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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

Perspectives / Educating Jonathan

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      Last fall a Washington Post reporter wrote a memorable series titled, "Will Jonathan Graduate?" It was the story of a high school student who, in his second year as a senior, still needed three credits to graduate. Despite having caring parents, some attentive teachers, and ability and talents, Jonathan was blowing his chances by skipping school, not doing any work, and lying to his mother about his whereabouts. What was Jonathan's problem? The reporter asked, "If you want to make your mother proud, if you know you can do the work, if you swear to everybody that you want to graduate, why don't you go to class?" Jonathan's quiet answer was, "I don't know."
      Jonathan was not the only one at fault. The school's class schedules for students were frequently incorrect, and Jonathan was skipping one class because he was pretty sure he had already taken it. Students in some of his classes often tuned out or acted out, making it easy for Jonathan to do so, too. In addition, some teachers neither connected with students nor engaged them in the content. Outside pressures ruled. On the day of an exam, Jonathan felt tempted to leave school to join a fight, but he held off, at least during school hours.
      The conclusion of the story was in a postscript. Jonathan did not graduate with his class, but by attending summer school, he did earn a diploma. Soon after, he found employment as an airport baggage handler. End of story.
      But of course the story isn't over, for Jonathan, his school, or all the other schools that are struggling to reach kids like Jonathan—and those who are different from Jonathan, except for the commonality that they, too, are not learning much in school. The articles in this issue highlight a number of ways educators can make school a more successful experience for students.
      Acknowledge the problem. Reva Klein (p. 8) begins this issue by showing us that disaffection is a global problem. From the poor to the affluent, from the academically competitive to those not yet proficient, many students succumb to negativity, anger, and boredom in the face of an education they perceive as irrelevant, disrespectful, and unrewarding. Klein looks at how various countries address the alternative three Rs of success: relevance, respect, and reward. She also notes the necessity of resources, risk taking, energy, and determination to provide such schooling to students.
      Keep the focus. Someone once wrote that learning is more like climbing a mountain than a staircase. You don't climb a mountain straight up. You alter your path at each step of the way, meandering sometimes, going back before proceeding. But whether the journey is up a mountain or a stair, setting the goal is easier than is getting there.
      Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner (p. 14) address the impact of the test-dominated environment. When tests are the primary focus of the curriculum and when activities that interest students are curtailed, academically talented students laugh cynically about the need to learn anything for the sake of learning. Meanwhile, students who struggle to pass the tests sour on learning, too, becoming more unwilling to play a game they feel they cannot win. The authors suggest several remedies, including a simple thing educators can do: eliminate the sloganizing that permeates testing environments. Instead of urging students to pass tests, they write, "use language that focuses on mastering knowledge, improving individual performance, or seeing the value of schooling for enhancing one's future."
      Deepen understanding. Kieran Egan and Gillian Judson (p. 20) offer many instructional strategies rooted in the psychology of learning. They note that "reluctant learners" are often anything but reluctant to learn about their own interests, be it hockey, music, games, MySpace, or whatever. What accounts for these students' reluctance to expend effort on school learning? "The world we expect them to learn about in school is, after all, wonderful and endlessly varied. Why do they fail to see it as such?" Egan and Judson describe ways to tap into the emotion, the imagination, and the intrigue that all of us find in learning something meaningful.
      Be there for students. The term reluctant learner strikes many educators as wrong because it locates the problem in the student. The authors in this issue, like the author of the Jonathan story, see the complexity of the problem of disengagement. They know that a single factor is rarely to blame for reluctance to learn and that a single strategy will rarely turn the situation around.
      Many of our authors (pp. 46, 50, 55, 62) talk about the most important strategy of all—showing students that you care and will support their efforts. It must be the right kind of support, though, the kind that helps students stand on their own. Praising students for completing easy tasks doesn't help much nor does watering down the content or lessening the challenge.
      Reva Klein writes, "A fundamental starting point for addressing young people's disaffection with school is helping them gain self-awareness of where they are and of what they need to do to get where they want to be" (p. 12).
      Perhaps that's what Jonathan needed. It's never too late to learn, though. There's still time, Jonathan.
      End Notes

      1 Parker, L. O. (2007, November 11). Will Jonathan graduate? The Washington Post, pp. A1–16, 18.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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