The role of attitude is often ignored in discussions of educational achievement. One reason is that the usual definition of attitude—a “disposition” or “feeling”—is too vague to be helpful. A better definition is a belief expressed indirectly through tone of voice, mannerism, or behavior.
Like other beliefs, attitudes can be reasonable or foolish. Unlike other beliefs, they are seldom put into words and therefore must be inferred. And that can be difficult.
For example, virtually every American teacher is familiar with the student who slouches in his seat, usually at the back of the room, wears an expression that a doctor might diagnose as acute dyspepsia, and alternately sighs and snickers derisively as the teacher or others speak.
Every teacher knows, too, that such a student has a “bad attitude,” but few are able to identify the underlying belief. It could be “I already know everything worth knowing,” or “The teacher’s job is to make me interested, and she’s failing at it,” or something else. The only way to tell exactly, and to address the problem, is to get the student to express the attitude in words.
Unfortunately, the student may not even know he has a negative attitude. He may instead perceive the subject matter as uninteresting, the teacher as boring, and himself as offended rather than offensive.
From all indications, the attitude problem in American schools is worsening, but it is hardly new. Its seriousness first became evident to me in the late 1980s when I spent several weeks at Singapore’s Curriculum Development Institute helping teachers learn methods and design materials for teaching creative and critical thinking.
My visits to classrooms were eye opening. When the principal and I entered an elementary school classroom, the students would stand and say in unison, “Good morning, principal; Good morning, sir” and then return to their work, often in small groups. Everyone showed enthusiasm for the learning activities.
I also had occasion to meet with small groups of high school students. I was impressed with their attentiveness, the quality of their questions, and their interest in my answers. It was clear that they expected me to offer insight and were eager to receive it. Simply said, their attitudes toward teachers (and other adults) made them remarkably receptive to learning.
Another experience revealed the roots of their positive attitudes. Several of my Singaporean colleagues took me to a play at a local college. Before the play began, the director announced that a visiting scholar was present and asked me to stand. When I did, the parents and friends of the student actors turned and applauded vigorously. Clearly, the respect for teachers and learning that I observed in students was also present in their homes.
I left those occasions with tears in my eyes, silently comparing Singaporean students with my college students at home and thinking how foolish we Americans had been in allowing our children to lose respect for their elders and themselves.
We are all familiar with the statistics showing that students from many foreign countries, notably Asian ones, reach higher levels of academic attainment than American students. Many reasons could be cited for this difference. But I am convinced that positive attitudes are among the most important.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that America’s efforts at educational reform will have little chance of succeeding until we cultivate better attitudes in our young people both at home and in the classroom.
Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
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