How do students respond to these charges? By and large they agree that they are passive. Although a few are stimulated by high-level honors classes or meaningful vocational programs, most students confirm that they willingly sit through class after class in complete silence, depending on the teacher to fill the time, their notebooks, and their heads.
“Some people just naturally get into what’s going on, but I just like to sit back,” said one midwestern junior, echoing the view of scores of adolescents in a recent study of high schools.
Some students blame class size for their lack of involvement. “In a small class you don’t have a lot of opinions and so you only hear your own voice and I already know what I think,” said a senior in an English class of 12 students. “I want to know what some other people think.”
Others blame the anonymity of large classes for their silence. A common theme is the fear of exposure, of being wrong, expressed by this student: “Everybody is afraid to answer. They are afraid they will get the wrong answer and their friends will laugh at them. Your friends will think you’re a dip---- if you screw up.”
Students also speak of meaningless course content. They say, “I don’t know why we’re reading ‘Richard III’ and I don’t think the teacher does either.” These students, who are neither stupid nor disruptive, don’t see their education as something worth pursuing actively. They see it as something to tolerate, something that teachers will give to them. So they wait to be told what to do and what material to know for the test. Otherwise, they want to be left alone. It is a disquieting picture for a system of education that prides itself on teaching thinking and problem-solving skills rather than rote memorizing of discrete bits of information.
What explains this sorry scene? How is it that kids who radiate life in the corridors--and, ironically, when rapping about their passivity--clam up in class? To some extent, kids are passive because they are jaded by the razzle-dazzle of commercials, short tv segments, video games, and the fast pace of life. School, with academic work that is not intrinsically interesting and which offers no immediate gratification, bores.
Kids are also passive because all we demand of them is compliance. In an effort to make children “feel good” about themselves and stay in school, we have replaced academic rigor with human relations. The result is a generation of mellow, if not well-educated, youth.
And kids are passive because we fail to convince them that the academic curriculum is meaningful to their lives. In a nation in which the utilitarian value of schooling--its relation to getting a job--is prominent, it’s hard to be convincing about the importance of Shakespeare, foreign languages, and world history.
Currently, a number of large, foundation-supported studies of high schools are in progress. The books and reports they generate will no doubt recommend a rash of reforms aimed at reversing what is seen as a dangerous slide toward mediocrity and complacency. If recent history is any guide, much attention and criticism will fall on teachers. Some of it will be on target.
But even when the criticism is warranted, it will be wrong-headed to think that schools can be improved by teachers alone, for teaching is more than a stand-up routine or a monologue, more than a scripted performance. It is an interaction in which both students and teachers improvise and the outcome is never certain. If we want a surge in the activity and involvement that many believe should characterize classrooms, then we must search for ways to draw students into the act.
Teachers will certainly make a difference--by creating a climate in which students feel comfortable taking risks, by infusing classes with their love of the subject, and by relating that subject to the vital issues that concern adolescents. But to suggest that teachers be held solely responsible for the interaction casts students in the role of audience. It demands the impossible of teachers who cannot compete with the lure of the popular culture, and it strips students of an active part in their education.
In rethinking the future of secondary schools, we must keep in mind what we have created with past reform. We have often absolved students from any responsibility greater than selling tickets to the school dance or deciding on a homecoming theme. Kids know these are insignificant tasks and they treat them lightly, if not with contempt. Even homework has become an insignificant responsibility. Kids know that teachers will give them class time to finish rather than risk having them fall behind. And, kids do understand real responsibility. More than half of them work after school at jobs that they can lose if they don’t measure up. School, with its intangible rewards and meager demands, pales by comparison.
This is not a plea, however, for relevance or a suggestion that we jazz up school to make it more like a sit-com. In the 1960’s we foolishly catered to students’ demands and complaints by dishing up catchy courses with little content. We don’t need courses in ‘Pac Man as Visual Art’ or ‘Punk Songs as Folk Poetry’ for what ails schools now.
We need to think carefully about why we want students to learn what we require. Sometimes we, ourselves, are not clear. Then, when we know what we want and why, we must make the reasons explicit. We must keep in mind that high-school students want to figure out who they are and who they might be--not just what jobs they might hold, but how to deal with the moral dilemmas and real choices they increasingly face as they take their places in adult society.
They want to know whether school--the content of the curriculum and the teacher--can help them grapple with these issues. We need to answer them well. If we seriously take on that task, students may come to believe that what they are asked to learn has a purpose--one that meets their agenda and at the same time does not ignore the adult agenda. If school matters, students will demand more. They will be invested in the process; involved rather than passive.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1982 edition of Education Week as Making Passive Students Active