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What to Do About Disengaged Students: Wisdom Begins in Wonder

September 24, 2018 3 min read
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Wisdom is a weird thing. It usually takes time to acquire, yet not everyone acquires it.

And I wonder why.

It’s related to intelligence, but IQ is certainly not a prerequisite for wisdom. Lots of smart fools out there. So, where does wisdom come from?

According to Socrates, wisdom comes from wonder.

“Wisdom begins in wonder,” he said more than 2,300 years ago. I like that.

I like it so much that I stood on a chair last year and painted the quote above my dry-erase board. He also said, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing,” so if I use a little deductive reasoning it sounds to me like, according to Socrates, we start off wondering about stuff - genuinely trying to figure out life and all - until we realize one day that it’s impossible. Then we are wise. Then we die.

Yeah, wisdom is a weird thing. What’s the point in striving for it if we’ll never achieve it? So, people stop trying. We stop being curious. We stop wondering.

This is what most educators seem to do with the topic of student disengagement, apathy, or resistance (however you want to frame it). We’ve given up. We care, of course, but we feel so defeated in our attempts to do anything about it, that we’ve stopped wondering how to change it. We blame parents. We blame cell phones. We blame society. We would never say we’ve given up wondering - that would be tantamount to heresy - but it is, practically speaking, what we’ve done. Be honest with yourself; have you ever said (or thought) in regard to a student: “If you can’t help yourself, I can’t help you.”

I’ve said it.

Instead of continuing to search for solutions, I used to put it back on the kid: “If you can’t help yourself, I can’t help you.” A doctor might say the same thing to a patient who refuses to take medication or eat healthy or exercise. It is a smart response. It is also an unwise response, as far as solving the problem goes. Wisdom would be preventing it in the first place.

The medical profession finally understands that preventative care lessens the need for treatment of serious injury or illness. Prior to that, medical researchers studied the data of unhealthy people and found ways to better alleviate their pain. There is no doubt that they were successful - but only successful in treatment, not in prevention.

We are doing the same thing in education: analyzing data (low test scores) to change instruction. In my 20 years of classroom experience, I have come to believe that while analyzing academic achievement can be instructive - and indeed, raise some test scores - the key data set when it comes to academic achievement is largely ignored: student engagement. Taken one step further, student engagement is contingent upon student motivation. Therefore, what we should really be analyzing are the reasons students are motivated or unmotivated.

This leads back to my friend, Socrates. I stopped saying “If you can’t help yourself, I can’t help you.” I continue to wonder why students are motivated, unmotivated or both. I am insatiably curious, as we all should be. I ask them. I interview students - all the time, everywhere - about motivation. Hundreds of them. It will be thousands before I realize I know nothing and then die. So, why do it?

Because wisdom is not a destination. It is a process of constant wonder, perpetual curiosity that provides insight. What I am learning is radically changing how I teach, and that is radically changing how my students are learning.

Do I have the answer? No.

Have I achieved wisdom? No. But I’m closer. A hell of a lot closer than smart fools studying test scores.

Chris Holmes is a teacher, researcher, and writer who studies student motivation. His 18-year teaching career includes working with students on the verge of dropping out, students with learning disabilities, and students who are gifted. Chris is a proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

Twitter: @cholmes66

Photo courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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