Absent from Class

Will Fitzhugh

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, availability of books, etc., etc., are extensively studied, and all these have a part to play.

But I would argue that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work, including classroom work. Why do so many of our high school students do so little academic work? 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 their boredom is that they really have nothing to do but sit still and wait for the bell.

In most classrooms the chances of a student being called on are slight, and of being called on twice are almost nonexistent. If a student is called on and has not done the reading or other class preparation, most probably the teacher will just call on someone else. There are no real consequences for being unprepared, and as a result many, if not most, students are unprepared, and that also contributes to their boredom.

By contrast, on the football or soccer field, every player is called on in every practice and in every game. Even if a player is on the bench, there is a constant risk for most of them that they may be called on at any time, and if they do not know what to do, the disgrace and disapproval will be obvious and swift. The same may be said for Drama productions, Chorus, Model UN, and most of the students’ other activities.

In extracurricular activities, the student will often face a peer pressure to do well that is usually lacking in the classroom. Peers in the classroom may even think it is cool for another student to “get away with” having done no preparation for the class.

It is these circumstances, among others, that lead, in my view, to the findings, by the Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement (2005), that of the 80,000 students they questioned, 49% do only three to four hours a week of homework, and they still report getting As and Bs. I can not think of a single high school sport that asks for only three to four hours a week of practice, and so little time 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 means not only boredom and daydreaming, but allows students outside of school to spend, according to the Kaiser Foundation study (2005), an average of 6.5 hours a day (44.5 hours a week) with various electronic entertainment media—not homework on the computer—but entertainment.

Somehow, in addition to all that time spent entertaining themselves, high school students usually find time for an active social life, perhaps a job, and often sports or other student activities.

While we have lots of research studies on test results, teaching training, per-pupil expenditure, new curricula, professional workshops, and many other subjects, I believe there is a striking need for a close study of what students are actually being asked to do while they are in class. The remarkable thing, to me, is not that 30% to 50% of our students drop out before graduating from high school, but rather how the other 50% to 70% of them stay in a situation in which so little is asked of them that they are often bored, and in which they are usually very tired of sitting and waiting for the bell.

We sometimes claim that if only the teacher is brilliant or entertaining enough, boredom can be banished, or if we show enough movies, PowerPoint presentations and DVDs on “relevant” subject matter, the students will not sleep in class, either with their eyes open or closed. But imagine how absurd it would be to expect students to stay committed to a sport where they spent all their time sitting in the stands while the coach told wonderful stories, showed great movies and talked amusingly about her/his personal athletic history. The students come to play, as they should, and their motivation to participate is rewarded by their chance to participate, often with sweat, strain, and even potential injury.

When we make so few demands on students in the classroom we should not wonder why so many check out, and are really “absent from class,” whether they are sitting there or not. If they have nothing to do, and nothing is asked of them, and they are not challenged academically, then really they are better off if their attention and their minds are on other things that may offer them greater rewards than sitting still and doing nothing.

I hope the education research community will consider comparing the academic demands on students in the typical classroom with the demands of other activities in which students take a more active part. Let us discover which high school classrooms are like law school and business school classrooms, where students are expected to be prepared and are at risk to be called on for clear proof of their readiness at a moment's notice, as they are in the games and matches in which their energy and commitment are so commonly understood to be essential. 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.”

This article originally appeared in Will's blog at The Concord Review.

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