"3 Common Learning Myths Debunked BY ABIGAIL TRACY
Turns out that some of the most popular theories on how the brain learns might not be true.
There are many theories the best ways to learn new information or a new skillset. But at least some of these theories aren’t as well supported by research as you might think.
Popular Science recently dove into the topic, looking at three common ideas of learning. What the outlet found was fascinating: From inherent difficulties with setting up studies to studies funded by companies profiting from positive results, there's more than enough to be skeptical about.
Here are highlights from the outlet's report (the full article is worth a read too), including the three myths it debunked:
Myth #1: There are "styles" of learning.
The concept of learning styles--such as visual versus verbal or active versus reflective--is commonplace, but it turns out that there is little evidence to support it. The outlet pointed to Hal Pashler, a psychology professor from UCSD, who led a study on learning styles in 2009. He concluded that to prove that it is possible to teach to a style of learning, you have to show that people don’t learn as well when taught in a style that isn't "theirs"--but that there are very few studies out there that do this.
"It takes a fairly particular sort of research design to really test whether learning styles really have any utility," Pashler told Popular Science. "There are hundreds of articles on learning styles--practically none, a small handful, that used appropriate research design. Their results tend to be negative."
Myth #2: You are either right brained or left brained.
At some point, most of us have probably identified ourselves as being members of one camp or the other, but research doesn’t strongly support this concept of the lateral brain--or that people have a dominant side of the brain that dictates how we learn.
Popular Science cited a study from earlier this year in which researchers did not find evidence of a dominant side of the brain in their subjects. They did, however, find that certain processes were more likely to occur in one hemisphere versus the other--but also found that this varied.
A researcher told the outlet:
The conventional wisdom from a long time ago is that there was hemispheric specialization--one hemisphere was responsible for things such as language, and the other for spatial ability, and that ne’er the two would ever meet. What developed out of that was a view that you should teach to one hemisphere or the other depending on what you were trying to teach.
Popular Science highlights another study, from the UK’s Learning and Skills Research Center, which states that even in simple actions both hemispheres of the brain are engaged.
Myth #3: There is one exercise that will make you smarter.
Much like fashion and nutrition, learning has its own fads. One minute playing Mozart will make your baby a genius, the next crosswords will fend off your mental decline but according to Popular Science, the research behind these claims are weak.
Scientists refer to this idea of memory tests improving your overall knowledge base as a "far transfer."
"We’re definitely skeptical about far transfer. If there is improvement for most of these types of training, it tends to be limited to tests that are pretty similar to the types of things you train on," Thomas Redick, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, told the outlet.
So what learning methods are actually effective?
"It’s not so much based upon how the brain is structured, it’s based upon our experiences. Our experiences do affect brain development. The wiring of the brain depends upon the experiences we have," Alferink told Popular Science."
"Chapter 1. Myths Related to Learning in Schools
It is little short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not completely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.
Is fundamental change possible given the myths our culture holds related to schooling?
This chapter focuses on the intellectual stultification of learners, the first of three fundamental problems that limit the quality of thinking and efficacy of the educational experience. Students in increasingly lower grades and educators at increasingly earlier points in their careers lose their joy for their work. They become jaded by the limitations on their imaginations, frustrated by the questions they are not allowed to pursue, and depressed by the more experienced peers around them who seem uninterested in their ideas. Somewhere along the way, we—educators, parents, and students alike—decided that schooling was supposed to feel this way, that the drudgery of school was necessary in order for learning to happen. We are all culpable for perpetuating this reality.
I am not the first educator to come to the conclusion that schools that prize efficiency over development of learners' intelligence will fail to truly educate. In fact, approximately 100 years ago, pedagogical progressives championed this philosophy as part of larger educational reform. John Dewey and his colleagues railed against an industrial formulation of education that prized organizational efficiency of knowledge over thinking, reflection, and the development of democratic ideals. These progressives put forth the notion that schools should respect the natural diversity of the individual learners as a basis for instruction and train their minds so that they could become engaged citizens. While the problem may be a long-standing one, it is exacerbated by the fact that the deficiencies of school as a learning organization have become more pronounced.
