Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Transforming Disengaged Students Into Insatiable Learners

When traditional education fails, consider these alternatives.

I take partial responsibility for the mess I made out of my education. High school was a matter of survival, with little cognitive or emotional reserve left for learning. Afterward, I managed to hop around to five different universities; most of which turned into a triumph of skipping classes and margin doodling. While fumbling my way towards an English degree, I even once managed to set my alarm clock incorrectly and slept through an invitation for breakfast with Gloria Steinem. I still wear that blunder like a hair shirt.

By grad school, I’d pulled it together and earned my degree. I ended up studying social work and did not pursue the snooze fest that was my English/writing track beyond undergrad. But I’d loved writing. I’ve been good at it from an early age. Teachers encouraged me to run with it. And here I am, nearly two decades since steering away from a Masters of Fine Arts in writing, still writing and not practicing one bit of social work.

Yesterday, after listening to my favorite writing podcast, I pondered why school was such a tremendous slog. It has become clear that my individual needs, interests, and learning style were not aligned with my teachers, curricula, or cohort. I didn’t even possess the wherewithal to know “alignment” mattered. I naively assumed whatever university I attended was merely a means to an end. Just get through it. Just get a job. The employment-centric mentality had been drilled into me early on, and learning for learning’s sake was a precious construct from a relic past.

In high school lit class, my fondest memory of A Tale of Two Cities was not reading it. Ditto for anything Shakespeare. On the other hand, if I’d been assigned James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room or Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or Mary Oliver’s American Primitive, my literary horizons would have been undoubtedly expanded. However, I seldom had control over my syllabi, nor exposure to what was possible within the wider world of literature. There were few invitations or challenges to seek beyond the "Western canon"; heavily weighted as it is towards white, Anglo, hetero, males who were problematic in a whole host of ways we never would have been permitted to talk about.

University courses broke through some of those walls, but seldom within the required courses of my English degree track. Most of my exposure to African-American influencers, queer pioneers, and genre-bending artists came from reading in elective courses that examined periods like the Holocaust, the women’s rights movement, the LGBT movement, and the civil rights movement. The expression of human experience created during those impossible-to-fathom eras was what finally felt raw, honest, and engaging. Work that was born from something other than its own spoiled lineage of power and privilege.

I endured, barely, a curriculum predominantly confined to the borders of America and England, with a smattering of France thanks to the travels of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I would have devoured Murakami and Gabriel García Márquez, but I was not introduced to Asian or South American voices. I was not introduced to the essential art of literary translation.

My cohort was obsessed with writers like H.P. Lovecraft without consideration for his blatant racism and homophobia. We can and should read problematic writers, but it is irresponsible to ignore how their influence furthered, and still furthers, systemic bias and violence. Without that discourse, during which I would have developed context for why I was encountering homophobic verbal and physical threats as a young student coming out of the closet, classrooms fail their students. They are pedagogic dinosaurs. I believe today’s student wants, needs, and deserves cultural context, international scope, and no BS. And they can handle it at a younger age than we give them credit for. Without a revised framework, we miss out on opportunities to shape them into kind, well-rounded, critical-thinking, global citizens; and they enter the world unprepared for collaborating with a diversity of perspective and humanity. They will have a lot of catching up to do and I know first-hand what that’s like.

I previously mentioned that a few teachers encouraged my writing. A few held me in rapt attention in their classrooms. A few professors exposed us to the brutal realities of human suffering. Relevant today, they taught us that when we yield our power, the powerful first come for our educated (especially our writers). To those teachers, in the years after graduating, I wrote letters of gratitude for their encouragement. I thanked them for what they did to keep me going—their talent spotting—but I didn’t provide any feedback about their curriculum or pedagogy. I think that would have been helpful. Educators need to know what we need/needed from them.

If you haven’t yet thanked your teachers, write them. Tell them what about their teaching style or their syllabus choices had impact. Tell them what representations and identities their curriculum failed to represent. Tell them they need to incorporate representations of you, your culture, and other rich cultures that you wouldn’t otherwise have exposure to. Tell them you wished you’d been assigned poetry from Vietnamese refugees, love stories from Columbia, and memoirs from the Diné.

Because I now desire to fill in the gaps of my education, and because technology is available that didn’t exist when I was in school, I’ve embarked on autodidactic learning. Wikipedia describes autodidacts as, “individuals who choose the subject they will study, their studying material, and the studying rhythm and time.” I’ve learned more about writing and literature via educational podcasts—international and historical in scope, diversity, and context—than my degree program (even if I had fully participated). I’m back to being the insatiable learner that I was as a curious child, before high school and college dampened that spirit. I’m as eager for the next “class” today as I am mournful for how many I skipped or slept through twenty-five years ago.

With the pandemic forcing parents and administrators to develop new learning formats for students, now is a golden opportunity to encourage young people to utilize alternative education resources and foster excitement for deep learning in subjects of their choosing. Some parents choose homeschooling, unschooling, or hybrid formats for their K-12 kids. Some graduates are forgoing college for autodidactic adventures.

Schools will inevitably return to classroom settings, where students can discuss with teachers the option of independent study. A scenario in which the teacher and student co-design a syllabus for a subject or intensity of study not otherwise included in the standard curriculum. I designed numerous independent studies in both high school and college, and they allowed me to develop a close bond with teachers. That in turn creates a deeper engagement, ownership, and enthusiasm with the coursework. I fondly recall spreading a blanket in a sunny field with Pynchon's challenging novel, The Crying of Lot 49. I subsequently wrote a critical paper with a depth and clarity I'd never felt walking out of a classroom. The professor, whom I never met in person, sent me such glowing feedback I felt like a first grader whose picture was just hung on the refrigerator.

Alternative arrangements allow students to circumvent the innumerable throttles on learning bandwidth. They help students feel empowered and responsible for seeking out supplemental sources of information that fill gaps, correct problematic histories, align with their individual learning style and pace, and place them at the forefront of innovation. Podcasts, YouTube, supplemental reading, informational interviews, site visits, internships, hands-on creative projects, work-study programs, travel, etc. should all be options on the table.

The bottom line: If you’re a student, don’t wait for teachers or curricula to become what you need them to be. If you’re feeling bored or disappointed with your education, reach out to someone who can help you pinpoint the root cause of that dissatisfaction. Your education is ultimately your responsibility and you should stop at nothing to capitalize on the time our society devotes to it. Never before has there been such an abundance of resources to help develop learners into engaged, well-informed, global citizens. With one caveat...

Never before have we seen extreme wealth disparity make access to those resources so unequal. Leadership, to include all levels of government, corporations, parents, and school administrators, need to provide learners with access to resources that are best suited to each individual. This means leveling the education playing field with laptops for all, reliable internet, stipends for books and, my simple and affordable personal favorite, headphones/earbuds so that learners can self-pace, subvert boring content, travel to distant lands, and get lost in wild imagination without distraction. That, of course, must be paired with significant restrictions on social media, which degrade self-esteem and the very curiosity that kickstarts learners into taking the reins of their education.

P.S. I caught up with Gloria Steinem after breakfast and she accepted my apology. She kindly said that, as a busy college student, I must have needed sleep more than breakfast. She then posed for a photo with me in the little feminist/LGBT bookstore that had become my touchstone to a world beyond my small town.

More from Brad Waters
More from Psychology Today