Why Students Brag About Not Doing Work (And What We Can Do About It)

We’ve all probably heard it.

“I didn’t even study for this, and I still got a B…”

“I wrote this entire thing an hour before class. I don’t even know what is in it…”

“I haven’t’ read a book all year. I just look at SparkNotes, and I still pass everything…”

The sounds of secondary students boasting about not doing their work to their friends as they walk the halls or shuffle in and out of class.

Early in my career, I heard so many of these comments on the peripheries of my classroom that I got lulled into thinking that these comments were normal markers of adolescence, a notion supported by my vague recollection of making similar types of boasts to my friends during my secondary years.

But if we think about it, bragging about doing substandard work and having Swiss cheese sized gaps in one’s knowledge is an odd thing. Boasting is generally supposed to be reserved for our successes and positive traits. It is supposed to be the hope that someone will ask about the marathon you just completed, how many books you read this summer, or if you have lost weight, so you have an excuse to gush a little bit about a triumph–not a place to celebrate laziness and mediocrity.

So why is it that so many students often brag about failure, pseudo-failure, or doing less than their best?

It took me a long time to realize that when students brag about mediocrity, they are doing it because at some level it is actually a form of success for them. This might seem a bit confusing at first, so to clarify, let’s look at a fall right of passage for teachers in Michigan:

Every fall, every teacher in Michigan is supposed to complete nearly four hours of online  trainings that are mandated by the state government. Some of these are vaguely useful in their own way, but they never change, making them highly repetitive after a few years, and there are many–including one on the hazard communications on vats of chemicals and the backs of trucks–that frankly make no sense at all for most teachers.Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.50.51 PM

And every fall I hear some of my colleagues gleefully boasting about how they read a book or set up their grade book while “doing” the trainings in the same way that I’ve heard students boast about phoning in their school work.

And the reason for both of these is the same: When both adults and students do something they deem as having little or no value, suddenly avoiding work becomes a positive because it means they are beating a pointless system. When teachers phone it in on the training they are likely making a statement about bureaucracy, teacher workload, or how out of touch a state government that mandates trainings about truck communications for public school teachers is.  When students phone it in, they are likely making a statement about how an assignment or class doesn’t hold value for them.

By the time students are boasting about not writing or reading, much of the damage has been done, so in my classes I now strive to preemptively address the question of value before students even have time to think whether or not the work of class applies to them.

I start this on the first day when I ask the students questions like:

  • Why is literature one of only two classes mandated k-12? What value do we get from books?
  • How can learning to write help you in your life?
  • Why do we need to know how to argue? How can it help you?

In my early years, I used to address these questions, but I did most of the talking. Now, I have the students answer them in a think-pair-share with me just playing the role of recording their answers on the board. The difference between these two might seem small, but over the past few years I’ve found that when students answer these questions they begin the work of connecting the core topics from class to their own lives. I then build on that in future weeks by…

  • Having students write me a letter to introduce themselves and their goals both in and out of school. These letters are gold when it comes to finding ways to individually bridge students’ interests and the work of class.
  • Prefacing most of my new skills/lessons with their value up front. For example, yesterday we talked about symbolism, and I discussed before we even started how politicians, marketers, and others who wish to persuade us often use symbolism, as it can be more effective than direct argumentation. We then looked at a few ads and political taglines, so they could see for themselves. Doing this took some prep and a couple minutes of class time, but after they understood how symbolism can be used to persuade them, the resulting discussion about Sherman Alexie’s “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” was wide-ranging and had nearly unanimous engagement.
  • Encouraging students to respectfully ask the reason why we do anything in class. This is could be risky (as you better have good reasons why you are doing something if asked), but it is also a clear statement to the students that everything we do in here will have value.

In recent years, a number of studies have found that the value students assign to a class is one of the most effective predictors of how well students will perform and that getting students to value a class more is one of the fastest ways to speed up student growth. So if you don’t already, I encourage you to factor value into your planning and interactions with students. Few changes have made a more positive impact in my teaching than viewing the classroom with the lens of thinking how to maximize the perceived value for my students!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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