Guest post by Michelle Loucas
No one enjoys boredom. It is an uncomfortable state, leaving one to cast about for relief. If you Google "boredom" and "school," you will find numerous entries about the boredom "epidemic" in our schools and oodles of "boredom-busting strategies" to eradicate this outbreak. The essence of these cures is to "surround them with wonder"-- make schooling more entertaining so that kids will stop fidgeting and absorb what the teacher is saying.
Examining the “boredom epidemic” in schools and its supposed remedies, it appears that both students and policymakers believe that the curriculum is to blame for the mind-numbing ennui. Nikhil Goyal, teen author and lecturer, explains, “When I was really young, I adored reading… However, I have never enjoyed any of the books I have read in school. None. The dullness of some of the books I have been assigned by my teachers has drained the life out of me and my peers.” With the curriculum to blame, it is natural for a student to resent it and spend energy ignoring or subverting it at every turn. The number and variety of ways that students do so is, ironically, an impressive display of their ingenuity.
But adults experience boredom too. When this occurs at work or in a relationship, one must evaluate if this is a small, natural part of an otherwise satisfying whole (no one loves every aspect of one's job every day, no one's relationship isn't without dull moments). Or, in truth, does this boredom run deep and long, and does it demand that the job/relationship get a major overhaul? This is important work that we all must do to ensure that we have the life we desire. Preventing kids from practicing these skills-- assessing boredom and trying to address it honestly-- shortchanges their ability to be effective adults and pursue the life they want.
At the Philly Free School (PFS), a place with neither curriculum nor required texts, we see boredom as an opportunity. With the removal of the external bogeymen called textbooks, when a student feels bored, he must look inward and create a solution, rather than blame-storming. This is when creative productivity occurs. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Boredom is not an end product; it is, comparatively, rather an early stage in life and art. You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.”
At PFS, students use boredom as a catalyst for movement and change, an inner engine pushing them out of stasis and into a new domain. As a staff person, it can be difficult to watch students wrestle with boredom. They mope, moan, laze about, and sometimes beg to be saved. We refuse. It is sometimes hard to sit on our hands, to squelch our "teacherly" impulse to suggest interesting options or trot out clever distractions, in the name of "helping" a student who appears "lost."
But schools like PFS (often known as Sudbury schools) have been around for over 45 years, and we have learned from experience that the "lost" student is on the cusp of finding her path, if only well-meaning staff will stay out of her way. Finding that path is the student's primary job: it is the most important task before her. The worst thing I can do in that moment is insert myself and my "expertise." No one is an expert on her path more than the student herself, and the surest route to find it is through the boredom and out the other side. Here is the way Hanna Greenberg, co-founder of the Sudbury Valley School, put it:
“The minds of children aren’t blank or empty. They are busy all the time with taking in the world around them and trying to make sense of what they see…. We must be very careful not to seek to fill our children’s minds with our knowledge; rather we need to let them find their own knowledge. We know we won’t be around to guide them all their lives, so we must allow them to develop the tools they need to be their own guides. And that is best done by letting them struggle and figure things out on their own, and being ready to offer help when they ask for our help.”
This is not to say that, when the student finally decides to engage in an activity, it will always be immensely satisfying or long lasting. She may flit from activity to activity for quite some time. She may embrace art for weeks, with devotion and drive, only to drop it unceremoniously one day and lapse back into a painful bout of boredom. Or, she might trade in art for kick boxing, a passion that she adopts fiercely and exclusively for a day or a month, only to abandon it as well.
While some may dismiss this as "dabbling," at PFS we see it as the essential work of young people. Out of boredom, interests spring like mushrooms in moist soil. In the autonomous zone we have created, students have the time and support to explore each of these interests as fully as they choose. If that interest pays dividends, if it engages the student in a compelling way, sufficiently meeting her intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, or other needs, she will stay with it, dig deeper, until she achieves what feels like mastery to her. Then she can apply those lessons of perseverance, effort, and excellence to any other topic, well into adulthood. If it does not meet these needs, if its hooks do not catch, she will let it go and return to the difficult but rich soil of boredom, until the next mushroom appears.
In an article called “The Epidemic of Chronic Boredom,” Nancy Collier uses a similar metaphor:
“ ‘Nothing to do’ is the most nutrient-rich food for imagination. It is because of what happens in the unfilled spaces that we evolve. We all, both children and adults, need to be able to tolerate nothing to do. A hollow in a tube is a place where a nest can be built.”
What matters is that the learner owns the struggle; the boredom is her own challenge to tackle, not the fault of an outside person, text, or program of study. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch of a free, meandering brook.” At PFS, the student learns to use boredom as a tool to get him where he wants to be, a destination only he can identify, a goal only he can achieve. The school and its staff serve as a helpful support system, not a solution.
When those of us interested in education recognize that boredom is not the problem so much as the very existence of the curriculum--not it's duller aspects-- then we can begin to ask ourselves the deeper questions. What is school actually for? What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century? Who is qualified to teach and what does "teaching" look like in this new era? What preparation will lead students into a successful future? What is the measure of success?
The answers to these questions are intensely personal. I'll warrant that they vary widely from community to community, and therefore national or even statewide mandates on these topics will never satisfy, and may in fact disenfranchise many, while circumventing real progress in this area. But it seems apparent that these are the questions we need to be asking, rather than looking for clever boredom-busting activities to keep kids “engaged” at their desks. Once we wrestle with these bigger questions, we need the courage to fundamentally re-imagine our education systems so that schools actually stand a chance of producing the outcomes we seek. That ought to be a large enough task to keep us all busy for a long time to come.
About the author:
After 20 years teaching in widely diverse settings, Michelle Loucas coordinated the Masters Program in Secondary Education at Penn's Graduate School of Education. Dissatisfied with the depth of learning she saw in conventional schools, she led a group of educators and parents to launch the Philly Free School in 2011, where she continues to serve at the pleasure of the students.
1 - Goyal, Nikhil. One Size Does Not Fit All. 2012. 136. Print.
2 - 1936. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. "The Crack Up." Esquire (1936). Print.
3 - Greenberg, Hannah. Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept. 1999. 195-96. Print.
4 - Colier, Nancy. "The New Epidemic: Chronic Boredom." Huffington Post. 28 Nov. 2011. Web.