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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Podcast Articles   |   Jan 21, 2024

When students don’t want to think for themselves or put in effort, try this.

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

When students don’t want to think for themselves or put in effort, try this.

By Angela Watson

I’m sure you know exactly what I’m referencing: when you give open-ended, creative assignments or do project-based learning, these are the kids who say, “Can’t you just tell me what you want me to do? Can’t you just give me the answer?”

Students who don’t want to think for themselves or put in effort seem to be a growing problem, from what teachers have been telling me and what I have observed myself as I travel around to different schools conducting workshops. Teachers are noticing a lack of self-advocacy among students. If they don’t know what to do, they won’t ask questions or seek out more information, they just sit there and do nothing. If something is challenging, they don’t seem to be interested in improving their skills, or learning for the sake of learning: they give up. They don’t want to put effort in.

So maybe you’ve seen those behaviors with your students, as well, or noticed a general sense of apathy and lack of ambition or goals. And in response to this, many teachers feel like they have to work harder than their students are working. They have to keep going the extra mile to make lessons personalized and engaging and put all these additional supports and interventions in place to help students be successful, all while many of their students are doing the absolute bare minimum.

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years exploring this phenomenon, and why it’s becoming more and more common. In fact, you’ll hear some great guests this season on the podcast, including Dr. Jean Twenge, talking about the mental state of young people and some of the root causes of the behaviors we’re commonly seeing.

The more that I learn about student disengagement, the more I am convinced that the solution is NOT to put the onus on teachers to make their lessons more engaging and personalized. I do think that this is a helpful approach, and that generative AI can be a good tool for individualized support so that instruction is more relevant for kids and easier on the teacher. But the root problems are still there. An amazing lesson isn’t going to get through to a kid who’s not willing to engage in any mental effort.

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If your students are disengaged in learning and unmotivated in class, join me for a free online training — there’s one for middle school teachers and one for high school teachers. In each online training, I’ll share specific principles for students to manage time and attention, and develop metacognition, initiative, perseverance, and more … along with strategies you can use to introduce these concepts to students in a way that actually sticks. Learn more at findingflowsolutions.com — a replay link is sent to everyone who registers, so you can benefit even if you miss the live event. 

The middle ground between hard work and having fun

I believe the way to address student disengagement and apathy is by addressing it directly with students: opening up honest conversations about it, and experimenting together with a variety of approaches so kids can pick and choose what works for them.

Because here’s the piece that I think is often missed in these conversations: the adverse reactions to hard work are common among adults, too. Let’s face it, there are many days in which you only get up and go to work because you HAVE to. You can’t afford to lose your job and paycheck. Students aren’t getting paid, so they don’t have that motivation. What if we acknowledge that life involves doing things you don’t feel like doing, and you don’t have to just suck it up. There are strategies you can use to make those tasks feel easier and more enjoyable. You can find ways to make a task more interesting if you think it’s boring; you can create things to look forward to; you can adjust the way you use your time so you have more energy.

Because right now I think a lot of preteens and teens especially have a dichotomy in their heads: work hard and hate your boring life, or do as little as you possibly can to skate by. And I think there’s a rich middle ground there we can explore alongside students: what would it look like to work hard and actually get enjoyment and satisfaction from it? Which things are worth the effort to you?

These are questions that a lot of people, much less young people, have never really considered. And that’s at the heart of what I’m doing with my curriculum line, Finding Flow Solutions. I want you to have tools that help students push themselves through difficult tasks rather than relying on you to do it.

Teaching kids to understand themselves is even more powerful than the teacher working to understand them because there’s no way you’re going to get to know them all. Particularly if you teach multiple classes. It’s very difficult for the teacher and disempowering in some ways for the kids to rely on an adult telling them what is special about them or what they’ve done well.

And particularly with younger kids, you’ll find they can get very addicted to that. Everything becomes like, “Look at me, look at me. Look what I can do.” The counterbalance to that is to help them notice things about themselves and to understand what works best for them and what helps them thrive.

Modeling how to push through the lack of motivation

So, let’s talk about what that looks like. I would love to see all students have a basic understanding of metacognition, neuroplasticity, and strategies for taking initiative when they don’t feel like it and persevering through difficult tasks. That’s my focus in the Finding Flow Solutions for elementary and middle school. That foundation provides the scaffolding for high schoolers to learn how to manage their time, energy, and focused attention.

What ties it all together, for me, is talking about productivity–that is, doing tasks that matter in the most effective, efficient, and enjoyable way possible–and talking about it through the lens of a giant experiment. Let’s see what works for different tasks, different personalities, different moods. Let’s have open and honest conversations about it.

You can model this by sharing your own challenges with productivity. So maybe you can say, “I was really tired this morning. I really did not want to come in and teach today. Here’s what I did to get motivated.” Or, “I really did not feel like grading those papers last night, but I knew I needed to get feedback to you today. So here’s this little trick that I use. I use the Pomodoro method where I work for 20 minutes and then I take a break for five. And maybe that’s something that you might want to try when you have homework, give it a try tonight,” that sort of thing.

In this way, you’re presenting these topics to kids in a very casual way, a very matter-of-fact ways, because trying to get motivated and get work done is just part of the human experience. This is not just you being immature, which is sometimes how I think we frame it for kids: “You need to just buckle down and get it done and grow up. You can’t get away with this in the real world.” But in the real world, we do all still struggle with getting our work done, and kids benefit from knowing this.

I certainly didn’t understand it as a student. I thought once I was out of high school and I didn’t have adults bossing me around all the time and making me do things I didn’t want to do, life would be great. I didn’t realize that I would be responsible for making MYSELF do things I didn’t want to do, and in many ways, that’s harder. I was depending on my parents and teachers telling me what to do and when, and didn’t know what I figuring out how to fill that role myself would have such a steep learning curve.

