photo by lanier67 on flickr

A few weeks ago I was asked to complete a survey on what makes people quit smoking.  As an ex-smoker, I was willing to take the time, but as I moved through the survey I began to feel an unspoken agenda.  I was repeatedly being asked if smokers would quit if they were told that smoking is bad for them – should ads portray the damage that smoking does?  I could almost hear a plaintive voice asking:  “Shouldn’t preaching work??”

Believe me, smokers know that smoking is bad for them.  Every time they try to take a deep breath, every time they catch a cold that settles firmly in their lungs, every time they admit that they are constantly thinking about the where and when of the next smoke, smokers know in their hearts that they are being controlled by a killer.

But for most of us, knowing we should quit isn’t enough.  I smoked for twenty-five years, and for every one of those years I knew I shouldn’t.  I would cough and hack and catch colds that took months to get over, but my fear of trying to fight the addiction was greater than my desire to be healthy.  What finally motivated me to quit was a deep anger that my life was so deeply controlled by an increasingly expensive product that brought profit to the tobacco industry and nothing but addiction, sickness, and ultimately death to me.

From the specifics of tobacco addiction my thoughts moved on to thinking in larger terms about motivation, and that train of thought led me directly to the well-worn track of “How do we get students to do what we want them to do?”  The laments from professors are ongoing and vociferous – we must improve students’  reading, writing, decision making, and critical thinking.  We must somehow convince our students to come to class, do the work, and THINK.

Yes, all very well and good, but simply telling students they need to come to class, they need to study, they need to THINK is not enough.  Why should we expect them to be better at all this than most of us, who clearly have a hard time making positive changes in our lives?   We watch trashy TV that demeans the human condition and the human spirit, we eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, yell too much, hate too much.

So.  Instead of repeatedly telling students that learning is good for them, I am going to shut up about that and become much more aggressive about  finding ways to make both the process of learning and the results of that process more immediately rewarding.  I keep thinking about how much fun it is to learn something new when we want that knowledge, and I wonder how to tap into (or perhaps re-awaken) that natural eagerness and curiosity.

I had thought that I had the answer, that the many active learning techniques I had implemented were enough.  My basic reading class last fall taught me different.  I pulled out all the stops, had them up and moving and exploring and talking and creating, and half of them still couldn’t be bothered to come to class (hmm, sensing a crisply edge of burnout still lurking in my heart.)

Henceforth, I am going to focus my planning on helping students discover the value of reading difficult material and the experience of becoming successful at doing so.  I am not going to preach any more – the “No More Preaching Project” starts here.