Each of us is born into this world full of wonder, curiosity, creativity, and dreams. From their first days of life, children begin to develop their capacity to explore and make sense of their surroundings, to bond with those who care for them, and to experience the joy of being alive. The way they experience the world becomes their "original research" and the basis for the conclusions they draw. When their formal schooling begins, their natural tendencies to learn are largely supplanted by the routines developed to organize their play and build basic skills. These routines train students to follow directions, be respectful of their peers, make predictions, and accumulate knowledge. These routines also, however, send a quiet message that learning is a predictable process managed by the teacher. Students quickly figure out that there are rules to the classroom, that kids are sorted based on ability, that there are right answers and wrong answers, and that there are ways to make their teachers happy.
This chapter explores how these early generalizations become pervasive myths that estrange students from their natural capacity to learn. Failure becomes a bad word and is to be avoided at all costs. Giving the teacher what he or she wants is critical if you want to get good grades. Questions are good only if they are on topic. Developing good ideas must be done in accordance with the directions. Students soon become more comfortable responding to questions with straightforward answers, solving problems that require a predictable solution path, producing writing according to a given template, and conducting research by collecting facts on teacher-determined topics. Intrinsic motivation, joy, and purpose are replaced by apathy, fixation on grades, and commitment to "do what it takes" to make teachers and parents happy. Many students come to believe that school is a tedious enterprise to be endured, and they live for those moments when the parameters are removed and they are once again their own masters. The result—boredom and lackluster achievement—is not surprising, but is this type of schooling necessary for students to acquire the knowledge they need to do well in postsecondary education programs? The final part of this chapter briefly explores the issue of college readiness and how the aggressive pace of curricula and measurement of discrete knowledge and skills do not translate into postsecondary education success.
Students are not alone in their struggle to learn. Consider classroom teachers as learners. They enter the profession with deep knowledge of a subject or range of subjects and a passion to work with children. But once they are hired, they are not required to learn about the course content they teach; such learning is voluntary, most frequently occurring as part of a master's or doctoral program, a community book group, or a grant-funded project. In contrast, learning about the profession is mandatory. Such learning experiences, however, often depress the quality of thinking, level of creativity, and optimism of staff. On an annual basis, the teacher is introduced to a new area of focus that will improve student achievement. The assumption is that if the individual adds this layer to existing practice, then students will benefit. With little clarity about the reason behind the area of focus and even less clarity about how to find the time to do this work on top of everything else, the teacher dutifully attempts to learn. The sincerity of learning, the joy of learning, and the purpose of learning are missing, but the attempt is made in response to professional expectations. Regardless of how interesting or powerful the learning experience could be, it is clear to all that the focus will be short-lived as this topic will be replaced by the next new thing. This pattern is as pervasive as it is dysfunctional. It is openly discussed by staff and administrators alike, but rarely examined as a habitual collection of choices that could be set aside in search for a better way of professional learning.
Acting on Myths
My conversations with thousands of students from my time as teacher, consultant, and parent have revealed a number of beliefs that are widely accepted in our schools; nine of these are detailed below. I describe each in terms of the effect it has on student thinking and explore the reasons many teachers deliberately or unconsciously perpetuate it.
Whether these beliefs are born from experience, comments from other students, misguided comparison of students' own performance with their peers, or feedback from family members and teachers, adhering to them reduces learners' engagement level, perceived capacity, and resilience. The stories students tell themselves about what kind of learners they are, what it takes for them to do well, and whether or not such success is desirable persists through years of schooling with minimal interruption or acknowledgment from the adults. By revealing and examining these myths, I hope to stir up sincere concerns about their pervasiveness in your own classrooms and inspire you to think about other tacit beliefs at work in your school. It is time to engage our students in honest conversations about what it feels like (and what it should feel like) to learn.
Myth #1: The rules of this classroom and subject area are determined by each teacher.
Many students see classroom rules, protocols, scoring tools, and performance expectations as driven by the teacher's personal choice about how to structure the learning environment. This perception is profoundly different from seeing them as expectations driven by a specific discipline— what professionals in the field do to create, develop, and analyze ideas and information; produce quality work; and communicate effectively with others.
Classroom teachers have tremendous freedom to structure the protocols, grading policies, and expectations for their classrooms. This individualization often goes well beyond the creation of classroom rules and routines—it includes what texts and topics are studied in depth, how student grades are calculated, what type of contribution is welcomed during class discussions, the extent to which technology tools are integrated into the classroom, whether students are required to conduct research, and how much homework is necessary to further student development. These are substantive instructional choices that have profound impact on what and how students learn.
