Interest and Effort in Education/Chapter 3

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1396807Interest and Effort in Education — Chapter 31913John Dewey



What is it that we really prize under the name of effort? What is it that we are really trying to secure when we regard increase in ability to put forth effort as an aim of education? Taken practically, there is no great difficulty in answering. What we are after is persistency, consecutiveness, of activity: endurance against obstacles and through hindrances. Effort regarded as mere increase of strain in the expenditure of energy is not in itself a thing we esteem. Barely in itself it is a thing we would avoid. A child is lifting a weight that is too heavy for him. It takes an increasing amount of effort, involving increase of strain which is increasingly painful, to lift it higher and higher. The wise parent tries to protect the child from mere strain; from the danger of excessive fatigue, of damaging the structures of the body, of getting bruises. Effort as mere strained activity is thus not what we prize. On the other hand, a judicious parent will not like to see a child too easily discouraged by meeting obstacles. If the child is physically healthy, surrender of a course of action, or diversion of energy to some easier line of action, is a bad symptom if it shows itself at the first sign of resistance. The demand for effort is a demand for continuity in the face of difficulties.

This account of the matter is so obvious as to lie upon the surface. When we examine into it further, however, we find it only repeats what we have already learned in connection with interest as an accompaniment of an expanding activity. Effort, like interest, is significant only in connection with a course of action, an action that takes time for its completion since it develops through a succession of stages. Apart from an end to be reached, effort would never be anything more than a momentary strain or a succession of such strains. It would be a thing to be avoided, not so much for its disagreeableness as because nothing comes of it save exposure to dangers of exhaustion and accident. But where the action is a developing or growing one, effort, willingness to put forth energy at any point of the entire activity, measures the hold which the activity, as one whole affair, has upon a person. It shows how much he really cares for it. We never (if we are sensible) take, in ourselves or in somebody else, the "will for the deed" unless there is evidence that there really was a will, a purpose; and the sole evidence is some striving to realize the purpose, the putting forth of effort. If conditions forbid all effort, it is not a question of "will" at all, but simply of a sympathetic wish.

This does not mean, of course, that effort is always desirable under such conditions. On the contrary, the game may not be worth the candle; the end to be reached may not be of sufficient importance to justify the expenditure of so much energy, or of running the risks of excessive strain. Judgment comes in to decide such matters, and speaking generally it is as much a sign of bad judgment to keep on at all costs in an activity once entered upon, as it is a sign of weakness to be turned from it at the first evidence of difficulties. The principle laid down shows that effort is significant not as bare effort, or strain, but in connection with carrying forward an activity to its fulfillment: it all depends, as we say, upon the end.

Two considerations follow. (1) On the one hand, when an activity persists in spite of its temporary blocking by an obstacle, there is a situation of mental stress: a peculiar emotional condition of combined desire and aversion. The end continues to make an appeal, and to hold one to the activity in spite of its interruption by difficulties. This continued forward appeal gives desire. The obstacle, on the other hand, in the degree in which it arrests or thwarts progress ahead, inhibits action, and tends to divert it into some other channel—to avert action, in other words, from the original end. This gives aversion. Effort, as a mental experience, is precisely this peculiar combination of conflicting tendencies—tendencies away from and tendencies towards: dislike and longing.

(2) The other consideration is even more important, for it decides what happens. The emotion of effort, or of stress, is a warning to think, to consider, to reflect, to inquire, to look into the matter. Is the end worth while under the circumstances? Is there not some other course which, under the circumstances, is better? So far as this reconsideration takes place, the situation is quite different from that of a person merely giving up as soon as an obstacle shows itself. Even if the final decision is to give up, the case is radically different from the case of giving up from mere instability of purpose. The giving up now involves an appeal to reason, and may be quite consistent with tenacity of purpose or "strength of will." However, reflection may take quite another course: it may lead not to reconsideration of ends, but to seeking for new means; in short, to discovery and invention also. The child who cannot carry the stone that he wishes may neither keep on in a fruitless struggle to achieve the impossible, nor yet surrender his purpose; he may be led to think of some other way of getting the stone into motion; he may try prying it along with a bar. "Necessity is the mother of invention."

In the latter case, the obstacle has, indeed, diverted energy; but the significant thing is that energy is diverted into thinking; into an intelligent consideration of the situation and of available ways and means. The really important matter in the experience of effort concerns its connection with thought. The question is not the amount of sheer strain involved, but the way in which the thought of an end persists in spite of difficulties, and induces a person to reflect upon the nature of the obstacles and the available resources by which they may be dealt with.

