More and More, School Just Isn’t ‘Meaningful’

The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research has an ongoing project called Monitoring the Future. Among its valuable collections of data is an annual survey of high school seniors, a listing of which appears here.  The questionnaire is lengthy, and it includes the query, “How often do you feel that the school work you are assigned is meaningful and important?”
The breakdown of answers given over the years is illuminating–and disturbing.  Here is how 2008 broke down:

—–Almost always                     8.6%
—–Often                                22.4%
—–Sometimes                        39.1%
—–Seldom                             22.9%
—–Never                                 6.9%

Those numbers are disappointing, but most educators probably aren’t surprised that more than two-thirds of high school seniors don’t recognize the value of what they have to learn.  Maybe the low rating is just an expression of their feelings toward having to do the work rather than their genuine assessment of its meaningfulness.

Here is where the significance of longitudinal comparisons come in.  Just a few years earlier, things weren’t so bad.  Here are the numbers for 2001.

—–Almost always                10.2%
—–Often                             26.0%
—–Sometimes                    41.5%
—–Seldom                         19.0%
—–Never                             3.3%

Note how much the top and bottom figures have changed.  From 2001 to 2008, the combined “Almost always” or “Often” rate went down five percentage points, 36.2 percent to 31 percent.  At the same time, the combined “Seldom” or “Never” rate went up 7.5 points, 22.3 percent to 29.8 percent.

Go back to 1983 and the trend lengthens.  Back then, “Almost always” and “Often” took in 40.2 percent, “Seldom” and “Never” 18.3 percent.

More and more, then, the “meaningful” factor is dropping.  Why?

In this article in Educational Horizons, entitled “Toward a Connected Core Curriculum,” William G. Wraga blames it on a core curriculum that breaks subjects up into discrete pieces that students can’t put together into a coherent vision of education.  I attribute it to changes in the out-of-school lives that kids lead, specifically, the extension of social life to all hours of the day and night enabled by digital tools, which draws an ever-sharper division between in-class and out-of-class activity.

But whatever the cause, the declining meaningfulness-factor adds yet another burden to teachers.  Not only do they have to teach a subject matter, but they have to plant the conviction that their subject matter really matters.  They can’t rely on students entering their classrooms believing, “Yeah, this stuff is important, even if I don’t wanna learn it.”  Less and less do teens make the connection between a 19th-century short story and their daily lives, between World War II and career ambitions, Black Holes and the upcoming party . . .

This is more than just the old burden of “relevance.”  It may signal a new estrangement from more parts of the curriculum, and I don’t know if laptops in classrooms, more lessons in contemporary culture and youth issues, letting students pick their own books to read, and more collaborative learning are going to do one thing to stop it.

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