On Friday after school, my kindergartener proudly announced that her teacher had chosen her as the Room H Superkid for first quarter. Of course as a mother my initial response was a sudden uncontrollable urge to slap a “my child is an honor’s kid” sticker on the back of the minivan. But my second reaction was more circumspect. What about the other nineteen poor saps who the teacher tacitly relegated to the less “super” echelon of kindergarten?

In the forthcoming second edition of Disrupting Class, Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson add a chapter that reexamines student motivation and why many students fail to learn (sneak peak available here). The authors hypothesize that the two primary jobs students try to do every day by going to school are to feel successful as they make progress, and to have fun with friends. They explain that all students want to feel successful, and for some—did I mention that my child is a SUPERKID?!—school gets the job done. But for many others, school makes them feel like failures. This group may include students whose parents do not convey the link between school and career success; children who were not privy to repeated, sophisticated verbal interaction to develop their intellectual capacity during the crucial birth-to-age-three window; and those whose style does not match that of their particular teacher.

Robert Samuelson also cites lack of motivation in his recent article about why school reform fails. He says that the primary cause of school failure is that a growing percentage of students in school don’t like school, don’t work hard and thus don’t do well.

The second edition of Disrupting Class offers hope. The authors explain that one reason they endorse computer-based learning is that “by the very nature of the software, achievement can be integrated with the delivery of content in ways that help students feel successful while they learn, every day.” These daily wins can come in the form of frequent feedback from quizzes and reviews built into the software, to acknowledge each bite-sized increment of progress. Several programs even make a game of it, making learning feel more like a good bout with the Wii.

Recently I spoke to Caprice Young, Chief Education Officer of City Prep, who told me that from her on-the-ground experience educating inner city youth, online learning is a godsend, especially for young men. Like Samuelson, she says that a strong adolescent culture tells these boys that academic success is not cool. But in certain online set ups, the only other person who knows if a student is succeeding, besides the student himself, is the online teacher. Thus online learning scores a double win—the potential for repeated, frequent pats on the back, combined with a sheltered environment where students feel ok about that achievement.

At my kindergartener’s school, the march to de-motivating students began Friday, when the teacher left 95 percent of her kids feeling unsuccessful. I hope that as student-centric models get traction, those students will rediscover school as a place where they can feel self- efficacy.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.