I find myself in my final semester of a long teaching career, reflecting on two things: cynicism and laziness. Lily Tomlin said “no matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I suspect as long as one keeps a firm grasp on reality, a regular dose of cynicism is not only healthy, but essential to survival. Mark Twain’s admonition that anyone that likes sausage or politics should never watch either being made, is textbook cynicism, but holds true even today. I’ve no doubt I am blessed, and despite the whining of doomsayers, we live in magical, good times, interesting—in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse—though they are.
As to laziness, I don’t speak of myself. While advancing age inevitably slows one down a bit in a variety of ways, I retain energy and drive, and manage to accomplish all I wish to accomplish and more. No, I speak of the laziness of contemporary students, and the adults they become. I wonder if I am merely another aging curmudgeon, a crusty old-timer dimly remembering the good old days when all the women were strong, all the men were good looking and all the children were above average. The past was always better, wasn’t it? We were more virtuous, hard working, responsible and moral, right?
Actually, in significant ways, we were. The current generation is lazy and entitled, though it may not be entirely their fault.
One of the advantages of this scruffy little blog and my weekly education articles is I have the opportunity to correspond with educators around the nation and world. It’s fascinating. I have friends I may never meet, and those friendships allow me to understand cultures distant, yet vital. More than ever, I’m convinced the lazy, entitled culture of today is somewhat unique, and the good old days really were, in ways that matter, better. Consider these examples (I’m not naming these colleagues or their locations for obvious reasons):
*Assigning a high-interest, very popular book—science fiction—and giving students a month outside of class time to read it and complete a study guide, a colleague found only a single student read the book and completed the entire study guide. Only four or five others read portions of the book and completed portions of the study guide. About 95% of this teacher’s classes didn’t read the book or do any of the study guide, despite the assignment being a substantial portion of their average. This is the status quo virtually everywhere. I’ve found kids are not at all apologetic about this, instead, wondering why any teacher would think they would read.
*The alternative, asking kids to take turns reading from a book in class, is almost impossible. Many read so slowly and haltingly, it’s impossible to maintain any kind of narrative flow, and many won’t bother to read along. Others simply refuse to read aloud; some sleep. The whole process takes too long, so novels of any length are increasingly abandoned.
*My colleagues uniformly report contemporary students aren’t readers. Few read for pleasure, and as a result, their vocabularies are rudimentary, many grade levels below where they should and must be. As a result, their reasoning abilities are seriously impaired, and they understand little of what they read. They can, with difficulty, decode the symbols on the page, and can sound out many words, as long as they are familiar and don’t have more than two or three syllables, but derive little meaning from them. The reading skills of most are many years below grade level.
Most, unable to read with any degree of skill or understanding, rather than working hard to improve, simply stop reading altogether.
*Even substantial numbers of gifted/talented of Advanced Placement kids don’t do the assigned reading, though their reading and speaking skills are generally—not always—above average. Part of this problem is the contemporary movement to admit any student, regardless of ability, to AP classes. Inevitably, the classes are dumbed down because too many are failing.
*The effects of a lifetime of high stakes, mandatory testing, are obvious in the current generation of students. They’re used to reading only short, easy to read and understand, passages, and answering multiple-choice questions, or writing only a paragraph in response to a non-challenging prompt. They’re burned out on testing, and many don’t bother to try to pass tests. Worse, the time lost to test drills and tests to see if they’re ready to take the pre-test for the benchmark test to take the real test, have deprived them of not only knowledge, but brain development they’ll never regain.
*Contemporary students have very small vocabularies, and are unfamiliar with common, essential words, like “clergy,” “morals” and “ethics,” to name just a few. They have little knowledge of common idioms. High school students don’t know the definitions of the parts of speech, and most can’t reliably identify them. They commonly misuse all the parts of speech. Most can’t identify or correctly use adverbs.
*Given the opportunity to redo assignments for more credit, few will take advantage of it, accepting whatever grade they earned.
*As long as they are barely passing a class, most will exert no further effort. They take advantage of policies that make passing as easy as possible, and do only the amount of work absolutely necessary to pass. Many don’t do even that.
*Given extra credit opportunities, few take advantage of them, even if they need them to pass a class.
*Attempts to contact parents commonly go unanswered, and those that do respond promise improvement, which their children seldom deliver.
*Most students are far more interested in their cellphones and earbuds than anything in class, even anything going on around them at any time. They behave as addicts, unable to keep their phones out of their hands for more than a few minutes.
And the list goes on and on. What’s happening here? As regular readers know, I’ve often written about foolish policies that allow, even encourage this kind of behavior. One can’t take 1/3 to half or more of a given curriculum away, dedicating it instead to test drills, without serious intellectual consequences.
Among the most disastrous fads in education is the idea that contemporary children are uniquely brilliant, genius level computer manipulators one and all. Therefore, instruction must be delivered via “technology,” which consists mainly of cheap laptops, cell phones, smartboards, and a variety of other bit of hardware and software. Without such technology, faddish thinking asserts, kids will be uninterested, because they learn unlike any human beings before them.
This is badly mistaken. Kids develop the computer literacy they require for their immediate interests. They can text and use social media. They know how to surf the Internet, but every day, I have to show kids how to use the “tab” key, how to set margins in Microsoft Word, and how to do a host of other foundational computer skills and shortcuts. Left to their own devices, told they’re already brilliant, many kids will lapse into terminal laziness and actually resent any attempt to teach them.
An allied fad is “student-centered instruction,” which holds that teachers are essentially superfluous. They must not actually teach, but merely facilitate. This consists of “guiding” students to unleash their inner brilliance. Students should work primarily in groups, and facilitators should merely gently guide their discussions, allowing them to choose the literature they want to read, even choosing which assignments, if any, they choose to do. The children must be allowed to evaluate their facilitators, telling them how well they are meeting their unique and brilliant needs, and regularly holding discussions about what they are about to learn, and later, what they have learned (actually, haven’t learned). This too encourages and supports laziness rather than intellectual inquiry.
Also complicit are policies like allowing late work, giving kids credit for no work, and allowing innumerable “alternate” assignments. These policies, perhaps well intentioned, do not develop responsibility or other good habits.
People have always been, to varying degrees, lazy. However, thinking back on my school days, the distractions were far fewer, and expectations higher. If you didn’t do the work, if you didn’t hand it in on time, you got no credit. There were no “alternate” assignments. If you failed a class, you took it again. Fail to make enough progress, fail enough classes, you were held back a grade until you took up the slack. As a result, generations learned responsibility. They learned to be on time, to produce on schedule, and to fulfill the expectations of adults.
Of course, some kids were never motivated and dropped out of school, something that is simply not allowed these days.
I’ll add only this: the people that employ students in entry-level jobs find far too many lazy, unmotivated, easily distracted, and entitled. They expect a paycheck, but don’t expect to have to work for it, and become upset when they’re expected to work. The rare kids with a work ethic are jewels of great price.
Final assertion: Contemporary kids are nothing special. Human beings learn today just as they did in the time of Aristotle. Times change, human beings don’t. All of our magical technology all too often serves as a distraction, an impediment to learning.
What do you think gentle readers? What portion of the blame is ours (adults), and what portion theirs (kids)? Or perhaps you think I am just an old codger stuck in false memories of the good old days? Have at it, if you’re not too lazy…