Escape from Reality: The Apathetic Adolescent

Chris McNutt
November 15, 2018
How can I possibly design a curriculum that conquers instant gratification? Especially when this content stands to be delivered no matter what (as it is a “standard”) and students have no choice in coming to the building?

Easily the most daunting challenge I face is the apathetic teenager, one who is disheartened, disengaged, or likely distracted by something much more appealing: Clash of Clans, Fortnite, Snapchat, the latest memes — what have you. How can I possibly design a curriculum that conquers instant gratification? Especially when this content stands to be delivered no matter what (as it is a “standard”) and students have no choice in coming to the building?

Perhaps the place to start is figuring out why teenagers love these activities. Teachers tend to jump to conclusions — that these ideas are dumb, lack brain cells, or are pointless, often forgetting the presumed retroactively viewed-as-silly behavior they engaged in. I believe engagement like this is valuable — it offers something teenagers are missing. People don’t engage in behaviors en masse unless they’re deriving pleasure from it that they can’t access easily somewhere else. What do they offer? Community, belonging, commonality, entertainment, and friendship: they’re all activities that anyone can enjoy, engage with, and bring people together. Just like sports or box office movies, games like Fortnite and Clash of Clans are the go-to way to connect with your friends. It is on rare occasion that students solely “zone out” — they want to be around others doing the same thing — it’s social behavior (or in some cases, a desire for social behavior such as via social media).

Therefore, the place to confront these possible barriers is to change how our engagement looks — if students want attachment and a feeling of belonging, we must build a curriculum which fosters that. A school built on trust — real trust — that listens to student input, allows them to take control of initiatives, and directs itself on their interests, will lend itself to learning. We must stop pulling our hair out — or worse, punishing and demeaning students who would rather do what they enjoy — and restructure what a modern curriculum can be. If we judge, control, and limit them, students will no longer see our points as authentic nor justified. It’s not a place for learning, it’s now a prison.

I struggle with any label placed on gamers or phone users — “they’ll never amount to anything”; “that’s all they ever do”; “can’t they just live in the real world?”; “they’re going to rot away doing that.” etc. Although addiction is incredibly serious and we must be steadfast in acknowledging that — it’s rare in comparison to the assumption that students are addicted to their screens. It’s because they’re not engaged, not because they’re incapable of letting go. I should know — I spent most of my formative years playing World of Warcraft, Counterstrike, and The Sims. I don’t regret any of it — I built friendships, learned about graphic design and computer coding, learned valuable skills of compromise and leadership, and how to manage my time so I could meet bare-minimum requirements at school. Throughout, it wasn’t that I couldn’t detach myself — it was just my detachment was more engaging — more connected — and more purposeful than anything school would offer. This is common — 40% of online video game players say they play to escape the real world. This may an element of addiction — but I see it as a problem of what our world is offering.

There is no sustainable focus on children to find their calling. An aside question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What college are you planning on attending?” does little to spark the imagination. Despite the overhanded use of “job-readiness” in schools — this takes the form of qualifying a workforce of boring, uninspired pupils that can master Algebra II and AP British Literature rather than people who are clamoring to work passionately. If I have nothing to connect to — nothing to works toward in the first eighteen years of my life — what’s the point? Disillusionment is the natural result: children work toward the next-step without qualifying why they’re taking the next-step. As William Deresiewicz notes, they’re zombies.

And after they realize how far removed they are from a meaningful life, they become grossly disengaged. Anxiety and depression rates are rising at alarming levels — doubling in the last 30 years. Coupled with less certainty in every arena: political divisions, economic worries, lack of a safety net, higher divorce rates, and “tougher standards” in schools — there shouldn’t be any surprise: our world is a scary, uncertain place. However, as teachers we have so much control in helping to change this narrative — even if it’s only for the short period of time in our room, it matters.

If we’re okay with our classroom being a place that is entirely based on relationship building — meeting students halfway — and meaningful connections to content and student agency — then we’re designing a path for purpose. Meaningful time, coupled with learning that attaches to student aspirations and experiences, will begin to establish meaning. And that may sound contrived, but there is a worrisome lack of meaning across almost everything in middle school and beyond. Initially, these changes will be hard — it’s not what students expect: the class will be less structured, less competitive, and therefore “not as serious.” And it wouldn’t hurt to make our classes fun as well — interesting, sure — but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the space you’re in. Overtime our consistency in making connections — loving students — will give rise to a community which is what we were all looking for in the first place.

The logical conclusion many teachers come to is to pair what students like with their traditional coursework: make a meme of neuroplasticity!; how would this Fortnite situation be calculated? I applaud any educator willing to meet students in their space, but endeavors like this tend to simply rationalize a system of control: get students to do the work we want by manipulating what they like to do. And as a result, our outcomes are short-term and marginal — the lesson may go well, students may be incredibly excited that day, they probably will learn a lot. But this isn’t a sustainable practice, because our content isn’t what students are always doing — and we can’t pair an entire subject area to Fortnite. We’re just updating to Teach Like a Champion 3.0 — finding new ways to dish out antiquated work.

Our ability to design a better future is based entirely on our willingness to completely change how our classroom works. To design meaningful experiences, we shouldn’t look at ways to pair our curriculum (usually, it’s a stretch anyways). Instead, we should be creating a curriculum that is engaging to students in the first place. Children want to learn — they care about knowledge — just not what we’re giving them. The only way to find out is ask — help guide their journeys — and build a better, purposeful future together.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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