As a teacher, I’m reminded constantly to “keep all students engaged.” If there are students with their heads down or students not participating in a discussion, it is certainly the teacher’s fault! It couldn’t possibly be that students have high anxiety during their prepubescent years resulting in poor sleep patterns. It couldn’t possibly be that students head home to a house in which they help take care of their families. It couldn’t possibly be that some students are simply disinterested in the materials presented (as if all human beings need to be persistently engaged and ultimately compelled to learn math, science, social studies, and language arts for a minimum of 12 years). Most of all, it couldn’t possibly be that these students, these “disengaged” quiet students sitting (possibly) in the back, are simply participating wholly in their minds while practicing in the arts of Lao-Tzu’s “uncarved block.”
In Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, he references (often), the power of doing little. Our society is greatly focused on consumerism, no doubt about it. Furthermore, I don’t (personally) believe this to be inherently wrong or bad, but it is certainly not the only way one can go about existing. While modern times have produced a massive influx of information and methods of retrieving, they have not yet produced methods of discernment or reflection or languid thought. That is to say, using modern inventions to aggregate mass information is not correlative to living a thoughtful, wise, or intentional life. Lao-Tzu states, “Those who know do not talk. Those who talk, do not know.” Of course, such a paradox is not meant to (necessarily) be taken literally, but instead interpreted for its root truth or deeper meaning. I find that deeper meaning, simply put, to be stating, “Shout out to all the quiet kids in classrooms all over the world for taking the time to possibly be considering a topic that is being openly discussed, ruminating over it, and digging deep to understand what their stance may or may not be and then — if the teacher is thoughtful enough — responding with their own ideas via a plethora of methods” (e.g., blog posts, digital discussion boards, short essays, etc.).
Perhaps, these students appearing disengaged, shouldn’t be labeled (with haste more often than not) as “mouth breathers” who the teachers can’t engage. Instead, we should look to these students for guidance, as they are currently exhibiting ancient Chinese philosophies while simultaneously taking the time to understand information before spouting out personal thoughts and ideas. There is certainly something to be said for the students who practice contemplation: who practices “think before you speak.” Yet, as a society, we tend to praise the students who think little yet participate much. That, for whatever reason, is consistently used as a correlation for “good” teaching and engaging or rigorous lessons. It matters little if the students are learning to think, as long as they speak much and with haste.
I say “no more!” to such nonsense. It is important that we have students willing and able to digest information and analyze its merit. No doubt, Lao-Tzu would be riveted and delighted with our “disengaged” or quiet students as they live the life of the uncarved block well. Granted there are always two sides to a coin, but the point here is understanding that not all students engage in similar ways. Many students, as Lao-Tzu discusses, simply engage differently, utilizing deep thought and constant reflection. This may certainly appear to look “useless” to those grading classroom goings on, but with that said, it is important to remember, “When the block is carved, it becomes useful. When the sage uses it, he becomes ruler” (Lao-Tzu, chapter 28). Give those quiet kids a chance. Give them a separate platform to encourage their deep thinking. And, most of all, give props to those quiet kids in class; they will most likely never forget it.