The Apathy Problem


One problem has been a pervasive part of the American school system for years. We’ve tried gimmicks, we’ve tried tricks, we’ve tried all sorts of things to try to make this problem disappear, but instead, it just keeps getting worse. I see it every day among my fellow students.

That problem is apathy in students. Students, simply put, don’t care about school. In their eyes, it’s a place to go, do what they’re told and memorize as much as they can, then go home and finish their homework before doing something that actually interests them.

“Educational games” and “gamification” have attempted to solve this problem, as have many other strategies. But the one thing it seems like we haven’t really tried is giving students agency.

Agency: the right to self-determination. Students have more agency every time they make a choice. Today, though, student agency is at a low. In a traditional class, students will hardly ever make a choice about anything besides what to answer on a test. Of course, this isn’t always the teacher’s fault; standardized testing and teaching to the test has been forced upon many teachers who’d rather not use those methods, which inherently reduce student agency.

Contrast that to the distant past, almost unimaginable now, before the system of grades. That’s right, we’re talking about the time of the Founding Fathers, who were educated by individual tutors. They studied in a general topic area until the teacher was satisfied that they had learned enough, and for the most part, they had a great deal of agency, making choices that guided the direction of their learning, rather than choices within a set direction of learning.

We can’t go back to a 1:1 student to teacher ratio, of course. (If only we could!) But, we can give our students more agency.

How? It’s simple. Let them choose things.

It starts the second they walk into class on Day 1. You can let them choose their seats, if that’s possible for you. You could try Smiles and Frowns, a practice developed by Monte Syrie, another teacher. Smiles and Frowns is simple: everyone in the class gets the option to talk about a ‘smile’ (good thing) and/or a ‘frown’ (bad thing) from their day, or to pass. Smiles and Frowns takes about five minutes a day, and Monte Syrie considers it one of the best time investments he’s made. Either of these practices shows students, right from the get-go, that they are being listened to and given the opportunity to speak. Breaking the feelings of powerlessness, on the very first day, however you do it, is a great way to start class.

Your lesson plan in any subject includes summative assessments—sometimes tests, sometimes creative tasks. My Spanish teacher last year had us write an Instagram post in Spanish. When you’re allowing time for something like that, give students as many options as you can, or let them create options themselves. Rather than writing an Instagram post, I could have written a short story, or a poem, to demonstrate the same skills in a way that would have been more interesting to me. If you’re a math teacher, maybe let students calculate the measurements for the shed out behind the school, rather than sitting in class and doing a trigonometry test. Some people will choose the test, others will choose the other options, and it’ll be more interesting and rewarding for all of them, since overall, students know what they need and how they learn best.

Besides a lack of choice, there are many other factors to this student apathy problem, one of those being grades. If students get high grades easily, they don’t bother doing more than they need to for an A, and if they get low ones, they won’t bother trying for an A because they know it’s pointless. Either way, they’re not doing their best work. There is another way to do it, though.

Instead of grading every piece of work, give it back with no grade, just feedback. Give students a chance to revise their work based on that feedback. Then, when grades must be given, come to them as an agreement between student and teacher, not as a unilateral judgement. This teaches students to advocate for themselves, and also keeps them focused on feedback and improvement throughout the year, regardless of where they currently are. (The Teachers Going Gradeless group has many resources about how to do this, or smaller, easier grading reforms, in all sorts of environments; check their website out for more details!)

If something isn’t working for students, and you can tell, change it or ask them for guidance. Obviously, there are standards you need to complete in the course, but giving students input into how it’s shuffled around, and letting them know why some things just have to be done will make them feel acknowledged, and even if they don’t like something, they’ll know why it’s there, making it easier to accept. 

Students are stakeholders in their own education, and the more ability they have to change the course of it—even if it’s just little things in one class a day—the happier and more engaged they will be. By employing just one of the strategies I discussed, you can increase engagement and happiness, and the more you do, the better. Agency is the key.

On a larger scale, of course, more powerful changes can be made, like at my school, where students choose between interdisciplinary classes where they can learn two or more ‘subjects’ at the same time in order to fulfill flexible credit requirements that don’t force any class upon anyone. Within each class they are given choice at every opportunity, and they can even run classes of their own, provided they’re willing to put in the work. Last year, a junior at our school who is particularly politically engaged ran a class on the history of activism in America, with plenty of preparation time to learn and prepare lessons, of course. Each year, in a school with 120 students, two or three student-led classes usually take place. As a result, our students are engaged in learning to a greater degree than students in other places. Moving in that direction is beyond the powers of one teacher, but I would hope to see a world, rather than just one school, based on that model someday.

The apathy problem is taking over schools across America, but there is a solution. By letting students have control over their own education, they become more invested in the outcomes and less apathetic. So as you set up next year’s lesson plan, ask yourself: what am I doing to give students choice? What more can I do?

Resources to Help You:

In many schools, the culture is not with you in this fight. Giving students agency isn’t the norm and isn’t part of practice. This will make it more difficult, but it is not impossible. If you’re willing to make a major shift towards student power (I would suggest doing this through a grade-conference method like I describe in the article) almost any of the articles on Teachers Going Gradeless can help you. But, if you’re just trying to take it step by step - and that’s totally okay too - I have a few more specific articles that might help you.

The article Feedback on Writing: Providing Strategies for Revision, written by Koralie Mooney, provides strategies for student-focused writing strategies. 

Bill Velto writes more generally about feedback as a strategy for increasing student engagement in his article, Providing Feedback to Promote Student Growth. Rather than completely gradeless or grade conferencing, which can be a big jump, Bill’s strategy is more of a ‘grade-delay’ tactic, letting students see feedback on their work before they see grades, which allows them to engage with and revise the work further before it’s seen as ‘finished’. This is another step to take.

Monte Syrie has some micro-scale practices that keep students connected and engaged, which he writes about in his article My Room: Accepting The Mantle Of Classroom Culture, like “Smiles and Frowns,” where at the beginning of every class, students share how they’re feeling (smile or frown) and why. “Each has an opportunity to share,” he writes, “and importantly, each has the right to pass.” By inviting students into a classroom culture where they are accepted, Smiles and Frowns goes a long way as not only a powerful tool for creating class culture, but, I believe, a fantastic way to break apathy before it begins. This article also explains more details of the grade conferences that many gradeless teachers in traditional schools use.

Andrew Burnett has more details about the first steps to be a gradeless teacher in his article Creating a Gradeless Class in a School that Requires Grades. I’ve tried to summarize the ideas here, but his article goes into much greater detail on the specifics and how-tos.

Outside of the ‘rethinking assessment’ lens, there are still more practices that promote agency, as Ross Cooper writes in the article How can educators best promote student agency? This article is good reading for anyone interested in helping their students, though not all of the suggestions are necessarily possible in all schools.

There are certainly articles and resources that I’ve missed, and this is a small snapshot of what there is out there. I’d encourage you to do your own research if you’re interested in the topic.