The Most Terrifying Compliance: The Inert Student

I’ve been doing a lot with schools recently – enough that I won’t be identifying any particular students with this next post – and I’ve had an opportunity to see how students react when they haven’t yet made it into Uni. My first-years are a pretty energetic lot and, for the most part, it’s more of a challenge to get them to stop talking than to get them to start. (Part of that might be me, I’m un petite peu de Energiser Bunny.)

Captured using a laser flash and 1/100000 second shutter.

What I saw in some of the school-aged children was the same: bouncy, participating, not quite getting the filter going between brain and mouth. All the good energy that I can work with, use in collaboration and build upon to teach. Culturally, of course, this varies wildly and some of my students from other cultures would rather be electrocuted than say something in class. (Note: No evidence to support this exists, nor have we even applied for ethics approval for this.) So what these differently-acculturated students often do is… nothing. (When they first come to u.s)

They just sit there. Ask them a question. They say nothing. You have to wait it out. Eventually, they’ll say something and doing this, with care, over time brings them into the collaborative zone where we can really start to work. What is interesting, however, is that they are still (if you watch carefully) involved in the class. They take notes. They discuss things between themselves, to a degree. They’re doing something – they just aren’t that keen on answering questions. That’s ok, I can deal with that.

However, there’s a more advanced form of doing nothing which I’ll talk about now, because it bothers me.

What chilled me the first time that I saw it was the students who actually do nothing. And, by this, I mean nothing at all. In between answering questions, if they answered to any degree, they sit there and they’re not surfing the internet, doodling, talking or doing anything else. They will sit, still, looking into space, for up to an hour. Maybe two. No apparent registration. Can talk. Can communicate well. But don’t. (Note: I’m not talking about isolated students, I’m talking about students grouped by school.)

I would really like to believe that they are thinking about other things but, especially in a space that is active, that is engaging other students, that is full of the sound of discussion, laughter and enjoyment… this inertia is terrifying.

In my experience these students are terribly polite. If you tell them to do something then they will. But step away or give them a moment and they stop doing anything. My apologies to the teachers in the space who are nodding wisely (if this is just a thing that I don’t often see) but all of my students do something else when they’re not doing what I ask them to do – even if it’s sleeping. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one sit there politely, staring into space, not doing anything that could get them into trouble but, because they don’t want to participate, not actually doing anything.

As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a cultural issue but what it does make me wonder is if I had run across compliant students from a particular school rather than interested students. After all, as I’ve said several times, I get the results of the Year 12 filter: the ones who really have behavioural issues don’t make it to me. The ones who couldn’t sit still, yelled out, played up – if they couldn’t rein it in then I don’t see them.

When some teachers receive a letter offering an opportunity for students to come to something or to bring them to something where I come to the school, do I see the ones that should be coming, or the ones that won’t embarrass the school?

I have no real idea how to even think about this but I sincerely hope that this inertia is an accidental construct and not something that has been engineered as anything desirable. Yes, iconoclasts and heretics can be really, really irritating to teach but – oh! the potential rewards to us and the rest of the world! More importantly, considerate behaviour to peers and educators does not start and stop with mindless and silent compliance.

Let’s hope that this was an unfortunate juxtaposition of very shy people who will all contact me later to ask me more – once they’ve thought about it. Because I’d really prefer that suggestion to the idea that there are schools out there who are engineering these kinds of zombies and sending them along just because they’ll sit still.

I’m happy for “The Midwich Cuckoos” to remain fictional.

3 Comments on “The Most Terrifying Compliance: The Inert Student”

  1. One possible reason for students who are doing nothing is that the class is at completely the wrong level for them—either covering stuff that they feel they learned years ago or stuff they feel they’ll never understand. The insistence of schools on grouping kids by ages often isolates the kids on either end and makes them give up on school. The result can be withdrawal instead of misbehavior.


    • nickfalkner says:

      It’s a good point. One of the reasons that we offer two entry points and two degrees at our Uni is to allow for some of this. In this case, assumed knowledge shouldn’t have been a problem but perhaps expecting a given level of participation was.

      Thanks for the comment!


      • Sorry, I didn’t realize that you were referring to university students. They may be doing nothing because of several other reasons (which can also apply to younger students): massive sleep debt, drugs, depression, or no desire for learning. Many university students are there only because their parents have insisted that they be, or because they want the social status of a university degree, not because they want to learn what the class has to teach. Usually, though, such students just don’t show up for class (unlike lower grades, where attendance is often mandatory). A few students, after 12 years of training at it, have learned to show up physically for classes without being present mentally.


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