George Lucas Educational Foundation
Brain-Based Learning

Emotional Engagement in Education, Part One: Should Teachers Care About Student Apathy?

January 30, 2008

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.

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  • Place-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement

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