What teens resent: Classrooms controlled by students rather than teachers

When I ask adolescents what they dislike about school, they seldom mention testing or homework. A common and surprising answer: They resent classes where learning is disrupted and time is wasted.

While a rash of cellphone videos of school fights would have us believe students are ducking punches and chairs in class, it’s more mundane disruptions that undermine their learning on a regular basis, according to teens.

In the last few weeks, I’ve talked to several groups of students who outline the same scenario: Teachers don’t intervene when students commandeer classroom discussions or divert them. Repeatedly, students told me they could learn twice as much in half the time if teachers rein in their rambling peers.

The kids described unproductive classrooms where too much time is sacrificed to irrelevant chatter or tangents. A boy sheepishly said he would deliberately derail his Spanish teacher, a recent college grad struggling with classroom management, with meandering comments and “sort of became famous for it.”

The teens made a telling observation about what happens in classrooms where kids decide how much and when to talk — the students end up being in charge, not the teachers. And that, they said, leads to diminished learning.

In pursuit of student-led learning, more classes turn the floor over to students. Schools proudly announce they are moving away from lectures to student-initiated discussion and debate, but is that productive in a class of 33 kids where a few extroverts reduce discussion to recitation?

Several students complained about a similar experience this year: They were doing group presentations in science or history. The instructions stated presentations could not exceed 10 minutes, but teachers failed to call time when classmates rambled for 30 or 40 minutes. “The group before mine had four people who never bothered to work together on their presentation so each one did their own 10 minutes,” said a student, whose own presentation was pushed back twice.

Speaking of group projects, most students hate them and wonder why schools revere them. A teen said her assigned partner failed to show for meetings and then blew off the last three days of school — when they were supposed to present — to go to the beach. “She didn’t even tell me she wasn’t coming to class any more,” the 16-year-old said.

Volunteering at a Sunday afternoon baccalaureate event for my local high school, I overheard a student tell another mother pouring punch, “Oh my gosh, I just remembered I’m supposed to be working with your son right now on a project.” The mother assured the student her son would complete the project on his own because he wanted an A in the course.

Therein is the unwritten rule of group projects, according to students: The smartest kids do all the work because the grade matters to them. You always want to be put in the group with the academic strivers, said the kids.

Describing himself as both easygoing and driven, a University of Georgia bound teen from Gwinnett told me his teachers paired him with less motivated personalities since fifth grade. As a result, he dreaded group assignments or labs. However, this year in all advanced classes, he collaborated with highly driven peers, and it changed his view. “When you work with someone who wants the A as much as you do, group projects can be pretty fun,” he said.

There is a great social media meme on group projects that a student shared: “When I die I want my group project members to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.