A person, child or adult, comes, in the course of an activity, up against some obstacle or difficulty. This experience of resistance has a double effect;—though in a given case one effect may predominate and obscure the other. One effect is weakening of the impetus in the forward direction; the existing line of action becomes more or less uncongenial because of the strain required to overcome difficulties. As a consequence, the tendency is to give up this line of action and to divert energy into some other channel. On the other hand, meeting an obstacle may enhance a person's perception of an end; may make him realize more clearly than ever he did before how much it means to him; and accordingly may brace him, invigorate him in his effort to achieve the end. Within certain limits, resistance only arouses energy; it acts as a stimulus. Only a spoiled child or pampered adult is dismayed or discouraged and turned aside, instead of being aroused, by lions in the path—unless the lions are very fierce and threatening. It is not too much to say that a normal person demands a certain amount of difficulty to surmount in order that he may have a full and vivid sense of what he is about, and hence have a lively interest in what he is doing.

Meeting obstacles makes a person project more definitely to himself the later and consummating period of his activity; it brings the end of his course of action to consciousness. He now thinks of what he is doing, instead of doing it blindly from instinct or habit. The result becomes a conscious aim, a guiding and inspiring purpose. In being an object of desire, it is also an object of endeavor.

This arousing and guiding function is exercised in two ways. Endeavor is steadied and made more persistent when its outcome is regarded as something to be achieved; and thought is stimulated to discover the best methods of dealing with the situation. The person who keeps on blindly pushing against an obstacle, trying to break through by main strength, is the one who acts unintelligently; the one who does not present to himself the nature of the end to be reached. He remains on the level of a struggling animal, who by mere quantity of brute strength tries to break down resistance and win to his goal. The true function of the conditions that call forth effort is, then, first, to make an individual more conscious of the end and purpose of his actions; secondly, to turn his energy from blind, or thoughtless, struggle into reflective judgment. These two phases of thought are interdependent. The thought of the result, the end as a conscious guiding purpose, leads to the search for means of achievement; it suggests appropriate courses of action to be tried. These means as considered and attempted supply a fuller content to the thought of the end. A boy starts somewhat blindly to make a kite; in the course of his operations he comes across unexpected difficulties; his kite does n't hold together, or it won't balance. Unless his activity has a slight hold upon him, he is thereby made aware more definitely of just what he intends to make; he conceives the object and end of his actions more distinctly and fully. His end is now not just a kite, but some special kind of a kite. Then he inquires what is the matter, what is the trouble, with his existing construction, and searches for remedial measures. As he does this, his thought of the kite as a complete whole becomes more adequate; then he sees his way more clearly what to do to make the kite, and so on.

We are now in possession of a criterion for estimating the place in an educative development of difficulties and of effort. If one mean by a task simply an undertaking involving difficulties that have to be overcome, then children, youth, and adults alike require tasks in order that there may be continued development. But if one mean by a task something that has no interest, makes no appeal, that is wholly alien and hence uncongenial, the matter is quite different. Tasks in the former sense are educative because they supply an indispensable stimulus to thinking, to reflective inquiry. Tasks in the latter sense signify nothing but sheer strain, constraint, and the need of some external motivation for keeping at them. They are uneducative because they fail to introduce a clearer consciousness of ends and a search for proper means of realization. They are miseducative, because they deaden and stupefy; they lead to that confused and dulled state of mind that always attends an action carried on without a realizing sense of what it is all about. They are also miseducative because they lead to dependence upon external ends; the child works simply because of the pressure of the taskmaster, and diverts his energies just in the degree in which this pressure is relaxed; or he works because of some alien inducement—to get some reward that has no intrinsic connection with what he is doing.

The question to be borne in mind is, then, twofold: Is this person doing something too easy for him—something which has not a sufficient element of resistance to arouse his energies, especially his energies of thinking? Or is the work assigned so difficult that he has not the resources required in order to cope with it—so alien to his experience and his acquired habits that he does not know where or how to take hold? Between these two questions lies the teacher's task—for the teacher has a problem as well as the pupil. How shall the activities of pupils be progressively complicated by the introduction of difficulties, and yet these difficulties be of a nature to stimulate instead of dulling and merely discouraging? The judgment, the tact, the intellectual sympathy of instructors is taxed to the uttermost in answering these questions in the concrete with respect to the various subjects of study.

When an activity is too easy and simple, a person either engages in it because of the immediate pleasurable excitement it awakens, or he puts just enough of his powers upon it—their purely mechanical and physical side—to perform what is required in a perfunctory way, while he lets his mind wander to other things where there is at least enough novelty to keep his fancies going. Strange as it may seem to say it, one of the chief objections both to mechanical drill work and to the assigning of subject-matter too difficult for pupils is that the only activity to which they actually incite the pupils is in lines too easy for them. Only the powers already formed, the habits already fixed, are called into play; the mind—the power of thinking—is not called into action. Hence apathy in children naturally sluggish, or mind-wandering in children of a more imaginative nature. What happens when work too difficult, work beyond the limits of capacity, is insisted upon? If the teacher is professionally skilled, a pupil will not be able entirely to shirk or to escape. He must keep up the form of attentive study, and produce a result as evidence of having been occupied. Naturally he seeks short cuts; he does what he can do without recourse to processes of thinking that are beyond him. Any external and routine device is employed to "get the answer"—possibly surreptitious aid from others or downright cheating. Any way, he does what is already easiest for him to do; he follows the line of least resistance. The sole alternative is the use of initiative in thinking out the conditions of the problem and the way to go at it. And this alternative is within his reach only when the work to be done is of a nature to make an appeal to him, or to enlist his powers; and when the difficulties are such as to stimulate instead of depressing.

