Originally published in educational Horizons Winter 1996. 56-57

Dragons, Sea Monsters, and Kids Who Don't Want to Learn
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

See related article, "Power in Schooling Practice"


edited 8/17/11

I once had the misfortune to have assigned to my junior high English as a Second Language (ESOL) department a new teacher, Miss Fast, who was astoundingly inept in dealing with people. On the first day of her appointment she marched into the school office and handed the head secretary a pile of papers, telling her that she needed twenty copies of everything, immediately, for her classes. The secretary said that she had her own chores to do and that duplicating was a department responsibility. Miss Fast snatched her papers up and in a loud voice proclaimed, "It's very clear that you don't care about these kids!"

In one of my university classes, a teacher, Mr. Carson, complained to me that he had been unsuccessful in getting one of his students reassigned to another class that he believed more appropriate for the student. His principal, it seemed, insisted that a long and tedious procedure be followed before the change be made. "Doesn't the principal care about the child?" asked Mr. Carson.

Both Miss Fast and Mr. Carson were mistaken. What was at issue was a matter of priorities. From the fact that neither the secretary nor the principal acted in a way that most quickly satisfied the teachers -- and would have probably most quickly served the students involved -- we cannot come to the conclusion that he or she didn't care about the students. The secretary had her assigned tasks and the principal was constrained by law to follow certain procedures, even if the immediate satisfaction of needs had to wait. The understanding of priorities is what guides adult life. Unless there is an emergency, things wait their turn, even though someone's patience may be tried.

That is how adults deal with adults. How adults deal with kids is another matter. When students don't do their homework, don't pay attention in class, are disruptive, cut class, or play hooky, we tend not to inquire into priorities. Rather, we talk about such students as "not wanting to learn." We talk as if such students don't want to learn anything at anytime in any place for any reason, when, in fact, it may be that a particular student doesn't want to learn a particular thing in a particular place at a particular time for a particular reason.

This outlook is not mere stupidity or insensitivity, but a way of dismissing the notion that any priorities the students might have might take precedence over those imposed upon them at school. They are obliged to be in school. We are obliged by the conditions of our employment as teachers to present them with curriculum according to schedules imposed upon us. We, as adults, would not normally suffer such conditions of learning, and yet we delude ourselves that in this grand chain of compulsion a child's motivation for learning need not suffer. It is not that the circumstances the students find themselves in are inconducive to learning, we insist; rather, it's that the students don't want to learn. Holy hypocrisy, Batman!

But what is a teacher to do when the kids' priorities do not allow him or her to conduct the lessons he or she has been hired to teach? Anything it is not morally inappropriate to do. And it may not be enough. We may not be able to reorganize a child's priorities sufficiently to get him or her to work in class. Coercion, love, or extrinsic reward may not be enough to offset the outside influences that affect the child's behavior in class.

What do we do, then? The very least -- if we have made persistent, wholehearted, intelligent attempts -- is not to let ourselves suffer guilty consciences. We are not gods. If there is fault, it certainly has to be shared by those who assign us to teach children in conditions of such scarcity that the reprioritization of students' motives is practically impossible.

I have worked in some miserable schools. Overcrowded rooms, violent halls, insufficient books and chairs, brazen cockroaches, and the odor of urine bubbling on ancient heating fixtures provided formidable disincentives to learning school subjects. Mix into this brew lack of sleep, no breakfast -- or a breakfast of potato chips and Coke -- toothache, sickness, abuse, and pregnancy, and one begins to wonder that mathematics, reading, or science appears on any list of student priorities.

But even in affluent schools there are the effects of movies, television, electronic games, and computers to deal with. Compared with the instant gratification they provide, normal classroom teaching is boring. On top of that, teachers are expected to make more demands of students than do the students' own parents.

Despite all of this, despite the burdens of poverty and the distractions of affluence, there are kids who want to learn what we as teachers can offer. Or there are times when any given child, poor or rich, will open up to us, if only for a short while. But even if we make the most of it, it will be insufficient to impart much in the way of a coherent body of knowledge. Our meager successes will certainly be condemned as insufficient by those educational theorists far from the trenches who prate about "raising expectations" so long as those expectations don't include raising expenditures.

Where is it all heading? To a separation into separate kinds of institutions, perhaps, of the two traditional functions of schooling: nurturance and intellectual development. If we insist on incarcerating youth between the ages of six and eighteen for several hours a day, then we might do well to place them on a needs basis into different institutions: one in which nurturance and socialization are the dominant goals; the other in which intellectual development -- including skills training -- is pursued. (This differentiation of functions is already done at the college level, often within the same institution: it is called "majoring.")

The readiness (much less the need) for serious study at any specific age varies tremendously from individual to individual. Just as stories of dragons and sea monsters dissuaded would-be explorers in ancient times from novel adventures, so the myth of students-who-don't-want-to-learn shores up our fast-deteriorating factory system of schooling, dissuading us from looking for viable alternatives for the future.