Put simply, kids will work tirelessly if the work is gratifying — that is, if it's fun! That doesn't mean all play and little work leads to academic success; far from it. What it does mean is that each child's own perspective about what is fun or interesting (and not fraught with stress) has a direct effect on how hard she is likely to work at assigned tasks.
There is little challenge to teachers, parents, and education policymakers from children who just plain love it all, love to read, love to write, love math, love to please. But for those children who are not meeting expectations in the core subjects, the current prescription — to narrow the curriculum and focus exclusively on reading and math — may be the turnoff of all turnoffs. Doing more and more drills, spending all day every day doing stuff that is dull at best, is not the way to improve achievement.
Finding the Hook
It follows, then, that our challenge with kids who are not achieving is to find the hook — the point of passionate interest that will draw them in. This means that we should not be narrowing school subject matter for poor achievers. In fact, we probably should be doing the opposite. Our most talented teachers have long known this. They wait and watch for the hook to bring an unsuccessful student into the fold. Maybe a child's favorite activity is fishing with Grandpa, something his teacher discovers in time spent listening to and getting to know him. Then why not find books at his reading level about fishing? Why not translate math problems into challenges about whether a fish meets the legal size requirement? Teachers' best clues to the hook for each child are likely to emerge during "specials" or social studies, maybe even in a shop class or during an assembly of guest musicians or jugglers. Field trips of all sorts are rich with opportunities to find those hooks.
Above all, adults need to find something that each child can feel successful at, sometimes a classroom job that may involve some easily accomplished reading or math. But don't cut out history for the 3rd grader who is fascinated by the Second World War. Don't rob the artistically inclined child of a lesson in mural-making or a trip to a children's art museum. Bring hands-on gardening into a science unit that might incidentally also involve both math and reading. Whether or not the basic subjects are involved, being able to pursue genuine interests can rejuvenate kids to do the less exciting work that they still must master.
As a parent, you can be an enormous help by encouraging your child's interests and talents. Acknowledge them, admire them, and discuss them with teachers. Who knows your child's particular passions better than you? So don't hold back, thinking that a fascination with horses or submarines is not a worthy subject for school. It is the "flow" experienced in pursuing those interests that hooks kids on learning for life.