Audience Participation

Will Fitzhugh

I remember once, in the early 1980s, when I was teaching at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I visited a class in European History taught by my most senior colleague, a man with a rich background in history and many years of teaching. 

He presented a lot of historical material in that class period, interlaced with interesting historical stories and anecdotes which the students seemed to enjoy. While I envied him for his knowledge and experience, I began to notice that the students were, for the most part at least, laid back and simply being entertained. 

They were not being asked to answer challenging questions on the material, or demonstrate the knowledge they had gathered from their homework or outside reading in history, or, in fact, do anything except sit there and be entertained. 

This was before the IPod, IPhone, IPad or laptops appeared in classrooms, so no one was texting anyone, but I did see that a few students were not even being bothered enough to be entertained. Here was this fine, educated instructor offering them European history and they were just not paying attention.

I understand that high school classes are only partly voluntary, that if students want a high school diploma they have to take some courses, and history is generally less demanding than calculus, chemistry or physics. 

Nevertheless it stayed with me that there was so little “audience participation” from these Juniors and Seniors. I couldn’t see that any of them felt much obligation, or had an opportunity really, to do any work or take part in the class. 

Perhaps the teacher was trying to entertain them because a junior colleague was visiting the class, but I don’t think that was it. I think that good teacher, like so many of us, and so many of his colleagues to this day, had bought the idea that it was his job to entertain them, rather than to demand that they work hard to learn history for themselves. 

He told good stories, but the students said nothing. They, too, had adopted the notion that a “good” teacher would keep them entertained with the absolute minimum of effort on their part, as though it was the teacher’s responsibility to “make learning happen,” as it were, to them.

The memory of this classroom visit comes back to me as I see so many people in and out of education these days, talk about selecting, monitoring, controlling, and, if necessary removing, teachers who are not sufficiently entertaining, who do not “make students learn” whether they want to or are wiling to work on it themselves or not.

As a high school student in Pennsylvania recently commented, “It’s a teacher’s job to motivate students.” Of course, football and basketball coaches are expected to motivate their athletes as well, but not while those athletes do nothing but sit in the stands and watch the coach do “his thing.” They are expected to take part, to work hard, to get themselves into condition and to carry their load in the enterprise of sports.

A sports clothing store near me sells sweatshirts which say; “Work all Summer, Win all Fall.” I confirmed with the store owner, a part-time high school football coach, that “Work” in this case does not mean get a summer job and save some money. Rather, it means run, lift weights and generally put time in on their physical fitness so that they will be in shape to play sports in the Fall.

I do not know of any equivalent sweatshirt for high school academics: “Study all Summer, Get Good Grades all Fall.” I don’t think there is one, and I think the reason is, in part, that so many of us, including too many teachers, have decided that teachers are the ones who need to work on, and take responsibility for, student academic learning. Their job goes way beyond the coaches’ task of motivating young athletes who “Work all Summer” and come expecting to give it their all in the Fall.

Those who keep saying that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality simply conspire with all those others, including too many students, who support the idea that academic work and student learning are the teachers’ problem, and not one in which the students have a major share. Of course teachers who are forced out of teaching because their students don’t do any academic work suffer, but we should also be concerned with the consequences for so many of our students who have been led down the primrose path of believing that school is not their primary job at which they also must work hard.

This article is cross posted from The Concord Review.

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