While the proliferation of districtwide and schoolwide curriculum and pacing guides, core assessments, and (where applicable) state standards and testing has limited the extent of this individualization, many teachers continue to advocate for more personal autonomy, not less. One teacher explained to me, "Who would know better than I what is appropriate for the children I teach? I'm the one who knows them best; I'm the one who knows what's possible. Anyone who tries to do that for me not only will likely make everyone perform worse, but also is disrespecting my professionalism."
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that if good people with good intentions are each independently trusted to do their work, then everything will turn out fine. To the contrary, in order for the design of learning to be meaningful for the learners, it must stem from their prior knowledge, personal experiences, and current challenges. When continuity from year to year or topic to topic is not maintained, students become "blank slates" for their teachers to fill with new knowledge. The problem with the blank slate mentality is that students get accustomed to wiping the slate clean to prepare for next year's (or next day's) learning experiences. This willingness to learn anew becomes a liability; students lose the ability to apply what they have previously learned to make sense of new information, develop new connections, and tackle new problems.
Teachers lament this mentality—"Why can't students remember what we did last week?"—but express little hope of changing learning conditions. Coherence of curricular aims within and across disciplines, consistent feedback mechanisms, and models of quality work create clarity of expectations. When educators can achieve consensus not only about learning priorities but also about how such priorities are measured and what criteria define successful work, students can stop fixating on the personality at the front of the room and start focusing on the task at hand.
Myth #2: What the teacher wants me to say is more important than what I want to say.
Students come to believe that if they can figure out what the teacher wants, likes, and thinks, they will succeed in the class. Many have learned to stifle their own points of view, ideas, creative impulses, and problem-solving approaches, deeming them unworthy of pursuit. Students who adopt this way of thinking often elicit direction from the teacher to ensure that their work "fits" what the teacher wants:
"What do you think a good color choice would be?"
"What do you see when you look at the data?"
"What do you think is important to remember here?"
"What do you think the author means in this passage?"
"What do you think is the best way to approach the problem?"
This customer-service mentality is fundamentally different from working to produce a quality result. The job of a learner is not to please the teacher in order to get "paid" (through praise, good grades, a diploma), but rather to grow one's own capacity. In the following passage, Dana, a 10th grader, shares her insight about how passive she had become.
It's easy to take what the teacher says and regurgitate it without even thinking about what was said, and it's how we've been taught to learn. When I set out to write this paragraph, I actually thought I should ask my teacher to spell out what he wanted me to write. … If I tried to challenge my teacher, all it would take is a little bit of him pushing back to make me drop my argument and look like a deer in the headlights, even if I had a decent argument. Now that I know how passive I've been, I'm ready to make some changes in my learning style.
When students back away from their own opinions or points of view because of intellectual pressure or authoritative control, they learn to defer to the expert (and, perhaps even worse, to stop trying to develop arguments altogether). Colin, another 10th grader, wrote to me about his frustration with how he was taught to write by his teachers.
When I was first asked to write an essay or paragraph, I was given an "outline" where you wrote your topic sentence, filled in some body sentences, and then closed it with a "clincher" or summarizing sentence. I can understand the purpose and usefulness of this outline for originally learning how to write a good paragraph. Time after time in 4th grade, 5th grade, and so on up until 8th grade, I kept on seeing this basic format that you had to write by. … In 8th grade I began to get bored with almost all of my subjects because we had to do no thinking. Everything was "spoon fed" to us, as my English teacher would say. I decided to start doing things my way and thinking outside the box. I know that I am not a good writer, but when I get an idea I think about it and stick with it even though it may not agree with the format.
Colin's statements derive from years of school experiences where students are expected to take notes on key points made in class, follow procedures clearly delineated by the teacher in order to gain the maximum number of points, and participate in class discussions framed by questions designed to review content material. One student described her job as a learner as doing "bad karaoke" of what the teacher already thinks. Another described learning as "going down a path walking in someone else's footsteps." A third student stated, "If the students had more to say in what they think, then the teachers might learn more of what they think instead of just saying that they're right or wrong. If we had more of an opinion, the teachers might learn more of what we think of certain things and could make their lessons more interesting so they could have more engaged learners."
This passivity erodes student engagement and achievement over time, making it difficult for many students to reawaken their minds and voices to develop profound questions, big ideas, innovative approaches, and creative expressions when given the opportunity. While teaching students structure and appropriate mechanics does matter, there has to be a balance between an emphasis on the rules and an emphasis on the development of ideas.
