First and foremost, I recommend reading an excellent article on TechCrunch about the debate on Tech Education. Not too far in the future, the high schoolers and college students of today will be the workforce of tomorrow. The primary problems outlined in the debate are that foreign nationals make up the majority of students graduating with doctorates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). This means all the talent is being trained here and then sent out. Buy why are our own kids not going for these degrees? It is simply because they are not motivated. Examining both how they are not motivated and how to motivate them is a difficult subject.
To motivate a child, you must first determine what motivates and discourages them. This may seem obvious, but a lot of people just jump right in and say, well maybe if we do this, this, and this, while those three things would not interest students at all if you actually thought about it. Speaking from experience as a student among the current crowd of high schoolers, money is not what everybody is talking about. I am sure all of my friends want to get into high paying jobs and live the good life, but that is not their primary focus. They just want to be able to make ends meet and have a fun time doing so. This teenage spirit may be naive, but that's how it is. You ask your average K-12 student the details on filing for an IPO with the SEC, and what company they plan to work for or start up that will become their primary source of income, they will look at you dumbfoundedly and blow off the question with a sarcastic remark. So if money does not motivate students, what does?
I think in order to answer the question of motivation, you must first examine what does not motivate children. And that is not understanding and wasting time. One of the biggest discouraging factors in education is when a student cannot understand a topic because the teacher is not explaining it right. I have sat in class many times thinking how I could have explained what the teacher just said in half the amount of time and in an approach that would bring about a wave of understanding throughout the class. Whether it is because schools have to keep the bad teachers due to union demands, or if the teachers are not motivated themselves, either way an unguided student is an unmotivated one. The second factor that does not motivate a student is wasting time. As I write this blog post, I have yet to complete a textbook outline from my American History textbook. I can attest that the assignment is a complete waste of my time: it is not intellectually stimulating and consists of just copying information from the textbook. When you combine a bad teacher with bad assignments, the class just becomes boring and obnoxious. Worst of all, many students sometimes attribute their lack of interest and understanding to their own "stupidity". So in other words, bad teaching leads to lack of understanding, which leads to students with low self-esteem, thus causing disinterest and lack of motivation.
The key to motivating students, thus, is to have the opportunity to explain to them in some personal, passionate, simple, and direct approach, the material they are supposed to be learning. There have been so many times where I have seen a student's face light up after they finally understood what we learned in class because I explained it to them. Keep in mind I am a high school student, so they learned that topic from a peer, not their teacher, who is supposed to be teaching them. I believe this lack of good teaching skill is the root problem of our K-12 education system. And it does not help that many schools are now specifically advocating math and reading alone due to the No Child Left Behind Act, and that schools are preparing for tests rather than life.
Another problem that faces students in K-12 schools is lack of opportunity. Craig Barrett makes a great point in showing how extra-curricular programs, such as FIRST robotics and the Intel Talent Search, are vital to enhancing a student's involvement in the STEM field. Why? Because first of all, budget cuts are only allowing so many classes to be taught in school. New York City schools are in the process of getting rid of all trade teachers, meaning my school just lost Cisco Networking and C++, classes that I specifically applied to my school so I could take. But even with these classes, there is only so much you can require in school, and a student needs to have the opportunity to take projects on for themselves. Teenagers have the tendency to rebel against authority, so having complete control over something they might have fun doing, rather than being required to do assignments by teachers, is vital for a student to truly take interest. Though I am not involved in FIRST (robotics is not my thing), I just recently participated in the New York Science and Engineering Fair, and will probably apply for the Bezos Family Scholarship program at the World Science Festival. It is these programs that add the real spark to a student's life.
I could go on and rant about the numerous flaws in our K-12 education program, but I will cut down and only mention one more: lack of integration of technology. I hope to attend the New York Higher Education Technology Forum at Hofstra Univeristy in April, where I will witness how education should really be executed. You want a student to be interested in technology? Surround them with it. Smart Technologies really hit it off with their Smart Boards. Why? Because students can use them so much better than the teachers, it becomes fun to be able to tutor your teachers in technology. As of this point, students are not exposed to enough technology in school to really find a true interest in it. They have to find the motivation on their own, which is not what should be happening if the United States wants more doctorates in STEM fields. Every other facility has been enhanced with technology, except for the classroom. This is a problem.
So just to highlight again the main problems: bad teaching does not lead to motivation, lack of opportunity leads to a feeling of imprisonment which does not lead to motivation, and lack of technology in the classroom causes lack of awareness which does not lead to motivation. The problem does not lie in colleges, but in the fact that high schools are not providing the proper environment for students to take root and grow. We are stuck in a strict path culminating with some sort of test, no opportunity for true understanding, no chance at outside development, and no time to explore what should already be in the classroom in the first place. So of all of the contenders I would side myself mostly with Craig Barrett. Sure teaching students international business and economics would be useful, but as a student myself I can say I could care less about having to spend forty minutes a day in a course like that when I could be devoting my time to something more interesting, and then learning the less interesting topics in college.
Hopefully the high school perspective of high school education will have an effect on people's opinions. Because it seems many people have a misconception about what and how we think, and how we are motivated.