Better Myself: Motivation of African Americans to Participate in Correctional Education

By Schlesinger, Raphael | Journal of Correctional Education, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Better Myself: Motivation of African Americans to Participate in Correctional Education


Schlesinger, Raphael, Journal of Correctional Education


Abstract

This study interviewed 15 incarcerated African American males about their participation in correctional education. The data was considered in light of various motivation theories with particular emphasis on a sociocultural theory of motivation. The largest amount of data described non-educational reasons subjects participate in correctional education. These motives derived from the situated context of incarceration. A comparison of stated reasons African Americans participated in correctional education and their learning orientations demonstrated a congruency with Houle's typology of adult learners. All subjects described their lack of education as a deficit and strongly felt that correctional and adult education was necessary for a successful reintegration into the community.

Introduction

Understanding learner motivation can provide clues to increasing the intrinsic motivation adults have to learn. The natural inclination to learn and even cognition itself are inextricably bound to culture (Wlodkowski, 1999). We know very little about the learning motivation of incarcerated adults, and even less about adult African Americans in the corrections context.

What we do know about adult motivation to learn may be compromised when the adult becomes a ward of the state in a very controlled and restricted environment. Particularly questionable is the assumption articulated by Knowles (1989) that adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives, given the relative powerlessness inherent with incarceration. The other assumption made by Knowles, that adults want to learn the things they need to know or to cope with their real-life situations, may not apply so well when the real-life situation is strictly managed and choices are limited. In Wisconsin, where this study was conducted, the majority of the inmates are minorities. In that prison system, Whites make up just less than 43% of inmates, while African Americans account for the largest racial/ethnic group of offenders at 46% (State of Wisconsin, 2003). Most of the other 11 % are classified ethnically as Hispanic, but that number also includes Native Americans and Asians. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, African Americans make up just 6.1 percent of that state's population, so to say this group is disproportionately represented in the state prison population is a considerable understatement.

Certainly, there are differences among incarcerated African Americans. It is a mistake to think that an ethnic group like African Americans is a homogeneous population. Nevertheless, certain commonalities among these students such as references to poverty, struggling to meet basic needs, survival, racism, inadequate education, and dismal employment prospects echoed a worldview of the incarcerated Black men in the classroom.

One of the primary roles of a correctional educator is that of a motivator. Many of the offender/students have had negative school experiences in their lives. If the teacher can stimulate the students to want to learn, to increase their desire to learn, they could possibly accomplish their goals and maybe even set higher goals that would serve them well in the future. This ability to motivate students depends in some degree to what motivation students possess and also what it is that they find motivating. Of all the motivation theories, and there are many, sociocultural theory is the one that best accounts for the differences observed in the ethnic and cultural minorities during classroom interactions.

Focusing on African American participants in correctional education suggested an ethnographic study. A quantitative approach seemed unsuited to getting at reasons and attitudes behind behaviors. Furthermore, many of these learners had learning disabilities or had difficulty reading, so a survey or questionnaire may not yield very good data. Also, researcher-framed questions might make assumptions about the subjects and limit responses. …

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