Zombie Detection
Some thoughts for teachers by T Newfields

"So Johnny, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

"And Mary, how will you spend this weekend?"
"Chill out. Gotta recharge me batteries."

"How did you spend last weekend, Jake?"
"Rest, of course."

Have you ever been taken aback by dead conversations such as these? Why do so many bright students turn into zombies? Classrooms are ideal places to explore why the process of zombification (Stine, 1999) sometimes occurs. Here are a few early warning signals that students might be zoning out, disengaging, and slowly ossifying.

First, notice the seating. Who usually sits in the far corners of a room? Deciding where to sit is a form of non-verbal communication and many students say "keep away." Do you find students who prefer to be consistently quiet and "tune out" classroom experiences? Second, observe body language. Halfway into some lessons you might notice their eyelids becoming heavy. After a bit of head dropping, the eyelids close completely. The movement of the chest usually attests that sombulensce has set iN. The third way to detect a living sleeper is through questioning. If there is a startled look of incomprehension, chances are person is either coming from (or heading towards) a catatonic state. Then again, perhaps the question was dead to begin with. How often do teachers ask living questions? Is the entire mode of teacher-student interaction somehow zombielike?

Most students who zone out skillfully mask the shame that they have no idea what's going on in class – or resentment that they have little interest. The classroom represents a complex reality in some ways threatening their beautifully vapid internal simplicity. The chasm between what's in the texts and in their heads often appears insurmountable. It's all too tempting to "chill out" during boring lectures and inept teachers almost encourage this. As long as they do not create a stir, it's amazing how disengaged students can be.

When classroom bells ring, sleepers generally awaken. Yet some never rouse from slumber . . . . even when their eyes are open, they move in a fog of unknowing. Zombies vary widely in terms of competence. Some are savants in narrow fields while others are inept in most aspects of their lives, relying on others to cover for them. The presence of an enabler is a good signal that a living dead person is near by.

With thick condoms wrapped around their psyches, many zombies move through life seemingly unscathed by insults, innuendos, inane gossip, and inept power plays. Such blessed boneheads seem immune to all maladies other than ignorance itself. Whereas many people feel compelled to vocalize about the unknowns confronting them or make symbolic gestures about their perceived place in surrounding hierarchies, adept somnulents elegantly zone out all nonsense and interface with the world only when necessary. In a society filled with frustrating levels of madness and many blatant incongruities, sleepers may be the best survivors. Even though they're derided as "stupid" or "slow-on-the-uptake", inside some are keenly awake. With tortoise shells safely covering their skulls, at times they are saner than the world around them.

"So Charles, what will you do after class?"

"And when vacation comes, Marie, what are you looking forward to?"

How should teachers respond to such students? Most students who habitually zone out of classes are so accustomed to being ignored or mildly ridiculed that this is a complex question. Generally somnulents can slide smoothly through educational systems because they have an uncanny knack for figuring out what minimal levels of performance are needed to pass. Here are three steps conscientious instructors might wish to explore:
  1. Engage – At some point let persons displaying evasive, zombielike behaviors know that you recognize their existence and also see through the bluff. Many zombies are consciously underachieving. They aren't stupid; they have just figured out that the system sometimes rewards passivity (Ciaccia, 2004). Somehow communicate your conviction that they have a worthwhile place in the scheme of things and that they are doing a disservice through underperformance. Those who zone out frequently often feel placeless and are used to being stuck in corners. The limelight of human awareness can awaken some. Others, however, are so deeply rooted in shame and denial that nothing seems to work. It takes most people a long time to make a habit of zoning out. Once that habit is set, don't expect a quick fix. The key point of engagement is caring communication. And if you don't really care whether or not a student seems to zone out or not, then don't pretend to.

  2. Mirror – Many zombies have no idea how they appear to others and act as if they not to even care. In some way, teachers need to communicate what they see, even if it is confrontative. Do not pretend everything is fine when it actually isn't. Part of mirroring is finding out what brings zombies to life and then seeing if you can't bring that behavior into the classroom. Zombies are used to deception and often adept deceivers themselves. Simple truth can be powerful. . . . yet it is often hard to predict with precision when that will get through.

  3. Appreciate – If noticed at all, people who zone out habitually tend to get attention only for what they do wrong. Rarely is there any appreciation for the things they do right. As a consequence, many passive students develop a habit of non-doing. The system sometimes rewards students who avoid the risk of trying rather than those who make valiant efforts but fail. To break out of the habit of passivity, actual performance has to be recognized and rewarded. Mature zombies might even see that virtue has its own rewards, but don't count on it. Perfectionistic standards about performance need to be discarded and a willingness to learn from mistakes embraced (Adderholdt-Elliott, 1987).

Finally, take good a self-inventory and make sure that you are mostly alive. It is far too easy for teachers to blame student for zombielike behaviors. Chances are, passive resistance such as sleeping is probably a good barometer of how engaging a class is. Many teachers are half-zombies and get caught in routines that are clearly catatonic. Keep a spirit of critical inquiry alive in class: both within yourself and within your students. A constant koan for reflective practitioners should be, "Why is this activity being done?" If you cannot think of a compelling reason, perhaps it is time to change the activity. Classrooms should be places for awakening, not zombie training grounds.


Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What's bad about being too good. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publications.

Ciaccia, J. (2004) A Brief History of Stupidity. Retrieved June 9, 2007 http://www.useless-knowledge.com/articles/apr/may068.html

Stine, R. L. (1999) Zombie School. New York: Scholastic.

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Copyright (c) 2007, 2011 by T Newfields. All rights reserved.
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