Do kids always need to be “challenged” in subjects they don’t care about?

Something reminded me of this story from my teaching career so I am just writing to process my thoughts…please forgive my rambling.

In my first couple years in my education career, I was teaching a high school math course that was based on simply the basic of math.  It was for students who needed a math credit to graduate, but weren’t taking something like calculus or a higher level of math.  To be honest, many of the students in the class either struggled with school, or didn’t see it as relevant.

One of my students (we will call her Lisa) was in the course, not because she wasn’t able to do calculus, but she simply needed the math credit to graduate.  Her attendance in class was terrible, and for the first few weeks, I was on her case about attending.  We would have tests, she would show up, knock it out of the park, and I wouldn’t see her again until one or two days before a test, and she would simply repeat the process. Show up, ace the exam, and leave.

On one of these days, I asked to speak to her and I told her that I knew she was good at the class so I really wanted to challenge her thinking and do some higher level work so that she would be compelled to attend.  Lisa told me that she really had no interest in attending, even if I “challenged” her, and she just needed the math credit to graduate.  Then I told her that she needs to attend or she could get in serious trouble, and she asked me “why?”, to which I replied, “it’s the rule”. Probably the dumbest answer I could give.

We talked, and eventually she convinced me that really, she didn’t need to attend.  She was working on something else that she actually cared about that had nothing to do with math. She would show up for any assessments, prove that she met the objectives of the course, and then go off to do what she was excited about and saw as relevant to her life and goals.  She ended up with the worst attendance and the best mark. Go figure.

A few questions this raises for me…

Why would we keep a kid in a class where they totally understand the objectives and have no interest in going further?  Do we need to “challenge” kids in areas they don’t really care about in the first place?

What purpose is school serving this student if she is just jumping through hoops to get a degree?

Has school changed enough that this wouldn’t happen in the first place?

Would I have done anything differently now?

What do you think?

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