Myth #3: The point of an assignment is to get it done so that it's off the to-do list.
Students who believe this axiom typically feel as if they are drowning in work—there are always more problems, more readings, and more tasks to complete. They become overwhelmed by the volume of work and the scarcity of time, feeling significant stress about how to manage the completion of their assignments. One student described how lack of time undermines personal connection to an assignment: "Most students just do the assignment because there is not time to really study it. We don't really get a chance to go further into the parts of the topic we are studying that aren't a part of the curriculum because we have already moved to a whole new topic." It is an understandable coping mechanism to work quickly, get it done, and hope it goes well.
The glut of assignments is intended not to punish the learner but to provide necessary practice to meet local, state, and national expectations. However, the effectiveness of a practice is determined by its impact on student learning. What if students benefited from the assignments only if they were engaged in the work? In the spring of 2009, the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) reviewed 18 studies of homework research conducted from 2003 to 2007. (The full report can be accessed online at www.ccl-cca.ca/CCL/Reports/LessonsInLearning/LinL200900430Homework.htm.) Here are several of their key findings:
There was no evidence to suggest that the general rule of thumb that the amount of assigned homework at the end of the school day should not exceed 10 minutes per grade level was invalid.
Homework has different effects on various groups of students. Those most likely to benefit from homework were older students (8th grade and above) and lower-achieving students.
Homework is more likely to be effective when students are actively engaged with it. Such engagement may stem from a metacognitive component, in which students make their own decisions on how best to approach a problem or task.
While research into the correlation between homework and achievement has always been complex, these findings confirm what many students and teachers would describe as "common sense." When students intently focus on an assignment and invest time in explaining their thinking and reflecting on the process, their achievement will likely improve. When students are given more work than they can reasonably complete, they will take shortcuts to get it done or compromise other areas of their physical and emotional health (lack of sleep, use of stimulants, increased levels of stress), which may only minimally improve (and in some cases harm) achievement—and most certainly will sap their enthusiasm for school learning. It is important to separate our professional urgency for students to score well on standardized and local assessments from our responsibility to accomplish learning goals.
Myth #4: If I make a mistake, my job is only to replace it with the right answer.
Students who think this way routinely erase incorrect answers during class work or homework reviews and replace them with the correct answers. These students do not attempt to learn what went wrong in the original attempt or to confirm whether, in fact, their response was a legitimate alternative approach. This routine of "erase and replace" limits not only the value of homework assignments but also the value of more substantive tasks. For example, when a student completes a rough draft of a writing assignment, he or she expects the teacher to circle the mechanical errors for correction and is usually happy to fix them, but more complicated marks (a squiggle under a sentence that is unclear, for example) are typically ignored by the student as there is no visible flaw identified or no obvious remedy. A student who operates under this belief expects that when an art teacher gives feedback on the use of shading in the student's work, that it is the teacher's responsibility to pick up a charcoal pencil to help remedy the problem.
While many teachers are irritated by students' lack of willingness to examine errors and grow from feedback, they enable that behavior by continuing to fix many of their problems for them. Some teachers do so out of a real concern that lack of willingness to help will be perceived as lack of caring. Other teachers continue to do work for students because it is more expedient. It can be quite time-consuming to examine the nature of an error. Still other teachers work to improve the piece instead of working to improve the capacity of the writer who produced it; they fix the sentence structure instead of reteaching mechanics. Ultimately, this belief will remain in place as long as the quick fix of providing the right answer is more expedient for teachers.
Creating substantive opportunities for students to improve their work is only half of the problem; the other half is dependent upon students' engagement with tasks in the first place. If the task that students are given is a response to an uninspired writing prompt that is measured by whether it follows basic structural rules or a set of problems that requires execution of a single solution path to achieve a single right answer, it is unreasonable to expect students to muster enthusiasm for the endeavor. When the work is not meaningful to begin with, revision simply becomes another item on the to-do list. Students must become more connected to their schoolwork through sustained focus on a select number of meaningful tasks. (This topic will be discussed further in Chapter 4.)
Myth #5: I feel proud of myself only if I receive a good grade.
