January 29, 2016

Why Some Students Refuse to Learn

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

As a college professor, I often try to figure out the best way to help students learn. I solicit feedback from students and colleagues, I read journals and books on the scholarship of teaching and learning, I try out new exercises and assignments, and I reflect regularly on what strategies seem to be succeeding and failing in the classroom. I do this to try to find that elusive and magical formula that will automatically result in good teaching and learning. Although I know that this formula does not exist, I still stubbornly search for it and this ongoing pursuit is what helps me grow as an educator.

Recently, as I was thinking about ways to improve student learning I was reminded of one of my favorite essays on teaching and learning that is actually about not-learning. I am referring to Herbert Kohl's classic essay, "I Won't Learn from You." In this piece, written over 20 years ago, Kohl considers what it means for students to purposely not learn. He points out that some students actively engage in not-learning as a way to maintain control in a seemingly hostile world.

One example Kohl offers is of second-language learners who refuse to learn English because they fear the dissolution of their culture and identity. Instead of a willed refusal being a cover-up for failure or fear, as many people often see it, Kohl argues that non-learning is an "intellectual and social challenge" that can be affirming and advantageous for the individual. Those who make a conscious choice to not learn may be doing so to bolster their self-respect and gain a sense of personal control.

Kohl's widely-read essay on not-learning parallels a classic sociological study of students who also refused to learn. Paul Willis's ethnography of working class youth in England, Learning to Labor, addresses some of the same themes that Kohl discusses in his essay. Willis offers a rich ethnographic account of how the lads, the name of the group of young men in his study, strategically reject the dominant school ideology.

Like Kohl points out in his essay, the actions of the lads to purposely not-learn are in response to what they perceive to be a hostile and threatening world. They know that they are disrespected, largely because of their working-class origins, and so they choose to not follow the dictates of the school: be well-behaved, study hard, get good grades, and ultimately achieve success. Just as Kohl says that non-learning is an intellectual and social challenge, Willis argues that the lads have astutely penetrated the hypocrisy of the dominant ideology and subsequently refuse to embrace it.

A third and also well-known example of this process of non-learning is found in Major and Billson's discussion of the "cool pose" among young African-American men. In their book, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, the authors explain how these young Black men try to deal with growing up in a harsh, unfriendly, and violent social reality. Faced with oppressive social conditions and an unwelcoming environment, these men look for ways to protect and assert their masculinity.

Through their mannerisms, demeanor, self-presentations, and forms of speech, "the cool pose shows the dominant culture that you are strong and proud, despite your status in American society." The men who adopt the cool pose, much like Willis's lads, are making a conscious statement that says to society: "we're onto you, we know the deck is stacked against us, and we are not going to play by your rules." This attitude is particularly noticeable in classrooms where the cool pose results in a rejection of schooling and a belief that academic success is akin to "acting white" and "acting feminine."

All three of these examples of not-learning deal with different populations, but they all reflect the same sociological principle: to understand the behavior of individuals we must understand where those individuals are coming from and what external factors influence their decision making. It is shortsighted to suggest that individuals are not-learning merely because of some personal shortcomings or failures; the individuals discussed in these three examples are not refusing to learn because they are ignorant or lack intelligence.

But if we refuse to understand these acts of not-learning in a larger sociological context, then it is easy to blame individuals and criticize them for their seemingly irrational decisions. Drawing this conclusion may be especially tempting because quite often individuals who choose to not learn disqualify themselves from legitimate avenues for success. To guard against such short sighted and erroneous assumptions, we must constantly remind ourselves that personal decisions, such as not-learning, are outgrowths of the larger social issues that one must confront.

In each of the examples discussed above, there is a significant power dimension at play. The individuals that Kohl discusses feel as if their culture is disrespected, the lads feel as if their social class is perceived to be inferior, and young Black men feel as if their racial identity is threatened. The decision of these individuals to not learn, to not play by the rules, and to not do what's expected of them, may seem counter intuitive and self-defeating; however, their actions must be understood as thoughtful and calculated attempts to deal with an antagonistic and oppressive situation.

We can certainly gain valuable insights about teaching and learning by studying individuals who willingly choose to not learn. When we find ourselves in the role of a learner, we may reflect on those circumstances where we consciously refuse to learn what is being taught to us. Having this reflective awareness may shed light on some of the larger issues that are important to us. If we can identify those moments when we refuse to learn, we may be able to leverage this self-knowledge to eradicate the troubles or frustrations that are bogging us down.

When we are in the role of teacher—whether it's in a formal setting such as a classroom or an informal setting with one's family or friends—it is crucial that we be mindful of those situations in which the people we are trying to teach are rejecting our lessons. We should avoid the tendency to denounce these individuals or write them off as unsuited to learning. It would be more beneficial to uncover the motivations that are driving their refusal to learn. Having this information, or sometimes even just inquiring about it, could help transform and ultimately empower the purposeful non-learning into a passionate learner.


Throughout highschool I seen many of these "non-learner" types and it was sad to see them labeled as being unable or not worth the time to teach. You never know why someone might not want to learn. They could have been told from a young age that school isn't important, they could be stressed out thinking of other important things, who knows. I can't say all, because I had a lot of great and caring teachers, but if some of those teachers I mentioned had paid that little bit more attention to those students, who knows how that could have positively affected their outlook on learning.

They could have been told from a young age that school isn't important, they could be stressed out thinking of other important things, who knows. I can't say all, because I had a lot of great and caring teachers, but if some of those teachers.

It makes complete sense that the student is rebelling against learning to feel a sense of control in a life full of chaos. They can't control their home situation, socioeconomic situation or personal situations so they lash out at school. No parent, teacher or administrator can make you learn. It reminds me of children that have eating disorders (stay with me here), there is often a home or personal life full of chaos and they lack of control. Since what they put into their bodies is all that they can control and they hold onto it and control every aspect. (I know that there is a whole nueroscience and psychological aspect to eating disorders, I was just using the control aspect for my example.) Children lash out when they feel threatened in any way, as do adults. It makes sense to last out at the education system as they see it as an oppressor.

The dominant ideology can really affect students to refuse to learn since they are being approached as individuals and part of a social class that don’t want to be doing anything. Since the students have a reputation or more like created a group that the society has put upon them.

We tend to develop certain characteristics from the time we start seeing things. From the moment our parents showed us things, we developed a culture which sometimes does not necessarily go well with other sections of the society. However, i am of the opinion that shaping children at the right age will reduce the problem of refusing to learn

I appreciate the post and comments. So what does one do with an adult student (white man in his 40s) in an undergraduate sociology of education class who is an ideological conservative and simply refuses to agree to a shared set of facts with either the professor or the rest of the class? Certainly the dynamics of power are in play, but that doesn't help me when the student rejects the literature, science, and established academic knowledge. Any suggestions?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« What are You Wearing? | Main | Happiness as Social Control »