Friday, July 11, 2008

Calvin asks, "Why are schools boring?"

A question and a challenge for you:

First, the question. According to wikipedia, "a School is an institution designed to allow and encourage students ... to learn, under the supervision of teachers." Learning, in my experience, is not usually boring.

(Click to enlarge.)

So why is it that schools are so boring? According to my friend Calvin, they're not just sometimes dull -- boredom is the dominant emotion associated with school. Why is the one setting designed specifically for intellectual stimulation the setting most strongly associated with flat-out mind-numbingness?

And next, my challenge: what would it take to run a school without boredom?

PS: This C&H strip is linked from, a site worth having bookmarked. (Is it legal? I have no idea.)
This strip is also instructive.


Vihao said...

standardized education assumes everybody is the same. i say get rid of standardized tests and make curriculum more flexible to allow students to spend more time pursuing subjects they enjoy... at least in the higher grades. i'm not saying you let the students do whatever they want, but just allow them more control over what they learn and how they learn it. some people do better with hands-on assignments. some people do better by reading. others need to go to lecture. how you would administer that is beyond me.

Angela Noelle said...

I teach in NZ, and I think school is evolving towards being more learner-focussed and engaging already. I hear rumours you American folk "teach from books", and I refuse to believe it. What percentage would you say do? I teach in an IBL (Inquiry-based Learning) classroom where I lead immersion activities, and then facilitate the students charging off on their own independent study. Not to be obnoxious and all "I'm-awesome-like", but my students don't appear bored...I think, because they are in charge of their learning. We also have a lot of one-week programmes where students choose what they want to do. These elective activities always seem to render high levels of interest and engagement. My students' blog about our last elective activity can be found here:
P.S. Love the inclusion of Calvin. That's awesome.

Rich said...

I think school would be more interesting if the material was connected to things that students were interested in, like pop culture. But I'm biased...

Good job with the blog ;)

Abe said...

Angela -
I agree that the trend is towards more learner-focused teaching, but I think it's slow. Stats on practice are hard to come by, but the best data I know of say that basic skills (rote learning, chalk and talk, etc.) still dominate problem solving and higher-order reasoning. This recent article in Science (download the pdf if you can) finds that "the average fifth grader receive[s] five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning."

The problem as I see it is not that teachers aren't willing, but that each teacher needs to reinvent so many wheels. For the most part, the American system just throws teachers into their classrooms to sink or swim. Although it's a little dated, the article A revolution in one classroom: The case of Mrs. Oublier speaks nicely to this problem.

Maybe things are different down under. Do you feel like you've had a good coaching and support system to help you feel comfortable and effective in the classroom? At what point did you pick up inquiry based learning -- or was it something that has always come naturally to you?
- Abe

Angela Noelle said...

Well, again, I don't want to sound AT ALL like I'm atop a soapbox, I'm NOT...but it appears things ARE a little different down under. I recently attended a seminar about International School teaching, and the associate presenting (previously a principal in 3 prestigious International Schools), said the attraction kiwi teachers had, for principals, was their flexibility and instinct to tailor learning to students (particularly content). I have been teaching IBL for 2 years, and previous to that, was teaching in a high school (where evolution is MUCH slower), and it involved a LOT more swimming upstream to teach the way I wanted to.

Sadly, I believe the problem with NZ's middle school and primary's rapid move towards this type of teaching and learning, is that the less confident teachers are failing, and failing miserably. As you have appropriately addressed, good coaching and support is essential in such a model! I feel most of my confidence and natural take to this style comes from my religious background! Having grown up LDS, and finding myself teaching from a young age in THAT context, I learned quickly that the doctrine doesn't change, but you MUST tailor it to those you teach. For me, IBL is about teaching essential skills, and they can be learned via almost any subject - so let the student choose! And as Rich said, even through pop culture. I had a student last year who presented research titled, "Distraction". The student had a large sample of subjects repeatedly play a PSP driving game whilst holding a conversation, texting on a cell, and with music playing, and recorded comparative scores - this lad spent MONTHS on this, CARED about it, and came to some fascinating conclusions - which were highly relevant given the media exposure texting while driving (an actual car) was having at the time. Let them choose, I say!