Thursday, March 09, 2017

School Is Boring

I once asked our daughter Josephine about a mediocre grade in a high school class. She didn't like the grade either, but said she found the subject boring. I accepted that answer. She hadn't chosen to take this math class; it was required to graduate. She excelled in courses that had to do with art, literature, drama, music, science, and the contemporary world, those that she had either chosen or in which she was learning things she could directly apply to her life. I don't blame her that she found math boring. I don't blame her teachers. And I certainly don't blame mathematics. I blame her boredom on the requirement.

I started getting bored by math around the same age. Like she did, I continued to manage decent grades, but it was a struggle to summon up the energy to care, even as I plodded through math classes until my junior year in college. I was pretty good at memorizing formulas and deriving correct answers, but that's all it was, rote memorization because it wasn't important to me. Most of it, especially once we got into abstract math, wasn't even going to be useful in my day-to-day life and I didn't find it inherently "beautiful," so naturally I found it boring.

When humans are required to do something that they find mind numbing, it's quite normal to produce mediocre, even atrocious, results. It's only when we find something intellectually and emotionally stimulating that we excel. That's the way it works straight though life.

I teach in a preschool in which I can honestly say, over my 15 years here, there has never been a bored student. And that's because we don't have requirements. The kids are here to learn about living in a community by freely playing together: it's impossible for most kids to not be motivated by that. They might feel a wide range of emotions as they pursue their own education, but they are never bored. Of course, you say, high schoolers are different than preschoolers? That's right, they're older. Whatever our age, humans, at best, endure tedium, but that's hardly a future for which we should be preparing children.

It's not just fine to be bored with compulsory schooling, but unavoidable: it's how we deal with that boredom that matters. Producing mediocrity is one way. Sulky boredom is among the most benign responses. It could just as easily be full on rebellion, which is in fact how preschoolers often respond to being forced to do things they find boring, dashing away, shouting in quiet places, refusing to sit as the plane is taking off. Older students tune out or even drop out, opting to accept the "consequences" over the boredom. Some are coached into adopting an attitude of bright-sided optimism, ginning up motivation by refusing to acknowledge the boredom, sprinkling their pep talks with things like "only boring people get bored." Maybe it works for some people, but for most, the dictates of artificial motivation tend to evolve into a modern brand of Calvinism, in which you have no one to blame but yourself, suck it up, be thankful for what the grindstone is doing to your nose, and if you're bored it's your own fault. Many of these folks wind up burnt out by the time they graduate.

Children at Woodland Park do not have to play these sorts of mind games, they do not check out, and that's because their "schooling" is based upon them asking and answering their own questions about the world through their play. When we are free to choose what, how, and when we will learn, boredom, when it comes, and it always comes, is short-lived, because we are free to move on to something else, something that does motivate us. Boredom is a signal that learning is not happening: it's nature's way of telling us to move on, but traditional schools ignore this warning, leaving generations of children feeling that learning is boring, that school is not for them, or that they must go to extraordinary measures to keep their spirits up.

When student's lead their own learning, they are always motivated learners; when authorities lead, learning becomes much harder. That's not just me spouting off: it's what the research shows. Traditional schools, with their top-down model of feeding instruction to children on a schedule is the result of mere habit, not evidence. It's a miracle that any of them thrive and rather heartless to blame them when they don't. The proper way to deal with boredom "in the wild" is to find something else to do, but our schools rarely account for that.

Of course, there are some kids who are bored with it all. Those are the kids who should set of alarm bells because, in all likelihood, they are suffering from something much deeper than mere boredom. But for most kids, boredom is the natural response to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

From author Ken Robinson:

"When my son, James, was doing homework for school, he would have five or six windows open on his computer, Instant Messenger was flashing continuously, his cell phone was constantly ringing, and he was downloading music and watching the TV over his shoulder. I don't know if he was doing any homework, but he was running an empire as far as I could see, so I didn't really care."

This more or less sums up my attitude about Josephine's school years. She is now at university where, for the record, she is earning the best grades of her life, not because she came to enjoy putting her nose to the grindstone, but because, as she once said to me, "I either love everything I'm learning or I understand why I have to learn it." That's the way school should be. We can do it in preschool and apparently we can do it in universities, so why not in between?

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