Kids need to experiment with strategies with adult oversight when they’re young so they have strategies for initiative and perseverance later on.

Helping kids develop a toolbox of strategies for tackling difficult tasks

The struggle to concentrate and focus our attention is actually life-long, and it’s not getting better with technology and just with the way the world is changing. So what if we approach it as an experiment, as something that we are learning alongside our students and there’s no judgment around it? It’s morally neutral.

Not being able to focus or complete tasks is not a fault. We don’t need to load it down with all this baggage and guilt and shame and cajoling and nagging. It’s a thing we all experience times where we’re just not motivated because we are human.

So what can we actually do? What things actually work? We can help kids build a toolbox of strategies that they can go to so that you have different options to choose from. Maybe this one thing works for a math assignment and this other thing works better after lunch when you’re a little sleepy and maybe this other thing works at night when you need to finish something up.

Teaching kids to notice what factors help them concentrate and which don’t is much better than the teacher trying to figure that out for each student and trying to provide those conditions. That’s what I see happening a lot in schools: the expectation is placed on teachers to figure out what every child needs and provide it. Not only is that impossible and unsustainable, but we really leave kids at a disservice because they’re depending on adults to motivate them.

One of the most impactful things you can do with students is hold regular, informal discussions in which you present different strategies to students for concentration and motivation, and give them opportunities to try those strategies and talk about it.  They can say, “This really works for me,” or, “I didn’t like that one at all. Please don’t suggest that one to me again”.

Then you don’t have to be the “apathetic student whisperer” and figure it all out on your own. Let them experiment and let them tell you. And then you can also share your same things with them so they can learn from your experiences.

Transparent reflection instead of rule enforcement

You don’t have to master all these strategies ahead of time. Productivity and mindset are areas in which we get to naturally be the guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage. I know it’s hard sometimes to be in a position of learner because as teachers, we feel more confident when we are experts at the thing we’re explaining to kids. But understanding how our brains work is something we’re all still learning. I hope to be learning about myself every single day of my life. I want to always be changing and growing and becoming a better version of myself, and I want students to see that modeled for them.

It can be really empowering for kids to see the teacher step into that role and say,” I don’t have this mastered either. I mess up with this all the time. I’m not quite sure where I want to be with it, and I’m still trying different things out.” We can model that for students rather than saying, “This is the standard that I expect. I expect you to always be on time. I expect you to always turn in everything on time.” The reality is, I’m late sometimes. Personally, I don’t meet every deadline.

And kids aren’t dumb; they know that the adults in their lives don’t do everything they tell kids to do, and it comes off as hypocritical. That’s how you lose trust and respect, by trying to hold kids to a standard we can’t even meet ourselves as an adult. So instead we can teach them what to do when they’re doing to be late and miss a deadline: how do they take responsibility for that? How do they handle the consequences? How do they reflect on what happened to ensure they’re more timely in the future?

This is all much more difficult than just giving a zero for a later assignment, and with everything else on your plate, it can feel overwhelming. And that’s exactly the point of the Finding Flow curriculum. It’s all done for you, no prep. You click through the 15-20 minute slideshow which teaches the kids the ideas and guides them through activities to experiment, and the journal activities which help them self-reflect.

So what I’ve done is created 6 units for high school and I’m finishing up 6 units for middle school — the first half is out now. Elementary resources will start releasing this spring, don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you! My process for this has been sort-of backward design: I thought about the end goal for students who are graduating high school, and what they needed to know and be able to do, and created that first. Then I worked backward from them: what needs to happen in middle school to prepare them for those lessons? And when middle school is finished in March … what needs to happen in upper elementary to prepare them for the middle and high school curriculum? And then, what needs to happen in early elementary to get them there? That’s why I started with high school and a beta tester group for that first, and the rest is slowly becoming available.

Download a free 5-lesson unit and try it out with your students

The first unit for middle school and for high school is called Foundations of Flow. It introduces students to the work of the Hungarian American researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He discovered the state of flow, in which you’re so absorbed in a task that you just lose track of all time. More recent research shows that aiming for a flow state for a small portion of your workday or school day (around 20%) is motivating and enjoyable enough to help us push through the rest of the workday in which we’re doing more mundane or less enjoyable tasks.

Being in a flow state is one of the peak human experiences, and the optimal way to experience a flow state is when you’re being challenged and attempting something just beyond your comfort zone, but not so difficult that you’re struggling. This is also an ideal state for learning, right? It ties to what we know about the Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s research. So school really is an optimal place to experiment with flow states and help kids figure out what helps them find their flow. What things do we do in school that they find so engaging that they don’t want to stop when they’re done?

And it might just be one thing, particularly as kids get older in middle and high school, it can be more challenging for them to think of aspects of class that they really enjoy. But certainly everybody I think has had an experience in school where like, oh man, we have to stop now. So this is teaching kids to reflect back on that: What was I doing at that time? Was I working alone or with other people? What subject was it? Was I concentrating very hard? Was I writing? Was I drawing? Was I doing something with my hands? Was I standing? Was I sitting?

When kids can figure it out for themselves, they can create more of those experiences, and not have to rely on the teacher to personalize the lesson for them. They have strategies for getting themselves hooked into the topic, and pushing themselves through when things feel difficult or boring.

As Brian Tracey says, “Any goal can be achieved if you break it down into enough small parts.” Teaching students how to focus and engage in learning can feel like an overwhelming and even impossible goal. But there are actually concrete steps and strategies that can get them there, and they’re worth teaching. In fact, this can be the very thing that makes it possible for you to teach everything else.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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