April 17, 2023
Attitude usually plays an essential role in success. In my experience, the most successful students tend to see themselves as students and feel a sense of pride in being a student. Learning matters to them; they want to learn (which is very different from merely wanting a good grade). They are intellectually alive and curious, and they believe they can learn. They aren’t ashamed to be seen studying; they aren’t ashamed of achievement.
Unfortunately, too many young people don’t see themselves as students—even those with the highest grades. Too many take no pride in the essay they write or in understanding new concepts. They read, write, solve problems, and memorize to get the work done, in, and over with—always on the lookout for a shortcut (like a friendly chatbot). Instead of exciting their imagination or intellect, books put them to sleep. And those who have never done well in school often believe they are stupid and convince themselves they can’t learn. For them, the classroom feels like a dungeon of failure and humiliation. Studying is not cool.
Being an athlete is cool; belonging to the popular crowd is cool; rebellion or cynicism is cool; partying is cool. You can see and hear the pride young people feel in these identities. Much less frequently, you might run into young people whose pride comes from their identity as scholars, though many of these students reveal this identity only in private to teachers—closeted scholars, hiding because they don’t want to seem odd to their peers, terrified of being labeled “geek” or “nerd.”
Learning requires people to become involved—in questions, problems, ideas, and knowledge. The generally accepted mythology is that the teacher’s job is to inspire their students to care about what they are doing in the classroom, so people tend to blame teachers for the failures of detached students to develop skills and understanding and to get good grades. These teachers didn’t make the classroom “fun.”
It is true that to the degree that schools and teachers fail to create conditions conducive to learning, to the degree that schools and teachers kill any enthusiasm or curiosity young people bring to school, the responsibility falls on the adults and the system. But the fact remains that meaningful learning is a function of seeing oneself as a student—in being proud to be a student. So trying to get non-students to learn math, to understand the concepts and internalize them and make them their own, is fairly hopeless. Someone might be able to teach math to such a person in the sense that you can teach a parrot to repeat words that it doesn’t understand. But I am talking here about learning, a goal that is often lost in the preoccupation with testing and coverage—two of those systemic conditions that militate against learning.
Another feature of the learning-defeating attitude many students evince toward school is the “whatever” frame of mind—too cool for school. This is an attitude resulting from how students experience school as something over which they have no control, something that just happens to them. It’s the defensive attitude of the victim or of prisoners, those whose lives are directed by others. They wait until the class, the school day, and the school year end and then get on with “real life.” What they learn instead of how to think or read or write or understand concepts are helplessness and passivity. They are made to attend class; they are given grades; they are required to take courses. Whatever.
The problem is that students with these attitudes feel no connection to their school. History and science have nothing to do with who they are or what they want. In fact, history and science are impediments to what matters to them and excite only animosity or boredom. Intellectually, non-students with this “whatever” attitude are inaccessible. Teachers can shout and threaten or cajole and woo; they can attempt to entertain by becoming stand-up comics; but the best they can hope for from this population are good behavior and the illusion of learning.
To get the sort of vitality and genuine engagement teachers want, schools will need to change. People, including young people, become intellectually alive when they care about what they are learning, when they are able to pursue their interests, when they are learning about themselves and what matters to them about the world they live in, and when they have created a link between school and their life. Whether or not schools share responsibility for creating the “whatever” attitude, they perpetuate it. So it seems reasonable to look at school designs and explore how schools might create conditions that stimulate attitudes more conducive to learning. Especially now, amid the mental devastation inflicted on the young by the pandemic and the explosion of existential problems we face—the pervasive political, social, technological, racial, economic, and climatic collapses.
What are educators to do? Well, the first step is to recognize the obvious: Learning is a shared responsibility. Learners are responsible for their learning; educators are responsible for creating school environments and conditions that invite and nurture learning—that support an internally generated need to learn. Children learn to walk and to talk because they want to join the world of walking, talking people that they see all around them. These skills matter to them, and adults give children the freedom and encouragement to learn the skills in whatever ways suit them. No one-size-fits-all syllabus is required.
In my experience teaching in one of the few outlier schools that once embodied this same flexibility and offered individualized opportunities for students to create their own curriculum and to pursue their emotionally based interests and goals, this design has graduated some of the most successful students I know. Amy was such a student, one who discovered the scholar within herself when she was given the freedom to control her own learning in a program that bypassed all the traditional departmental graduation requirements. Here’s what she said:
“When working on a collection of short stories for my program, I really cared about the result. It was mine—not something that everyone else was churning out in one fashion or another. I felt ownership and pride and was inspired to go the extra bit, as it was personal. . . . I could get a start on what it really was I wanted to do in my ‘real life’—I could pursue a passion. . . . I learned that you don’t wait for permission or the firing of the starting gun to begin your passion—you just do it—and you are what you do. And it can change—there is no strict path to get where you want to be. No trail to follow. You make it up as you go.”Amy, a student
Paul’s story provides another compelling illustration. A bright, disaffected, unengaged honors student, Paul had met all the graduation requirements by the end of his junior year (except, of course, the fourth year of English); he felt “finished” with school. During his three years of high school, his main interests had been marijuana and finding the path of least resistance to a diploma. His classmates thought he was a cool dude. Despite his good grades, he hadn’t learned much. What he wanted was autonomy and separation from school, and he found these in the same program Amy entered. The program attracted him initially as, in his words, “an exercise in sloth . . . the easiest and most enjoyable path I could follow” during his senior year. He built his program on his interest in writing and became a reporter for a local newspaper, free from all but an English class and an elective.