Students use grades to identify and sort themselves as learners: being a straight-A student becomes an identity, not just a grade point average. Students also use grades to discern their current and future capacity in a subject area: "I got an F in science, but that's okay because I know that I am not good at it." "I got a B on my essay, but I always get Bs, no matter how hard I try." Often, students only glance at the comments that accompany their grades (if they read them at all), even though this explicit feedback is the most time-consuming for teachers to communicate as well as a powerful tool for students to use to improve their performance on similar tasks. One high school student explained to me, "If we get a bad grade on something, we automatically jump to the fact that we can't do that particular thing. We don't think, 'Well, I got that right, so I must be improving.' We just conclude that we can't do it and feel lower than other students who got better grades."
Some teachers I have spoken with would take this belief a step further. They contend that students view grades not as a description of their achievement, but rather as an end in and of itself. They lament the fact that students appear more interested in maximizing the points they earned than in learning the ideas, logic, skills, or information central to the task. Thomas Guskey and Jane Bailey (2001) suggest that grades in fact do become a commodity:
Around the middle school years and sometimes earlier … students no longer see grades as a source of feedback to guide improvements in their learning. Instead, they regard grades as the major commodity teachers and schools have to offer in exchange for their performance. This change brings a slow but steady shift in students' focus away from learning toward what they must do to obtain the grade commodity. … That is why, for example, the first questions students ask when a teacher announces an upcoming project or event are 'Does it count?' and 'How many points is it worth?' Teachers' answers to these questions give students a clear idea of how much importance they should attach to that particular event. (pp. 18–19)
In Chapter 5, I will discuss in greater depth how the use of grades and other rewards as extrinsic motivation limits success. For now, it is fair to surmise that students use grades in ways that are quite dysfunctional: they either see the score as an indicator of their intelligence or as a sign of their ability to play the game of school. Grades must become more transparent measures of true achievement that provide students and parents with good information about current performance in order to improve future performance.
Myth #6: Speed is synonymous with intelligence.
Students who hold this belief watch other students finish first and become envious. "Why can't I be finished already, too?" they wonder. Often these students either try to work at a pace that is unnatural for them—too quickly to focus on the details, nuances, development, and mechanics of the task—or they work at their own pace but berate themselves for being slow or stupid. This generalization is further magnified when students feel little connection to the work that they are doing in the first place (see Myths #2 and #9). Learning can become tedious when stripped of its playfulness and passion, and students begin to operate on automatic pilot or at an artificial speed.
Students are not alone in this race: their teachers operate at an even more relentless pace. Teachers validate this belief in their rush to "cover" an untenably long list of content topics, skills, and strategies before a test date or before the end of the school year. I distinctly remember walking down the hallway behind two high school math teachers around 10:00 a.m. on the first day of school. One teacher complained to the other that she was already "hopelessly behind" because she hadn't had a chance to give students their homework assignment, which meant that tomorrow's lesson wouldn't work. That problem was compounded by the short schedule on the following day for a school pep rally and a short week for the first week of school. "That means this week is already over, putting me one week behind already," she worried. This level of time pressure is absurd. How is it healthy for teachers to be "behind" within three hours of the start of the school year?
Not only does this mythical rapid pace cause significant stress in both teachers and students, it also creates rigidity in their minds and dialogues. The pressures to prepare students for standardized tests and curricular exams as well as the pressure to finish the curriculum over the course of the year makes it difficult for teachers to welcome alternate points of view, interpretations, ways of communicating, and solution paths. In the desire to be more expedient, teachers are too busy to be supportive of the natural inefficiency of learning—figuring it out in your own way, in your own words, on your own schedule. Students who are quick to get the answer or who demonstrate fluency with a procedure become models for the rest of the class; they provide relief and a sense of satisfaction that perhaps covering the curriculum in the time allotted is possible, at least for some.
Speed pressure also causes teachers to be less willing to entertain "good ideas" in staff development. They are so focused on the calendar and what they still have to do that any innovative or inspiring idea becomes "one more thing" to add to an already overloaded schedule. There must be ample space in the classroom for teachers and students to learn inefficiently—"elbow room" to explore interesting tangents, compare points of view, and consider alternate solution paths.
Myth #7: If I get too far behind, I will never catch up.
