When Students Are Too Cool to Care

What to do when students are too cool to care

Whether you are a teacher, parent, or test-prep professional, finding ways to motivate kids to learn can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Adolescence can further complicate things as teens seek to define themselves and assert their own identity.

Especially in these teenage years, being cool and being perceived as “the smart kid” usually don’t go hand-in-hand. What are educators to do when students decide they are too cool to care about their own academic growth? 

The Allure of Apathy

If I had a dollar for every time a student responded to my concerns about their academic performance with “I don’t care,” and a shrug, I could have retired at 27. For anyone who has taught teenagers, this is no surprise; however, it doesn’t change the fact that the conversations still happen and we continue to push students to give their best effort.

While I can’t make students work, I can be honest and open about my disappointment when they aren’t working to their demonstrated potential.

Kids hate when adults play the disappointment card, but for many teens, apathy is the go-to response. After all, if you don’t really care about something, it can’t hurt you, right?

The reality is, of course, that even when teens appear to be apathetic, they still actually care. Apathy is just a defense mechanism to try and shield against the disappointment from others and the disappointment in themselves.

As educators, it is important to recognize the difference between what a student is showing outwardly and what is really going on beneath the surface. Even when it seems that a student has shown little to no effort, it still matters when you have the honest conversation with them that you noticed.

They may pretend not to care, but they hear you. 

Making Inroads

Dealing with apathetic students reactively is not nearly as effective as finding proactive solutions. We, as educators, are in a unique position to help students build a felt-need for learning. Ideally, we then ride that momentum into true empowerment.

Unfortunately, there is no one “right way” to try and inspire a seemingly unmotivated student. However, making the learning process engaging and relevant tends to produce positive results and positively affect long-term behavior. Some strategies to try include:

College Visits

For students showing minimal interest in test prep (even when using engaging multimedia content and authentic assessment tools), making the goal of college admission real could be the piece that makes the effort seem worthwhile.

Rather than just pushing a traditional college tour, encourage students to get a more realistic college experience: while on campus they should do real college things like eat at the dining hall, sit in on a class, talk to students, and even sit down with a financial aid adviser about costs and scholarships.

Realizing that working hard now could lead to such a cool experience later may be enough to get a student to step up their game. 

Unleash Your Inner Geek

As adults, it can be easy to forget that kids still believe that there is such a thing as grown-ups. While there may not be that many years separating us from our students chronologically, the reality is, we seem like living antiques to most kids.

Purposefully humanizing yourself can transform you from the stoic keeper of knowledge into a more authentic role-model for life-long learning. It can also provide inroads to get to know what actually does motivate your students.

Try letting your guard down and sharing examples of the things you, as an adult, enjoy doing and learning about; the nerdier the better. Did you spend your weekend learning how to build a Raspberry Pi arcade machine? Did you wait in line to get your hands on a new comic book? Did a museum exhibit knock your socks off? Did you binge watch a documentary series on Netflix?

Take opportunities to share your passions with your students. They will roll their eyes at you a few times and probably even judge you a little bit, but your excitement could easily become infectious. You can’t expect your students to shed their tough, prideful exteriors if you aren’t willing to do it yourself!  

Project Based Learning

So often education is distilled into facts that must be learned and skills that must be mastered. By shifting the learning process towards giving students more authentic and relevant experiences, not only are students more likely to engage, but they are also more likely to develop successful long-lasting learning habits.

That’s where project-based learning (PBL) comes in. The PBL approach gives students real-world problems to engage with and gives them the tools to devise a solution. The rationale makes sense; when the task is authentic, students are driven by a felt need to learn what they must to in order to engage with it. PBL is a hot topic in education circles these days and, as such, there is no shortage of examples out there to get you started.

Will this work for all content and all students? Of course not; but when educators go the extra mile to wrap the learning experience into something relevant to their students’ interests, the likelihood of success goes up.

Keep It Real

Our students know how to spot fakes. Conquering motivational challenges with students will never be easy, but it will always be easier when the approach is real.

At the very least, educators must acknowledge that they will never beat apathy with apathy (students won’t care... that you don’t care... that they don’t care…). By providing opportunities to make learning authentic, whether it’s bringing a long-term goal to life, letting your own inner-geek-flag fly, or crafting authentic learning experiences, you send the message that it is OK to care and even (gasp!) be excited about something that matters to you.

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Matt McCorkle