“As my program morphed due to my various experiences with writing, I became more interested in the journalistic aspects and motivated to pursue those with greater discipline and vigor. In the second half of the year, I spent the majority of my time pursuing journalism rather than creative or critical writing as I found its schedule and deadlines added structure in combination with near complete independence. I was rewarded by publishing one or more columns in every issue under my own name. I was treated as an adult employee, working on every aspect of the paper in addition to just writing. I found that aspect to be most beneficial to my self-esteem.”Paul, a student
Paul’s initial attitude hadn’t left him open to learning anything in a regular classroom, despite all the tests he passed, and no teacher was going to change that, but the flexibility of the school resulted, finally, in a meaningful educational experience.
Like Paul, Gina was also bright and had the “whatever” attitude of a non-student that dominated her first three years of high school. And like Amy and Paul, she seized the same individualized alternative opportunity. Looking back on her program, she described it as…
“scary for me, especially in the beginning, because it didn’t have the direct ‘effort in equals results out’ equation that I’d learned in the past. The idea that I had to evaluate my own success rather than just fooling teachers was scary. The idea of one big, blank year ahead of me, for me to fill as I wished, was quite terrifying. . . . What did it teach me? To be well organized. To motivate myself. To take risks. To dare to do things differently. To write. To trust myself. To look at the trees instead of staying on the path of a career. . . . [It] opened me up to the idea that there were other routes than the linear path from point A to point B.”Gina, a student
Amy, Paul, and Gina were not oddities. They were as smart as many others, didn’t see themselves as students, and shared the “whatever” attitude. They played the game and learned very little in school-as-usual, except how to please their teachers. Not until the school freed them did their attitude change so that they were able to learn in the more meaningful way we like to pretend is reflected in good grades and compliance. At bottom, young people want what we all want—to feel competent, respected, engaged, purposeful, and alive. These are the foundations for sound mental health. Rather than frantically inventing “interventions” in futile attempts to undo the damage caused by their absence, we need to design schools that organically nurture and sustain them. We need systems—social, economic, political, and educational systems—that support mental health.
Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” He suggests that attitude controls perception. Most teachers agree and make heroic efforts in their classrooms to get students to think positively about school, but students’ attitudes about school and themselves result from factors beyond the control of teachers in a single classroom. Students feel what they feel as a result of how the system is designed—feelings stirred by the structures, practices, policies, and values that they experience. They can’t just flip a switch and become positive thinkers; a new attitude requires a new design, new experiences—a personalized path to learning like the one Amy, Paul, and Gina (and others) enjoyed. Their example suggests a need for schools that offer more flexibility, more variety, and less rigidity so that students can blaze their own trails.
Several years ago, Richard Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, made a similar discovery about meaningful learning and published a book called Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. It was based on a ten-year study of successful and unsuccessful students at Harvard. In the book, Light stressed the importance of involvement in extracurricular activities. Here’s what he said in a subsequent Newsweek interview about that emphasis:
Students who are involved in extracurriculars are the happiest students on campus and also tend to be the most successful in the classroom. They find a way to connect their academic work to their personal lives. For example, I spoke to a young woman who was a ballet dancer in high school. She joined the college ballet company, but she kept getting stress fractures and noticed that many of the other dancers were having the same problem. She began to wonder why, and she decided to explore that in her coursework. That decision changed her life. She took science classes. She applied for a research grant. When she graduated, she applied to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon. Her whole education was so much more meaningful because it connected to her life. If students can apply what they are learning to their real life, they are more engaged and tend to get more out of it.Richard Light, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education
Responsibility for creating this link between learning and life is the student’s, not the teacher’s. Good teachers and good schools will create the circumstances, the environment, and the permission that fosters this connection, but only the student can create the connection.
Hundreds of years of dogged devotion to traditional schooling haven’t resulted in changes in attitudes toward school. Come summer, it’s still pretty much “no more teachers, no more books.” But for Amy, Paul, and Gina, summer became a continuation of school—more writing, more learning, more caring about what they were doing—not as extracurricular but as curricular, as central to their life and education. Imagine how cool it would be if all students, during all their years in any school, could have this opportunity to experience school as a place to direct their own learning. Good mental health depends less on making school fun than on making it meaningful—a challenge that will require a partnership of teachers, administrators, parents, and students.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.