My students lack intrinsic motivation and their education is structured to provide a narrowly-focused extrinsic motivation. Second-grade students have their final exams of the year next week. Their scores don’t matter much—if you’re in the second grade today, you’re going to be in the third come March—but it’s one of two big tests that determine their overall scores for the year. Korean public education is all about big tests.
I was teaching a lesson about articles to an advanced second-grade class. “Advanced” means they performed well on the English midterm, which is a bit of a joke if you’ve seen the test. Advanced classes are still a mixed bag. They include the kids of greatest fluency who have studied English privately for years alongside kids who are good at multiple-choice tests or just lucky. And the test includes no speaking or listening component, so students’ scores don’t reflect their ability to communicate in English or understand what I’m saying. But I’m digressing here.
I was teaching a lesson on articles because few of my students use them properly or at all. The concept is totally foreign to them because Korean doesn’t use articles. They’re important though! If you use them improperly or fail to use them you break a lot of sentences and it’s a dead giveaway you’re bad at English.
The lesson included a worksheet containing 22 simple sentences with blanks before their nouns. The task: decide if each sentence is good without an article in the blank. If yes, leave it blank; if no, write in an appropriate article. Immediately after I distributed the worksheet one of the good students who communicates at the highest level, participates in class, pays attention, etc. flagged me down and asked if it would be on the test. When I passed within range of another student who also participates and is the most fluent speaker in the class, she asked the same question. I told both of them articles would be on every English test for the rest of their lives because they’re used constantly and if you muck them up you produce very conspicuously bad English. Each of them persisted in turn: but would this be on the second-grade final English exam next week? I told them “of course!” but they double-checked with my Korean counterpart and I don’t know what she told them. It’s probably not on the test, actually. The test was written three weeks ago.
So the best students I have refuse to lift a pen to practice skills that might not be specifically tested on their next exam and I have no leverage to employ against them because nothing in my class is graded. Did I mention that? Well, I'll return to it another time.