Are Students Just Plain Lazy?

William Bryan famously said that an education is, “One of the few things a person is willing to pay for and not get.” and he’s right. Students spend a lot of time avoiding the hard process of learning. But the flip side is also true: teachers spend a lot of time avoiding the hard process of trying new teaching techniques.

The Bryan quote implies: “Because students today are ______ (fill in with favorite unflattering remark, such as “lazy”, “not motivated”, etc.).

But we have to be careful about attributing the reason students are willing to pay for but not get an education to something other than their personalities.

Because despite the cellphones and laptops, one thing about the educational process is as true today as when Bryan made his statement 43 years ago: the focus in educational institutions still comes down to what can be (relatively) easily observed and measured.

I am reminded of a classic article that appeared in the Academy of Management Journal in 1975 called “On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B” by Steven Kerr.

Educational institutions hope for B; that is, students who… think critically, love learning, reflect deeply, _________ (fill in favorite lofty hope here).

But they reward A: the things that can be easily counted like test grades and attendance.

And educators themselves are rewarded (i.e., tenure and promotion) mostly for A: number of publications, number of committees served, etc.

Yes, there’s no easy way to measure and reward “B” (reflection, deep thinking, etc.). But we do have decades of research on teaching techniques that are most likely to foster “B”. Two books that summarize these techniques (which all academics should read):

So before we blame our students for being lazy, unmotivated, etc., perhaps the best way to “get B” is to reward educators for using teaching techniques that are likely to bring “B” to life.

As the famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner might say, we need to change the reward structure for educators. When we do that perhaps we’ll be able to change Bryan’s quote to something like:

“An education is one of the few times a person gets more than they pay for.”