Confronting Educational Disengagement with a Contract

John Locke and learning disengagement are two ideas that initially seem disparate but share an important theme: social contracts. Social contracts are a concept that have been in place since the beginning of the humanist movement in the Renaissance. The contract considers the needs of each party in a relationship. In my mind, a social contract is a relationship, one of love and compassion, but also one of duty and responsibility. The academic atmosphere is also a contract, where students have responsibilities for teachers, and in turn, teachers have responsibilities to students.

Passive teaching is an issue that must be confronted in the learning environment. Without actively engaging with their students and their community, teachers cannot meet their obligation to the student. At public school, passive teachers are a startlingly common occurrence; teachers can be completely disengaged with their content and their community. For example, one day in IB Psychology, I sat in a classroom of students, notes out and pens uncapped. We looked up at the board, at our teacher, and back at the board. The teacher, his feet up on the desk, stretched his arms and looks back at us. He looked supremely unconcerned, looking at sports stats on his computer. At the silence in the class, he met our eyes. “It’s a movie day.” Maybe Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was playing on the screen or maybe it was a Nicholas Cage movie.

This is an experience that happens at schools across the nation every day. It defeats the purpose of the teacher’s job, and it does the students a disservice as they don’t learn. Mentally, students check out, and who can blame them? Disengagement is then a product of their environment. On the other hand, I’m always challenged the moment that I step into our Newspaper student-led class. All of our staff writers are intellectually curious, and the juxtaposition in the atmosphere from the student-led class to my other classes is dramatic. It is a fun environment for both all of the students in the class — who can collaborate with each other — and our advisor — who ends up guiding our curiosity.

Passive learning on the part of students is also a topic that must be addressed. Using political philosophy, both parties have rights and duties, and this has to be reflected in the relationship between students and teachers. While teachers have a responsibility to the student, students also must be responsible for their own education.

It’s true that students are forced to sit in class. Education is a job, albeit a mandatory one, and not all classes are equally enjoyable. However, students owe their teachers a certain amount of respect and attention. Again at school, I’ve sat in countless classes with desks filled with sleeping students, teenagers who aren’t awake enough to pay attention. I was sitting at work one day, talking with a high school graduate and rising freshman at an Ivy League University. I asked him for advice for classes, explaining that I was genuinely excited about taking European history, even though I could have taken classes that would have looked better on my college application. He looked at me and laughed out loud. “Taking classes because you’re actually interested in? What?” His reaction shocked me. I had expected him to reassure me — to tell me that I was making the right choice. Instead, he reaffirmed his number one priority: grades instead of knowledge and education.

Like many complex issues, there aren’t immediate solutions to this issue. It requires ideological changes from the entire education system, and just lecturing students even more isn’t going to create the solutions that we need. One potential solution is letting students switch into the roles of teaching. On one hand, it reinforces the information for students, shown in Peter Cohen’s study about the positive educational outcomes of tutoring. Furthermore, in my personal experience, it also allows students to gain respect for their teachers. By switching roles, students can learn about the complexity of teaching a class, from keeping students’ attention to projecting well. Teaching the newspaper elective has been a whole new experience for me, and it’s allowed me to gain so much respect for my instructors. I see the attention of students ebb out of the classroom like a rushing tide, but I’ve also seen my classmates sit up straight and start typing, the light of inspiration in their eyes. Helping with the class has allowed me to grow as a student and as a leader, and I believe that if more students had this opportunity, schools would benefit exponentially.

The contract between students and teachers is one that’s constantly in motion. According to John Locke, the obligation for the governed to obey the government- in this case, our instructors and administration- is conditional upon the protection and upholding of rights. Both teachers and students need to have an equal investment in the education system. However, as a student who has sat through many half-hearted lectures with disengaged classmates, I have seen teachers transformed by what they are passionate about. If instructors teach what they are passionate about and students engage with the classroom, the balance of the educational contract will be repaired.