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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Emotional Engagement in Education, Part One: Should Teachers Care About Student Apathy?

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

This is the first post in a three-part entry.

The answer is, "Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Everyone has to care."

For any of us, whether student or teacher, child or adult, to do our best, to achieve our highest potential, we have to care. Many of you have, at some point in your life, accomplished something you never thought you could do. Had you not cared enough to try, you would never have accomplished the goal. Your amazing accomplishment began with caring.

Too much of the traditional school model assumes that it works the other way around: "OK, kids, don't worry that you don't really want to do this work, that it isn't relevant. Just do it, and in the end, you'll be glad you did." For some students, that's all the motivation they need. But I keep hearing from folks in the schools where I work that student apathy is a growing problem, and the number of kids who are inherently willing and able to play the game of school is shrinking.

So, something has to be done. Kids who demonstrate apathy in school are learning not to care. They are learning that disengagement from rigorous intellectual endeavor is the norm, and that has long-term negative implications -- for your school, your community, your state, our nation, and the world -- that go well beyond this year's test results.

A colleague and friend of mine, Mike Muir, of the University of Maine at Farmington, runs the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning. Our four-hour drives to northern Maine to work with educators on the Maine Learning Technology Initiative have given us the time for long conversations about student engagement: What are the rewards that flow for student, teacher, school, and community when it is in place, and what are the tragic results of systemic disengagement?

On one of the wikis Muir maintains for distributing materials on the subject of meaningful engaged learning, he writes, "Listen to dropouts, and you'll hear them say that they were bored or were being taught stuff they would never need. Students ask all the time, 'When will we ever use this?' and 'Why are we learning this?' Surveys show that fewer and fewer students are interested in school or believe school is preparing them for the real world."

"In order to turn this around, educators need to focus on helping students make connections with their learning and to put learning into a context that shows how it relates to students' lives and how it is used in the real world," he adds. "We need to focus learning on higher-order thinking activities, address rigor and relevance, and do more place-based, project-based learning."

How do you start getting a focus on all that? I suggest you begin by identifying a place-based, project-based opportunity in your own community, and visit Muir's Web site. But to make it more concrete, here is a fleshed-out sample of something you can do:

1. Find a real problem that matters to your kids: I don't know if you realize it, but the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, has directly impacted, with the exception of Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii, the entire United States. In the vast majority of states, it has struck humans. In a few states, the victims are birds and other animals.

As a response to this epidemic, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a major campaign, as have all the states. The CDC provides a map with links to state efforts.

The bottom line is that West Nile is everywhere, many people are being infected, and some people are dying. This is real. It matters. This is worth caring about.

In the second and third parts of this entry, I'll share ideas about how to explore this issue with your students, but you're welcome to respond here to my opening comments.

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, teaching, especially in history and science, should have relevance to the students' actual lives. Teachers must find ways of creating those connections, especially teachers who work inscholls where the children and their families may not have the exposure and prior knowledge necessary to make the most of the curriculum. Just this week, I collaborated with the grade level I work with (I teach special education) and brought forth lesson ideas on the current election and ways to weave it into our current history unit. The discussion that came out of just today's lesson was awesome. So yes, teaching should be relevant and hel students connect to issues in their very real lives.

Mrs. C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for this. My honors students were complaining about the high school's inflated grade scale for honors and AP students. I told them that if they wanted to change it, they should research a better and more fair system of grading and reporting. They went wild reading research about grading and reporting practices and theories--stuff that would make you and me yawn and pinch ourselves to stay awake. They collaborated to provide new research-based alternatives and presented them to the school board.

I share this to support your idea that all we need to do is find a problem and turn it into a problem solving unit to increase student motivation. Usually, if you ask students what's wrong with whatever, they'll tell you. It won't be hard to get students to start complaining about how something needs to be fixed--especially apathetic students. :-)

Lillian Geltz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school teacher, I am very interested in this article;I was just speaking with a colleague about this same issue as I hear teachers say that kids are really disconnected. Truly, this saddens me for many reasons.
Certainly, seeing the relevance and application of a concept to the individual is important. I see, however, that we also need to help kids develop a social awareness and consciousness for others - in the community, the country and the world.
Likewise, I also see balance as critical. Sometimes we have to "wade through" some unpalatable tasks and content to arrive at the larger & relevant issue.
Another issue is that sometimes we need to introduce kids to learning that at first blush may not seem interesting or relevant. But soon, they are "hooked," to a new field of interest or study.
As a teacher who wants to do the best possible for students, I am constantly awed by the paradoxical elements of the profession.
Am I alone?

Stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with Mr. Moulton's comments about the need for both teachers AND students to care. But the apathy we see from students can be downright frustrating. It's like a catching disease and eventually, teachers will say to themselves, "Well, if they don't care enough about this, then I don't care either." How do we combat that in our classrooms?

alicia szilagyi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with "hard to teach" students in Buffalo, NY. I totally agree that caring goes a very long way. I also feel that learning all starts with getting to know your students. I am not saying that you have to know them like a book, but knowing enough to "connect" with them, and make "connections" in general is a great head start! Bravo, Jim Molton, Bravo!

mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How right you are. In reading this thought-provoking article on emotional engagement, I realized that I had in fact been guilty of the Nike line, 'Just do it.'
While I would still say that it is probably better than 'just not doing it', it is so obvious, now that you mention it, that if the caring is not there, the objective is less likely to be achieved.
As a teacher of French as a Second Language, required from grades 4-9, I know that even compliant students who don't really care, whether about success or about competence, are less successful than those who care. Add negative attitude from parents, and it's a real challenge.
I'm looking forward to the third installment later today.

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