Recently there has been a lot of talk about the book Educated by Tara Westover. Many book clubs have been circulating this fascinating book. What I was most interested to learn about from this book, was how someone with limited preparation was still able to obtain a college education. However, the book revolved around how Tara’s view of the world and her family changed after she became more educated and exposed to different ideas.
Our current education system in the United States places an enormous amount of stress on preparing students for college. We have rigorous standards that students are expected to meet and be tested on each year. Then students are pushed towards classes that specifically prepare them for a college education. However, when stories like Tara’s surface, it’s hard to not take a step back and wonder if there’s even a point to funneling students towards specific standards.
How Was Tara Successful?
As far as I was able to tell, Tara was able to make it through college because of intrinsic motivations (or something unique within her that helped her). Even though she carried negative self worth that started at home, she continued to keep pushing through very difficult situations.
At one point in the story, Tara reflects on a moment where her and her fellow peers were standing on top of a building. Her professor commented that she seemed at ease on the building, while her peers became very skittish and fearful. The interaction results in the two noting that Tara flourishes in situations that are very difficult for typical people.
This dialogue points towards the face that Tara was successful with higher education because she was resilient and driven to find a better life. Her drive to change is especially impressive since she was not entirely sure what a different life looked like. There was also an aspect of her success that is attributed to some amount of natural intelligence.
Can We Teach Students Internal Motivation?
Tara’s success brings us back to the timely debate: How can we teach students resiliency? How can we encourage them to learn without a teacher directing them? What was inherent to Tara that encouraged her to continuing learning on her own?
These questions are difficult to answer. However, it’s clear that students need to see a clear purpose for education. Learning for Tara was a clear way to receive a fuller life. Instilling that in a child who cannot conceptualize the future seems like an overwhelming task.
While I don’t think there’s a simple solution for this problem, I do think that helping students learn how to complete “self guided learning” encourages students to learn for the sake of learning. Forcing content because it is required for a test, is counter productive for students to understand why they are even receiving an education. Education is not for performing who is smartest, it’s for increasing understanding about the world they are living in. Education is for helping students develop new and unique ideas that will add to society.
To be clear, standardized testing and state standards are not the enemy. They create a trajectory for teachers and help ensure that important topics are addressed. Testing allows teachers and administrators to see how the standards were received (however, I think the tests could have serious revamping). At the same time, tests and standards are not promoting an internal motivation to learn. Focusing too heavily on standards and tests encourages students to learn in order to perform.
Standards should be used as a guide for learning, and then the methods of addressing the standards should be fluid enough to allow for student directed learning. Some easy ways to address this is need are, allowing choice for specific topics of learning in a content area, dividing topics to various students to learn and teach, promoting different project/testing options, increasing collaboration between students, allowing different methods of solving a problem, and tying in real world examples to learning.
In conclusion, Tara was successful in higher education because she was motivated to learn for the sake of learning. Initially it was simply to leave a poor lifestyle, but it became a way to understand the world better. To encourage students to increase their motivation to learn, teachers and parents need to be supporting teaching methods that increase students’ responsibility for their own learning.