Lower student apathy to raise results

Crystal Nunes, second from left, works with students at Rebel Academy in North Las Vegas, Nev. Spearheaded by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas' College of Education,they are part of a project to give prospective teachers hands-on experience during the summer. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Any discussion about the problems in American education — and what is to blame for these problems — will likely include one or all of the usual suspects: inadequate and unequal funding, a lack of resources, underpaid and overworked teachers, over-testing, poverty and heavy-handed legislation.

As a teacher and the mother of four public-school-educated children, I can tell you that all of these things have negatively impacted our schools. All of these things are problems.

But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America’s classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed — at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students’ grades, learning and futures than they do.

Teachers are expected to combat apathy by continually finding new and innovative ways to reach students — through multimedia lessons, group work, games, alternative assessments or whatever it takes. To ensure student engagement and skill acquisition, we must teach to the individual learning styles, interests and abilities of each of our students. If a student can’t learn the way we teach, we must teach the way he learns — times infinity.

Sadly, all the attempts to dazzle and awe eventually wear some teachers down. They burn out. They leave a profession they are good at and once felt called to.

However, the loss of good teachers isn’t even the worst effect of the be-all-things-to-all-people mentality.

The real danger is that this way of thinking has shifted the responsibility of learning, and of caring about learning, from the student to the teacher. Because it isn’t just administrators and parents who believe that it is a teacher’s job to make learning fun. Kids believe it, too. As a result we have a generation of students who think that if a lesson or an assignment or a class is not interesting, if it isn’t engaging and fun and inspiring, then it simply isn’t worth caring about. They are not obligated to care about it. It’s a teacher’s job to make all learning exciting. If the teacher hasn’t lived up to her responsibility, why should the child?

In a workshop I recently attended, teachers were told that kids are so attracted to video games because of the constant feedback — the progress, praise and prizes. We were encouraged to design our instruction more like a video game. How else can we expect to hold their attention?

That is a frightening mentality because it has created a generation of consumer learners. Many students don’t see education as a privilege. They see it as a product. And if they don’t like the salesperson, if they aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they aren’t buying.

But our kids have to learn to be self-motivated because at some point in every person’s life, either at school or in a job or in a marriage, he or she will have to buck up and say, “This is hard. This is boring. I don’t want to do this. But I’m doing it anyway. And I’ll do my best.”

So how do parents and educators teach kids to be self-motivated? There are no easy answers. But there are two things that need to happen.

First, we have to change the national conversation about education. This doesn’t mean educators should stop trying to improve instruction, but it does mean there have to be more conversations about the role students play in ensuring their own learning. Self-motivation should be the new educational buzzword.

In the meantime, teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. That is the second thing that has to happen. On a basic level we need to help our kids develop habits and discipline that will lead to academic success.

Unfortunately, in a consumer-oriented educational system, words such as habit and discipline have all but gone by the wayside. We emphasize concepts like differentiation, higher-order thinking, cooperative learning and data-driven instruction over student responsibilities like organization, perseverance and hard work.

This is the approach I take with my students who struggle with apathy: I encourage them to start small with one class. I talk to them about specific strategies: Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work. Find a study partner.

It might be difficult for a struggling student to take on that kind of responsibility seven periods a day, but often students are willing to commit to 100 percent in one class. And when they experience hard-won success in one class, they will be empowered by that success and likely apply that newly learned work ethic to other classes and pursuits.

Not only does success motivate, but it can also inspire, and here is where we move from sheer determination to passion — the true goal of education. No matter how innovative the instruction, it’s unlikely that a student will grow to love a class if he is just getting by. But the kid who started out just trudging through history might find that he has a passion for it once he applies himself.

It’s rare (except in the movies) that even the most brilliant teacher can motivate an apathetic student to embrace a lifetime of learning. On a really good day, we can spark a child’s interest in the lesson. But in the long term, the desire to learn and improve has to come from within.

The world isn’t a video game. It doesn’t always offer fun and exciting paths through the mazes of life.

So unless we change the way we approach education to include an emphasis on student responsibility, and unless we give our students the basic tools they need to accept that responsibility, we really haven’t taught them much at all.

Laura Hanby Hudgens is a freelance writer who lives in Arkansas. This column was first published by The Washington Post.