Friday, April 27, 2012

The L-Word

Here's a student. Let's call him Johnny or Joey.* (Joey is usually, but not always, a male student.) Joey is clearly bright, with-it, perhaps worldly in ways that other students, even the brightest ones, are not. Joey tends to do well on tests when they concern things he has already learned, such as grammar, vocabulary, or standardized tests. Joey's report card, however, tells a different story. He gets mostly Ds and Fs. He rarely turns in homework. In fact, he almost never does an assignment outside of class, unless it is to read something that interests him. (When you ask him to write a response to what he reads, he won't do that, either.)

When you ask Joey about his performance, he has one word for you: "I guess I'm just lazy."

By the time he's 16, Joey, the promising, talented student with tons of "potential," has probably been told that he's lazy dozens, if not hundreds, of times, by teachers, coaches, parents, and maybe even his friends. Every teacher has taught a Joey. I have two brothers who were both considered "Joeys" when they were in school, and their teachers and my parents called them lazy. I, a strong student, was still called lazy when I didn't want to do chores, or didn't wake up early on weekends.

But I have learned something about this. Does it make sense to call someone lazy who gets Ds and Fs, but works hard for 12 hours a day both Saturday and Sunday helping his dad paint houses or lay carpet? Should you call someone lazy if she spends all her time creating brilliant, funny, beautiful comic books, but doesn't do any of her homework? Is a young man lazy if he spends all of his time outside of school lifting weights and learning martial arts, but not writing that essay? What if he has trouble getting out of bed, has lost interest in everything that ever interested him before, and spends most of his time on the couch instead of hanging out with friends?

Very few people, if any, are actually lazy in the sense that they are committing the sin of sloth. Kids who are not interested in school are almost always either A) interested in other things, or B) depressed. Teachers often respond to these students by punishing them with failing grades. The problem is, failing an unmotivated student is unlikely to motivate him. The Joeys of the world are already not extrinsically motivated. Daniel Pink's terrific argument in Drive, better in the shortened, TED talk version (with animation!) makes this very point. He argues that extrinsic motivation (grades, bonuses, detention, getting fired) does not lead to better performance when cognitive skill is required. Pink has his critics, but his argument is still worth considering, especially in light of this piece on reforming our industrial-revolution-era educational model. This piece essentially argues that, rather than use a punitive/extrinsically incentivized model of education, we need to remodel education completely, tapping into students' intrinsic motivation and training them as critical thinkers.

So, when a student tells me that he's lazy, I tend to argue with him. "Well," I say, "I don't think that lazy people work at their uncle's store for 4 hours every night after school, do you?" or "I don't see any lazy people lifting weights in a gym. Ever."

There is one exception to this rule, though, that both frustrates and fascinates me. Teenagers AS A WHOLE are amazingly lazy when it comes to moving their bodies. Walking down the hall. Taking out a pencil. Standing up and sitting down. They are SO FREAKING SLOW!!! Why? I googled "Why don't teenagers like to move?" and got millions of hits about teens not liking to relocate with their families. I googled "Why do teenagers walk so slowly?" and had more success. Here are some of the answers I found:
In sum, the only context in which I allow myself to call my students lazy is when I tell one to move across the room (or five feet!) to work with another and neither one will move. THAT is lazy. If they're not doing their work, then something else is going on.

*Johnny and Joey are always the generic names of choice when people who train teachers talk about students. Even when you work at a school where no one is named Johnny or Joey. As one of my students once said, "Jimmy is what white people call their kids who are named James."