Academic journal article Education Next

Game Plan for Learning: Building on Coleman's Early Theories, New Academic Competitions Motivate Students to Achieve

Academic journal article Education Next

Game Plan for Learning: Building on Coleman's Early Theories, New Academic Competitions Motivate Students to Achieve

Article excerpt

IN 1959, six years before he authored the study that would remake America's segregated public schools, James S. Coleman found himself face to face with a very different foe: the inscrutable desires, evolving tastes, and secret motivations of the post-World War II American teenager.

At the time, Coleman was head of Johns Hopkins University's Department of Social Relations (later renamed the Department of Sociology). He had just spent two years studying the "climate of values" at several midwestern high schools, interviewing students about their academic lives, their social lives, school culture, and their rapidly evolving teen culture. Deep within the data, he found what he considered the root of the underachievement crisis in American high schools: a management structure that misunderstood teenagers and fundamentally misused student incentives.

For more than 50 years, Coleman's findings in this study have been overshadowed by those of the Coleman Report. But scholars and educators would do well to revisit Coleman's earlier focus on student culture and motivations if we're to understand, in his words, "why and for whom educational institutions fail."

That Coleman in 1959 saw a direct link between teen culture and high school achievement is significant. Though the first public high school opened in Boston in 1821, for more than a hundred years, the majority of American teens were otherwise engaged. Most didn't hold a high school diploma until 1940. The byproduct of more universal schooling--or perhaps its main product--was the American teenager, "a New Deal project" much like the Hoover Dam, wrote cultural critic Thomas Hine. Actually, Hine noted, the word "teenager" first appeared in a 1941 Popular Science article. Compulsory education gave rise, inevitably, to mid-20th-century teen culture, and in quick succession, to nearly every cultural artifact we now associate with teens, most of them tied to breakthroughs in technology. Cheaper automobiles, color printing, and better amplification brought us car culture, comic books, and pop music--who can imagine a crooning Frank Sinatra screaming his way through the 1942 Paramount sessions? A generation later, another technological trio--birth control pills, synthesized LSD, and multitrack recording--brought us sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Coleman hadn't much cared for high school himself. Born in Indiana in 1926, he attended high school in Greenhills, Ohio, then in Louisville, where each year two rival schools fought bitterly on the football field. The teams' annual face-off, played on Thanksgiving Day, "flavored the whole school year," he later recalled. Coleman joined the team and would later write that the "boys who counted in the school were the first-string varsity football players." Other than football, nearly nothing held his interest. Years later, he'd write of hitchhiking to football practice one day, thinking to himself: "If only they would not destroy in us the interest with which we came to school, I would ask for nothing more."

Coleman ended up at Columbia University, where a chance dinner conversation with friends near the end of his tenure there got him thinking about how the culture of one's high school can have a life-changing impact--actually, it was that conversation that got him studying schools in the first place. When he began interviewing high school students a few years later, he discovered that little had changed. In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs, teens were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. "Adults often forget how 'person-oriented' children are," he wrote in 1959 in the Harvard Educational Review. "They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live."

The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he found, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teens' attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze out "maximum rewards for minimal effort. …

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