How to Teach When Students Hate to Learn

The first time I walked into a classroom full of mandatory students at the prison, I was appalled. They sat there chins jutted, arms crossed, and eyes averted. These grown men had failed the reading test given to them during prison orientation, and so the state of Ohio had ordered them back to school. Once again, having not measured up, they were trapped in a classroom. And I could hardly miss the signals they were sending me.

I didn’t understand at the time how the brain works. Later I would learn about dopamine, the chemical the brain releases when something feels good. Dopamine gets learning going. Pay attention, dopamine tells the brain. This is good. Remember this. We want to make this happen again. Dopamine increases motivation and interest. The more engaged a student becomes, the more dopamine is released, and learning spirals upward. Without dopamine, learning is lost.

But I didn’t know any of this then. I only knew I couldn’t teach when students wouldn’t look at me. I had to find a way to bring some happiness to their brains—to change their attitudes from aversive (hating to learn) to appetitive (wanting to learn). I stumbled for a few quarters, but gradually I found ways to increase the flow of dopamine, to decrease the aversion, to invite students to uncross their arms and lean forward in their seats:

  • I became a student, learning from them. I know some of you don’t want to be here, I’d say the first day of class. But here’s how I see it. We’re all adults here, all with different experiences. I hope you’ll want to learn from me. I know I want to learn from you. And they taught me, for example, things about the Vietnam War that I never read in history books.
  • I acknowledged the sins of my profession. Why didn’t you like school? I’d ask my inmate students. “If you’re the wrong color from the wrong side of the tracks,” they said, “you get the blame even if you’ve done nothing wrong. After a while, it just ain’t worth trying.” I heard about teaching methods that didn’t work and about teachers who had given up on them. I heard about boring classes. I listened and did not defend.
  • I protected dignity. Every question was welcome. I explained with as much earnestness the third time as I did the first. My first term at the prison, an inmate stared in perplexity at the globe. “Now, where is our country?” he asked, and, just in time, I managed not to show surprise. As I honored each small step of learning, fear in the room decreased.

I came to enjoy these classes of mandatory students—at least after the first day of each term. As students discovered learning can bring pleasure, their brains processed better. They remembered more of what they had learned and smiled more. And this increased the dopamine in my brain, as well. It’s fun to watch a transformation.

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