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Volume 31, Number 1
January/February 2015

Learning from Student Resistance

Mistakes educators make and how to avoid them


Ask a middle or high school educator what they hear whenever they disclose to someone what they do for a living and they’ll tell you it’s usually something like, “How do you deal with all that teenage rebellion?” Teachers know well that our society tends to characterize adolescents as if they possess little more than a propensity for nonconformity or operate solely at the whim of their “raging hormones.” Whether true or not, such depictions typically lend themselves to logics of control and policies of containment, which are precisely the sort of restraints that usually inspire rebellion in the first place.

The truth is, adolescents have good reason to rebel. Scholars examining adolescent resistance in school have identified a host of neurological, psychological, social, cultural, political, institutional, and pedagogical factors that drive oppositional behaviors. A consistent finding across these studies is that youth, like adults, will tend to resist whenever the demand for submission is high and experiences of inspiration are low. Put simply, teens often resist in school because they need to, they can, and they should.

How educators (mis)interpret and respond to adolescent resistance in school can have a profound effect on students’ academic achievement, interpersonal behaviors, and life trajectories. For example, when educators punish student resistance it can encourage forms of relational withdrawal and sabotage that undermine students’ academic potential. This happens because students aren’t just submitting to school; they’re submitting to us. We set the conditions in which our students are supposed to learn.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    M. J. Nakkula and E. Toshalis. Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2006.

    L. Paperson. “A Disrupting Darkness: Youth Resistance as Racial Wisdom. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 24, no. 7 (2011): 805–815.

    A. Valenzuela. Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.