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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
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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.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle G's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i totally agree! Wow... yes! Ofcourse teachers have to care and push their students to dtrive for the best. There are a lot of teachers nowadays that just dont care, if the student isnt working they just let them sulk. I think that idea of incorporating things students care about into lessons will work wonders. And like that they get current even information too. Everyting goes hand in hand in education!

Shari Kuehl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


My name is Shari Kuehl and I am a fourth grade teacher in Lena, IL. Your topic of empathy struck a personal cord with me.

My high school guidance counselor told me I would make a good mom or flight attendant. He also told me I would not be suited for any other working field. Obviously, I proved him wrong. The reason I bring this memory up, is sometimes, I feel, in education we make 'things' too hard. To me, empathy is a character trait that you should be able to demonstrate with every waking moment you are alive as a teacher. Children/students have many models in their life from real to computer enhanced, but the power we have is right at our finger tips every day. It is in how we speak to our peers, our support staff, former and future students, our families, the public, etc. It is how you spend class time, down to every precious second. There are simple avenues that can allow for redirection, that inherently speak to the tender human spirit we all need to take such good care of. For example, if a student answers a question wrong; instead of saying, "No, that is in correct!" How about, "Good idea, you are warm." You have validated them for taking a risk and yet you have not diminished their character by saying they are wrong. We learn from our mistakes. Our reactions and behaviors have more power, on most occasions, then any textbook they read out of.

The other topic that I have oodles to comment on are the way we present information to students and their relevance. Again, you do not need a canned program to help tie any expected curriculum and or test to a student. Ask them. Give them credit. See what their ideas are. Allow them to make the connection for themselves and for their peers. To me, teaching has changed dramatically since I was in school and since I first started teaching. I see myself as a facilitator, not as a dictator of knowledge. My job is to help in enhance current knowledge and needs, through higher order thinking processes, of the students I have in my classroom at that very moment. Next years group of needs will be completely different. But, the avenues of success lie in front of me. This is the beauty of teaching. We just keep getting better and better as change occurs at such a rapid pace!

Cathy McDonald's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a high school English teacher who teaches many students who are struggling readers. I find myself complaining that they don't care. Just recently, I attended a technology conference where I sat in two sessions that lasted 6 hours each. By the end of the second day, my only thought was, "My brain hurts! This is too much at one time." If I felt that way at 50 with a Master's degree, how much more must these kids feel that. It is not apathy; it is total frustration and they are giving up. If we don't empathize and work to fight this problem, we will lose even more students. Fortunately, my school has engaged an awesome consultant to help us deal with this idea (UDL addresses it in assistive technology) through project based learning which makes what students do in class relevant to their lives.

D. Donaby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I certainly agree with the rise in student apathy. The more unmotivated the student, the more road blocks are posted as to why they cannot complete the assignment. It seems to be contagious. The question is what can we as educators do to reach those students. I realize relevancy is important but in some areas it is difficult to weave in relevancy and also meet standards in the time frame provided. Technology can be used to embrace some of those needs but with schools tight budgets and low income families who do not have computer access in the home it is difficult.

Martins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a SPED Teacher and motivation is the key! Of course they get frustrated and tired of staying in classroom for more than 6 hours! Teaching does not mean boredom, we can use diversity, games, hands on activities, and much more alternative activities than they will grasp much faster than an usual lecture.

neil Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dido! I am starting to feel apathy to teaching. I try to focus on the students who want to learn but it is frustrating when you have 2 or 3 students who ruin it for the whole class. I have tried to talk to these few students but for some reason they
don't care. It's almost like they have given up. It's sad. I won't give up and I'll keep trying to let them know I care about them enough for them to start caring about themselves. Thanks for your comments.

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mr. Moulton when he says that everyone has to care in order to do our best and achieve our highest potential. As a teacher, I feel it's important that we care about student apathy. I have very few students that will do an assignment or project without an explanation of what benefit it is to them. They seem to have no intrinsic motivation to do anything. With each math lesson I teach, I try to let students know how or when they will use it later in life. What are we supposed to do for those students who still see no point in doing the work?

Denise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this story inspiring. It offers great insight into the dilemma that educators face concerning the apathy that exists in our schools and it offers realistic approaches that we can follow to improve the attitudes and promote increased learning. Thank you for posting a great article. I will most certainly heed your suggestions as well as visit Muir's website.

Leslie Godin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr Moulton's article certainly made me stop and think more deeply than I usually do. Yes everyone being involved is critical but many times in life we do actually look(more so students) for a 'leader'.A student's mind today is always outside the classroom. Add technology to that and you cannot contain them within the four walls. Lastly, they don't want us teachers to give them a 'lecture'. I have tried by taking a small group out on field trips and playing a reverse role. 'Do you know what ABS is?', I ask after prying into their interests.Once they get started, there's no turning back.Today, I find I need to know a lot more about my students than I needed to know a few years back.They are not 'a student'.They are 'the student'.

Leslie Godin - Head ICT
The Westminster School,Dubai
Year 11 students

Kim Edwards's picture

I teach high school English in a district that is moving towards the idea of Blended Learning. The concepts of apathy, motivation, and "grit" are ones that are frequently mentioned both within our building and within the Blended Learning community. The simple truth is that an adjustment needs to be made for us as educators to teach skills and applications (where you would use this much needed skill) rather than the piece of literature itself. The "How" and "Why" has become, for our students, more important than the "What." I believe that this shift is most likely permanent in our classrooms of digital natives. After all, if you don't know it, you can always Google it! And this is a difficult realization for some of us. Great post, thank you!
I have a transitional Blended Learning blog also and will post the link here for anyone who might be interested - thanks again!


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