how much everyone else wants to sit at this fine table, and how tragic and self-defeating it would be to let such a fine meal go to waste. Then our kids turn up their noses and go scarf down goldfish and Mountain Dew!
The old saw about leading horses to water wasn’t, as you know, really about horses. Test prep, like every other form of teaching, can literally change a student’s life by imparting skills, knowledge, and viewpoints that lead not just to higher test scores but also future success in college and beyond. Those benefits are available for those that want to work for them. Just showing up is never enough. Students who sit in class or in front of tutors, going through the motions and offering minimal effort learn as much as performers who don’t practice and athletes who don’t hustle, which is to say, very little.
I try to have this conversation with every parent enrolling a teen in one of our programs. Obviously, any parent who goes to the trouble of asking for help wants to see success. Hopefully just as obvious, we want to see success. But our shared commitment is meaningless in the face of student indifference. If the intrinsic motivation isn’t there, work on that critical piece of the puzzle first. Even students who don’t innately love impossible math problems or timed practice tests can find a passion for prep by connecting the required effort to desired goals. So don’t try to force it. Instead, fan the flames of interest. Once someone truly wants to learn, anything is possible.