Why do students disengage from learning? To understand the reasons one needs to look at the complexity and emotional stresses of school and formal education. Public K-12 education in 21st century America can generate apathy, disenfranchisement, and distrust in today’s youth.
First, school is often boring. Modern K-12 public education is comprehensive, meaning it is supposed to cover all subjects and prepare teens for higher education, necessitating a well-rounded base of knowledge. The United States focuses on preparing high school graduates for any available options after high school, not shuttling teens into trade schools, apprenticeships, or limiting “tracks.” While the advantages of this wide-ranging curriculum are many, one key disadvantage is that it can lead to frustration and apathy, with many teenagers upset at continually being forced to take classes in which they have little or no interest. Some students may begin to disengage when they struggle with classes they see little value in, such as mandatory foreign language classes, upper-level science, or electives.
Secondly, the increased focus on standardized testing in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) educational landscape may be making education less appealing. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the standardized testing era practice of “teaching to the test” may actually dampen student understanding and the ability to apply concepts to different areas. “Teaching to the test” often involves rote, simple memorization, with the goal being to enhance short-term memorization right before the test. Critics refer to “teaching to the test” as “kill and drill,” with students unable to enjoy more fulfilling educational activities like debate, exploration, and class discussion at the expense of worksheets and handouts.
“Kill and drill” can generate student apathy as students feel that they are not learning anything useful and are not being challenged. Teaching to the test often precludes exploring higher-level concepts, forcing students to remain at the “multiple-choice” level. Even students who excel at the standardized tests may find sticking to simple concepts that easily translate into multiple-choice options unappealing. As a result, classes lose their interest and the students become disengaged.
While some students become bored and frustrated from waves of standardized testing, others might disengage due to high stress and equal frustration. High-performing students disengage because “multiple-choice” learning fails to hold their interest, while simultaneously low-performing students disengage because they fear the fate-determining multiple-choice tests. After several negative experiences with standardized tests in earlier grades, a teenager may disengage as he or she feels that there is little chance for future success. Student self-esteem is harmed by tests that teachers take extremely seriously. Over time, students may begin to feel antipathy toward education in general, viewing it as a continuing cycle of failure and chastisement.
Finally, formal K-12 public education today may be increasingly separated from popular culture and its focus on modern technology and individualism. While the modern teen lives a life of emphasized individualism and personal freedom, equipped to pursue these goals with smartphones and high-speed Internet, the typical public school remains relatively unchanged over previous years. After school hours teenagers can enjoy unlimited digital stimulation. ranging from social networking to video websites to online gaming, which is a sharp contrast from the traditional classroom setting. The classroom, drab and boring compared to the cornucopia of digital entertainment experienced by most teenagers, no longer holds their interest, generating disengagement.