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Diagnosing the problem of student apathy

"Kids today don't care about school." I hear this from educators all the time. This idea has resulted in two general camps of teachers: those who blame the kids for the lack of engagement and those who go all in on a "proven" strategy or teaching method, guaranteed to increase student engagement. I understand both responses, and have probably fallen into both mindsets at one point or another during my teaching career. Both groups are guilty of applying simple answers to explain a very complex problem with a numerous variables. What education seems to be lacking is how to properly diagnose the problems of student apathy. And not just general problems like poor attendance, lack of resources, or students in poverty, but specific causes for individual students to give little effort or energy at school. In other words, what's causing each and every student to quit?

Imagine for a moment going to the doctor for a general symptoms: fever, stomach ache, general soreness. The doctor could ask the patient about their diet, exercise habits, sleep duration, and consumption of alcohol. Within those questions, some aspect will be considered less than ideal, and the physician could simply pass the blame onto the individual for their ailments. This fails to treat the patient and probably does not change their behaviors either. The doctor could suggest a new treatment they recently read about in a medical journal that had amazing success in trial studies. This approach demonstrates a willingness to help the patient, but is so focused on the new treatment that the doctor fails to inquire into the medical history of the patient. Finally, a doctor could simply prescribe a general pain killer that should reduce the patient's discomfort, and will probably prove to be successful for most of the patients they see in the course of a day. What all three scenarios fail to address is WHY the patient might be showing those symptoms. What we look for in a doctor is a professional who addresses our individual needs to diagnose the cause of our ailments.

As teachers, we should strive to be more like doctors who search for the root cause of student problems. So often we blame the symptoms (cell phones, video games, attendance problems, behavior issues) rather than searching for the causes of student apathy and misbehaviors. Blaming the students, applying one unique strategy, or dishing out the same general learning to everyone fails to address the problems facing education today. Until education professionals begin diagnosing the unique causes of apathy for individual students, attempts to solve the problems of our education system will continue to fall short.

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