When It's Good to Be Bored at SchoolKJ Dell'Antonia
Those are the words of the blogging California social studies teacher known as “Coach Brown,” which came to me via the Washington Post’s “Class Struggle” column. Education columnist Jay Brown and I are in 100% agreement here: we need to accept that sometimes, kids are going to find school boring. As a teacher, Coach Brown notes that new teachers are often coming away with the idea that their classrooms have to be “dens of constant engagement,” and the result is “edutainment” rather than “direct instruction that provides actual education.”
Coach Brown may be a high school teacher, but he just put his finger on why two of my kids—sadly, annoyingly and expensively—now attend our only real local private school instead of the public school we moved to this town with the intent of enjoying. My son had a really good time during his two years at that school. He enjoyed recycling and meadow-tending and creating a scale model of the monarch butterfly. He did not, however, learn to read.
Our local public school (our only option; we live in a small town) is deep in the throes of a theory that students learn best by doing. They’ll love focusing in on meadow animals, the thinking goes, and we can make it really fun and exciting, and they’ll just naturally learn to read because they’ll be so engaged and excited about the subject matter! Math too! They’ll just, count things and whatnot! Plus, we don’t want to push them too hard, we want them to come to learning as they’re ready for it!
I’m totally exaggerating here, and I know it. But that’s what it feels like, when your first grader comes home every day with a new do-at-home project like building a scale model of a woodpecker or creating a diorama of the American West, but brings you the same three-word-per-page school library book every week for months and remains incapable of reading it aloud without help. I was delighted that he was enthusiastic, but I would have traded in a big chunk of that excitement for any sign that he was actually learning anything beyond the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, which, frankly, we cover pretty well in preschool around here.
And after two years of volunteering, school meetings and such, we decided to chance the trade. Our only real option was the “independent” school, offering a classic, core-focused, math worksheets, spelling tests, Shakespeare kind of education. Spelling bees, timed tests, grades and book reports. It was exactly the kind of school my husband and I went to, the kind of school my mother taught at, except, of course, that when I went to school it was the public schools that scorned the idea that you had to entertain kids to educate them.
For what it’s worth, my kid is perfectly happy, still enthusiastic and excited for most of the day (and I expect his sister to be equally pleased, starting next week). It’s still a fun school, at times. But it’s a school that accepts that there’s a moment when you have to buckle down and actually do the work to achieve the goal, and you can spark up a math drill with a sticker reward, but if you don’t do the math drills, the basic facts of addition and multiplication won’t be at your fingertips when you need them.
I’m not a private school advocate. I didn’t go to one, and I didn’t want to send my kids to one. In our case the public school let us down, and I think it came back to that one simple question. They were so afraid the kids would be bored that they never let them sit down long enough to learn anything. Bore my kids. Go right ahead. You don’t succeed at anything or really learn anything unless you do it for long enough to be bored at least part of the time. Piano scales are boring. Ballet exercises are boring. Math drills are boring. Business meetings are boring, congressional sessions are boring, trials are boring. I’ve never performed transplant surgery, but I’m willing to bet it has its tedious side.
Schools should stop worrying so much about keeping our kids from being bored, and work harder on teaching them to be bored to good purpose. To make the boredom work for them, to find ways to see the good in the tedious, to be able to say, truly, that you are never bored because you’re always willing to work towards what you want—that would be an education that would pay off.