Good teaching, in other words, is teaching that appeals to established powers while it includes such new material as will demand their redirection for a new end, this redirection requiring thought—intelligent effort. In every case, the educational significance of effort, its value for an educative growth, resides in its connection with a stimulation of greater thoughtfulness, not in the greater strain it imposes. Educative effort is a sign of the transformation of a comparatively blind activity (whether impulsive or habitual) into a more consciously reflective one.

For the sake of completeness of statement, we will say (what hardly should now require statement on its own account) that such effort is in no sense a foe of interest. It is a part of the process of growth of activity from direct interest to indirect. In our previous section, we considered this development as meaning an increase of the complexity of an activity (that is, of the number of factors involved), and the increased importance of its outcome as a motive, in spite of contrary appeals, for devotion to intervening means. In this section, we have brought out more emphatically the fact that along with this increasing remoteness of the end (the longer period required for the consummation of an activity) goes a greater number of difficulties to be overcome, and the consequent need of effort. And our conclusion has been that the effort needed is secured when the activity in question is of such positive and abiding interest as to arouse the person to clearer recognition of purpose and to a more thoughtful consideration of means of accomplishment. The educator who associates difficulties and effort with increased depth and scope of thinking will never go far wrong. The one who associates it with sheer strain, sheer dead lift of energy, will never understand either how to secure the needed effort when it is needed nor the best way to utilize the energy aroused.

It remains to apply what has been said to the question of motivation. "Motive" is the name for the end or aim in respect to its hold on action, its power to move. It is one thing to speculate idly upon possible results, to keep them before the mind in a purely theoretical way. It is another thing for the results contemplated or projected to be so desired that the thought of them stirs endeavor. "Motive" is a name for the end in its active or dynamic capacity. It would be mere repetition of our previous analysis to show that this moving power expresses the extent to which the end foreseen is bound up with an activity with which the self is identified. It is enough to note that the motive force of an end and the interest that the end possesses are equivalent expressions of the vitality and depth of a proposed course of activity.

A word of warning may be in place against taking the idea of motivation in too personal a sense, in a sense too detached, that is, from the object or end in view. In the theory of instruction, as distinct from its practice, the need of motivation was for a long time overlooked or even denied. It was assumed that sheer force of will, arbitrary effort, was alone required. In practice this meant (as we have seen) appeal to extraneous sources of motivation: to reverence for the authority of teacher or text; to fear of punishment or the displeasure of others; to regard for success in adult life; to winning a prize; to standing higher than one's fellows; to fear of not being promoted, etc. The next step was taken when some educators recognized the ineffective hold of such motives upon many pupils—their lack of adequate motivating force in the concrete. They looked for motives which would have more weight with the average pupil. But too often they still conceived the motive as outside the subject-matter, something existing purely in the feelings, and giving a reason for attention to a matter that in itself would not provide a motive. They looked for a motive for the study or the lesson, instead of a motive in it. Some reason must be found in the person, apart from the arithmetic or the geography or the manual activity, that might be attached to the lesson material so as to give it a leverage, or moving force.

One effect was to substitute a discussion of "motives" in the abstract for a consideration of subject-matter in the concrete. The tendency was to make out a list of motives or "interests" by which children in general or children of a given age are supposed to be actuated, and then to consider how these might be linked up with the various lessons so as to impart efficacy to the latter. The important question, however, is what specific subject-matter is so connected with the growth of the child's existing concrete capabilities as to give it a moving force. What is needed is not an inventory of personal motives which we suppose children to have, but a consideration of their powers, their tendencies in action, and the ways in which these can be carried forward by a given subject-matter.

If a child has, for example, an artistic capacity in the direction of music or drawing, it is not necessary to find a motive for its exercise. The problem is not to find a motive, but to find material of and conditions for its exercise. Any material that appeals to this capacity has by that very fact motivating force. The end or object in its vital connection with the person's activities is a motive.

Another consequence of a too personal conception of motivation is a narrow and external conception of use and function. It is justifiable to ask for the utility of any educational subject-matter. But use may be estimated from different standpoints. We may have a readymade conception of use or function, and try the value of what is learned by its conformity to this standard. In this case we shall not regard any pursuit as properly motivated, unless we see that it performs some special office that we have laid down as useful or practical. But if we start from the standpoint of the active powers of the children concerned, we shall measure the utility of new subject-matter and new modes of skill by the way in which they promote the growth of these powers. We shall not insist upon tangible material products, nor upon what is learned being put to further use at once in some visible way, nor even demand evidence that the children have become morally improved in some respect: save as the growth of powers is itself a moral gain.