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What Are Students Thinking? Part I

My day job is as a school teacher. For the past 15 years I have been a high school teacher in various schools around the country, teaching in diverse environments: one urban school in Los Angeles, CA, one suburban school in an Orange County, CA near the beach, and for the past few years in a very, very large North Dallas, TX school with an incredible amount of ethnic, racial, and economic diversity. Aside from that, I’ve been working with kids and students both inside and outside public schools, in secular and Christian environments, for over 20 years now. In my specific position as an English teacher--and now also a philosophy teacher--I get to talk with students *a lot.* In my philosophy classes, multiple periods each week are devoted 100% to discussing the fundamental questions of life. Literature in English class naturally lends itself to these kinds of worldview discussions too. I get to read their writing. As tedious as grading essays can get, one huge benefit is it is a window to how they think. So I’d like to think I get a bit of a ringside seat, or an inside track (choose whatever metaphor fits; you get the idea) to the student mind. Yes, there are some differences. For example, schools are run very differently in Texas than they are in California. The contrast in environments is exceptional. Yet, especially in terms of how students think, the similarities across schools, states, and environments is astounding. In the next several blog posts, I will be detailing these commonalities. Today, the positives.

One caveat before I get going: what follows is, of course, a generalization. We can all think of exceptions. Sometimes students can be pleasantly surprising. The hope is that there are those in the audience during class discussions that might not be vocal, yet they are really chewing on the content of the discussion and thinking deeper. Here are the trends, though, at least with those who speak up during discussion, which in my class is most students.

The good part is that I *do* notice a hunger there, a hunger to talk about deep things. Some who work with youth argue that they display this profound apathy about truth, spiritual things, and deep things. Yes, that is true to a degree, especially in my regular English classes, and I think the way we do education now in the pandemic has exacerbated that to a certain extent. But overall, there is an interest. You *can* get kids engaged in philosophical and religious issues. They like talking about this stuff and are open! I have discussions regularly where students are tripping over each other to talk, and this in an online environment, which as I just mentioned, you’d think would dampen the energy. They *do* gravitate towards talking about these things...even the kids in the regular English classes! This is especially true in my philosophy classes. Now, this might be due to a selection bias--it is an elective class and kids have to choose it (at least most do...sometimes a kid gets put in the class through no choice of their own) so maybe the interest is higher in those classes because the kids who are naturally into philosophical topics self-select--but I still think portraying students as apathetic to all that is more of a stereotype than anything else. They like debating! They like discussing controversial topics! Maybe the “covid teaching” hasn’t dampened their interest in discussing deep things. Maybe it has heightened it because they aren’t getting even close to the amount of engagement and interaction that they normally get (which isn’t much as it is!), so they crave these sorts of discussions. So creating a class culture with a lot of discussions is a lot of fun, because they are drawn to it more now.

Perhaps kids *are* uninterested in actually committing and planting a flag on a particular worldview hill...yes that is true. They are very dogmatically uncommitted, at least on some things (ie, the existence of God). They guard their autonomy pretty well. But at least you can engage them.

Relatedly, we had a lot of discussions this semester on very controversial topics, topics that get most adults screaming at each other, yet the conversations in the class were very civil. Students were pretty dogmatic (dogmatically uncommitted, as I just mentioned), yet we all got along. No Evergreen-College-style meltdowns, and it seemed like the kids really enjoyed the discussions and were interested.

That’s a good sign, though a decent amount of the civility is because perhaps they want to be seen as nice, reasonable, “independent,” and coming off as committed to certain viewpoints doesn’t serve that reputation very well.

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