14 Sep


"The apathy, disconnection, or lack of self-esteem that causes students to disengage in school—to stop caring—is not inherent. It is learned behavior."

Berger, R., Rugen, L., Woodfin, L., & Johnston, M. (2014). Leaders of their own learning: Transforming schools through student-engaged assessment. Jossey-Bass.

THE MEAT (The Main Idea)

It's become increasingly rare to hear students speak about school with genuine excitement or joy. Honestly, I can't remember the last time a student told me they were excited about school. As an educator, Ron Berger's words strike a chord: "The apathy, disconnection, or lack of self-esteem that causes students to disengage in school—to stop caring—is not inherent. It is learned behavior." These words crush me. When I was a classroom teacher, I always believed that my students came to class because they wanted to be there and that I was able to make them feel safe and inspire them to learn. Perhaps it's my own wishful thinking, but I genuinely don't think so. Students don't enter this world with a natural aversion to learning and school; they acquire it over time. Apathy sets in, interest wanes, and the act of going through the motions becomes all too familiar. It's a reality that often extends beyond students to those who guide them — teachers themselves.

THE CHEESE (Added Depth) 

Apathy among students often leads to disengagement, where they attend school out of obligation, lacking a clear sense of "why." The key question arises: Can students unlearn apathy? YES! The antidote to apathy is engagement, but we need a bridge from one to the other. So, how do we bridge this gap? 

To understand this journey, let's break it down. Apathy, characterized by the absence of feeling and emotion related to learning (the "why"), stands in contrast to engagement, which entails emotional involvement and commitment to the learning process (the "what"). Fostering intrinsic curiosity, an internal interest that drives inquiry (the "why"), offers a path forward. 

Dr. Heather Lyon, the engagement guru, helps us to distinguish between engagement and motivation, emphasizing that engagement is how students feel about WHAT they're doing, while motivation concerns WHY they're doing it. Dr. Lyon identifies the highest level of engagement as "absorption," where students are intrinsically motivated and genuinely WANT to be part of the learning experience. 

To nurture intrinsic curiosity, we can tailor teaching methods to students' unique preferences. For those who naturally ask questions and thrive on knowledge, crafting compelling and thought-provoking questions can unlock their potential. Others may excel in relationships and fostering connections creating space for open discussion and communication, while some may embrace gamified lessons that appeal to their desire for competition and achievement. Structured approaches, like checklists, can guide students who prefer organization and achieving tasks.

Regardless of their preferences, the cornerstone of fostering intrinsic curiosity is a deep understanding of students. Educators, like you, who take the time to know their students beyond the school walls, create an environment where the "why" behind learning becomes clear. This shift redefines education as an enjoyable pursuit of learning, helping students move from apathy to genuine engagement.

THE OLIVES (A Surprising Element)

Within the past year, I read "Miseducated" by Brandon P. Fleming. It's a book that takes you on a roller coaster of emotions, and yet, it uncovers compelling connections to our quote. Brandon Fleming's remarkable journey, one that begins with abuse, adversity, and disengagement, takes a transformative turn when his teacher bridges the gap from apathy to engagement. Fleming's early struggles with disconnection from school led him down a challenging path, including involvement in drugs and drug dealing. Despite his passion for basketball, education remained elusive. 

If you haven't read the book, I won't give too much away, but there was a pivotal point in Fleming's story when he plagiarized a paper. Instead of punishment, his teacher saw interest and sparked intrinsic curiosity by introducing him to the transformative writings of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass. In that moment, a spark of intellectual curiosity was ignited within Fleming. It's a testament to the profound impact teachers can have when they recognize their students' unique needs and interests, and it's a powerful example of how nurturing intrinsic curiosity can be life-changing. 

Brandon Fleming's story is a reminder that educators possess the ability to ignite the flames of curiosity within their students, potentially changing the course of their lives. Fleming himself went on to become a teacher, later an assistant debate coach at Harvard, and the founder and CEO of the Harvard Diversity Project. His journey exemplifies the ripple effect that fostering intrinsic curiosity can have, not only on an individual but on entire communities. 

As we reflect on Ron Berger's quote, "The apathy, disconnection, or lack of self-esteem that causes students to disengage in school—to stop caring—is not inherent. It is learned behavior," we see that Fleming's story embodies the idea that apathy can indeed be unlearned, and through the guidance of passionate educators, students can discover the joy of genuine engagement.

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