Students Say Schoolwork Is “Easy”—But Still Balk At Doing It.

Students Say Schoolwork Is “Too Easy”—
But They Still Balk At Doing It. What Gives?

by Annie Murphy Paul

There’s something I’ve been trying to figure out about American education, and I hope you can help me with it.

In a recent post on the Brilliant Blog, I wrote about a lack of “student accountability” perceived by many teachers. To put it bluntly: Teachers feel that many of their students don’t want to work hard, and react with indignation or even hostility when pushed to do so. When students’ lack of effort is reflected in their grades, teachers, not students, take the blame, from parents and even from school administrators.

This is one side of the story, told often by teachers. Another side is told by students—at least when they’re talking to survey-takers—and the two sides don’t fit together at all. According to American students, their schoolwork is actually too easy. The following is from a commentary on the NBC News website written by journalist Amanda Ripley (I admire Ripley’s recent book The Smartest Kids In The World, as you can read in my review in the New York Times). She observes:

“When I surveyed hundreds of exchange students from around the world for my book, a majority said their U.S. classes were easier than their classes abroad. (Of the international students who had lived in America, nine out of ten said classes were easier in the United States; of the American teenagers who had studied abroad, seven out of ten agreed.)

School in America was many things, but it was not, generally speaking, all that challenging. In a large, national survey, over half of American high schoolers reported that their history work was often or always too easy. Less than half said they felt like they were always or almost always learning in math class.”

Ripley concludes: “The evidence suggests that we’ve been systematically underestimating what our kids can handle, especially in math and science.” Her perspective is similar to the one expressed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a recent speech: “To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids.”

So help me figure this out. Are we asking too little of our students? And if we are, how can we get them to work harder and do more—given that teachers are telling us that students are balking at the amount of work they have already?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, Brilliant readers. I find the situation genuinely confounding, although I do have one little glimmer of a potential insight. When students say that their work is “too easy,” could they mean by that “boring, not engaging”—and thus, could the answer lie in making schoolwork at once more rigorous and more engaging and more meaningful?

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