Are students rational when they’re disengaged?

I’m following my post on disengagement and resistance in the classroom with the idea that students may be rational when disengaged. As teachers we may try to convince them that it is in their best interests to apply themselves, but what does the rational actor model suggest?

Rational ignorance is where a person foregoes knowledge because the cost of obtaining it exceeds the benefit. They are rationally ignorant. The most common example of this concept is voting – voters will not pay adequate attention to politicians as their vote doesn’t count; there is no benefit to them of being informed, so why incur the cost of doing so?

In the classroom, students may perceive little benefit to what they are studying. They are required to study particular subjects as determined by the government, which often diverge from their interests. Meanwhile, in choosing to disengage, they are conserving mental energy and focusing their efforts on internal considerations of value to them, or impressing their friends, who may be similarly disengaged and reward such behaviour. Value is subjective, and it does not matter whether the teachers or government consider year 9 geography or science to be of value in the eyes of the student. It is all down to the students’ perception of value, and I’m inclined to consider that their perception of value is stronger than we give them credit for. For example, consider the extent of memory loss in ‘just-in-case’ knowledge. If it is learnt once and not revised, most of the knowledge will disappear over time, so it even fails to live up to the ‘just-in-case’ aim. To recall such knowledge, students must revise on several occasions over the next few days and months to achieve a high level of recall. The cost of this activity is quite high, and even then the value of the knowledge may be low to these students’ lives.

So we have a system where, for a substantial amount of students, they are acting in their best interests when acting against the wishes of teachers, parents and bureaucrats. Perhaps in considering education policy, incentive compatibility would be a necessary consideration. But that’s not what politics is about (which is another reason to remove education from the political realm and place it in the market, where the those in transactions are families and schools, not political actors.

It is true that students lift their game during senior school. The HSC is a big intellectual sorting system, allocating students to different university courses based on a measure of academic ability. Therefore, students rationally demand more knowledge during the HSC arms race. But justifying a system on the final two years of a 13 year journey makes no sense.

Prior to senior schooling, their is little benefit to marginal knowledge. Instead, perhaps we should be engaging students in projects that they value. To the shock of my friend, I recently suggested that students be engaged in work to a greater extent and far earlier than is typically the case. I asked my 14 year old students how many of them would be interested in work experience. Hands shot up across the classroom…

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