There are many important variables to consider in evaluating the causes for academic failure or success in the high school classroom. The training of the teacher, the quality of the curriculum, school safety, the availability of books, and so on are factors studied extensively, and all of them play a part. But I would argue that the most important variable is the student’s actual level of academic work. Why do so many of our high school students do so little of that? The short answer is because they can get away with it.
A close study of the academic demands on students in the vast majority of our high school classrooms would disclose, I feel certain, that one of the principal reasons for students’ boredom is that they really have nothing to do but sit still and wait for the bell.
Why do so many of our high school students do so little academic work? The short answer is because they can get away with it.
In most classrooms, the chances of a student being called on are slight, and of being called on twice are almost non-existent. If a student is called on and has not done the required reading or other class preparation, most probably the teacher will just call on someone else. There are no real consequences for being unprepared. As a result, many, if not most, students are not capable of contributing in class—or even understanding class discussions—and that can only deepen their boredom.
By contrast, on the football or soccer field, every player is called on in every practice and in nearly every game. Even for players on the bench, there is a constant possibility that they will be asked to perform at any time. If they don’t know what to do then, the embarrassment and disapproval will be swift and obvious. The same also could be said for high school theater productions, performances of the band or chorus, participation in the model United Nations, or almost any other activity they pursue.
In extracurricular activities, the student faces a kind of peer pressure to do well that is usually lacking in the classroom. There, peers may even think it cool for another student to get away with having done no preparation.
This may offer insight into findings from the 2005 Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement. Of the 80,000 students questioned, 49 percent indicated that they did only three to four hours a week of homework, and yet they still reported getting A’s and B’s. I cannot think of a single high school sport that asks for only three or four hours a week of practice. So little time spent preparing would easily lead to an athletic failure to match the academic failure of so many of our students.
The absence of serious academic demands on the attention and effort of students in our high school classrooms results not only in boredom and daydreaming, but also in the high levels of unproductive media time reported in a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That report found that young people spend an average of 6.3 hours a day (44.5 hours a week) with various electronic entertainment media; they’re not doing homework on the computer, merely entertaining themselves.
High school students also, for the most part, find time for an active social life, perhaps a job, and often athletics and other time-consuming hobbies and activities. But not, apparently, for academics.
While we have lots of research studies on test results, teachers’ training, per-pupil expenditures, new curricula, professional workshops, and a host of other educational topics, there is a striking need for close study of what students actually are being asked to do while they are in class. The remarkable fact to me is not that our high school dropout rate is so high, but that so little is being asked of those who do not drop out.
When we make so few classroom demands on students, we should not wonder why so many of them check out, or are essentially absent from class, whether sitting there or not.
Some claim that if only the teacher were more brilliant or entertaining, boredom could be banished, or that the problem of student engagement could be solved if we just showed enough movies in class, gave enough PowerPoint presentations, or had enough DVDs on “relevant” subject matter on hand. But imagine how absurd it would be to expect students to stay committed to a sport in which they spent their time sitting in the stands while the coach told wonderful stories, showed great movies, or talked amusingly about his or her personal athletic history. The student-athletes come to play, as they should, and their motivation is rewarded by the chance to participate, often with sweat, strain, and even tears.
When we make so few classroom demands on students, we should not wonder why so many of them check out, or are essentially absent from class, whether sitting there or not. If nothing is asked of them, if they are not being challenged academically, then they might as well be turning their attention to other pursuits that could offer rewards greater than passivity and boredom.
The education research community should consider undertaking studies that compare the academic demands on students in the typical high school classroom with those that students face in the other activities in which they take part. Let’s try, moreover, to discover high school classrooms that resemble those in law schools or business schools, where students are expected to be prepared each day and are at risk of being called on to demonstrate that readiness at a moment’s notice. And then let’s find out how these schools motivate their students to pour the same energy and commitment they devote to games or matches into their pursuit of learning.
If we want our high school students to do more academic work, let’s try to figure out how to stop boring and ignoring them in our classes. Let’s give them better reasons not to be “absent from class.”