Students who believe this assume that teachers and other students label them: "He's one of the slow ones." "She tries hard but doesn't really get it." "He's just not that smart." They also believe that teachers sort, group, and schedule them differently than other students. They think that teachers are giving them easier work, which only widens the gap between them and their peers. Without necessary space in pacing guides, unit designs, or school schedule, students who work at a slower pace become difficult to teach. While their struggles may be normal given the complexity of the subject matter, lack of prior knowledge, or disconnect with personal frame of reference, the further behind a student becomes, the more frustrating he or she is to teach. It isn't personal; it's just that there is so much to do within the given school year that the task of remediation becomes untenable. Some teachers openly wonder whether students who are too far behind should even be in their classrooms: "How can I be expected to teach them 4th grade math if they didn't learn what they needed to last year?" Other teachers wonder whether it is fair to expect students who are struggling to meet the same expectations as the rest of the class: "Isn't it mean-spirited to hold students accountable to an expectation they can't meet?" When time is packed too tightly, a small rough patch or a bad marking period can quickly snowball into much more serious academic problems. Once again, there must be ample space in the classroom for students to struggle, to not get it, or to be behind without such struggles turning into an instant crisis.
Myth #8: The way I want to be seen by my classmates affects the way I conduct myself as a learner.
Students who think this way project an image of what learning is like for them that may or may not reflect their genuine experience. Students and teachers alike become accustomed to the character the learner plays with little consideration as to its authenticity. It is fascinating, however, how learners change their role in certain classrooms because of the subject matter, the teacher, or the models set by the students around them. A student may be slumped in his or her seat for an entire class period, and then become an energetic participant in the next class. Many teachers simply accept the student in front of them as "the real student" instead of wondering about what motivates that particular learner and whether the behaviors they observe are the exception or the norm. Teachers may also forget how the classroom becomes a stage where the scenes enacted are less about the content of the plot and more about the dynamics of human relationships.
Appearances can be deceiving. The nonchalant attitude a student exhibits may mask the real effort invested in completing a task or preparing for a test. Detachment during class discussions and small-group tasks may mask real insecurity about whether a student believes he or she has something smart or interesting to contribute. An aggressive attempt to take control of a conversation or a group assignment may cover up a real fear of getting a bad grade or worry about being seen as less intelligent than others. Regardless of what is going on with students at or beneath the surface, the job of the teacher is to draw out learners so that engagement is possible. It is likely that the terms and the degree of engagement are different for every learner, but engagement affects the quality and potential joy of learning, making it a nonnegotiable goal.
Myth #9: What I'm learning in school doesn't have much to do with my life, but it isn't supposed to —it's school.
Students who think this way have resigned themselves to the idea that school is boring. School is what happens in between more meaningful learning experiences, such as communicating with friends, researching topics of personal interest, and learning how to solve authentic problems in their own lives. A young woman explained to me, "I feel sometimes that I just really need to get the homework or project done. It is hard to really get into what I am doing because most of the projects and homework that I do don't interest me, but I know that I need to have them for later on in life." Straight-A students and failing students alike may tell this tale; their performance is based on the extent to which they have made peace with this belief.
Teachers and parents often defer curricular relevance to "someday"— someday when you go to college, when you have bills to pay, when you are in charge of your own reading selections, when you can select your own career, when you can create your masterpiece, when you start your own business, this learning will be relevant. But what's the likelihood that what students learn in school will still be accessible if they never commit themselves to learning in the first place? If students do not create cognitive structures to flexibly store and access knowledge (establishing patterns, creating connections, and so on), their years of schooling will likely be of little use when "someday" finally does show up.
Effect of Teaching and Learning Myths on Life and Work in School
When students are bored with the work they are asked to do, they superficially read texts, casually execute procedures, and cursorily explain their thinking. If students do not experience flow (see the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and do not regularly work in the zone of proximal development, they become acculturated to the boredom generated by the nine myths explored in this chapter. This detachment makes it increasingly difficult for students to retain learning after the lesson, unit, or year is over, and harder for teachers to improve student performance. Listen in on a virtual conversation among commenters on a blog I discovered by typing "bored in school" into the Google search engine (the blog post in question can be found at www.takingchildrenseriously.com/sooooo_bored_in_school):
Comment: I used to liven up lessons by drawing a grid with one space for each minute, and coloring them in as the minutes passed.
Comment: LOL, I had other kill-the-time games as well. It amazes and saddens me to reflect on how much of my irreplaceable life was wasted that way.
Comment: The point of school is to learn to cope with boredom? … I can't say that my school-endurance skills have served me well in adult life. Meetings at work, for instance, are much harder because of the school-inculcated reflex to zone out and become lost in my own thoughts. School didn't teach me to pay attention to dull talk; it did the opposite by providing plenty of strengthening practice for the ability to escape mentally. It was a survival technique in school, but a detriment in the real world. And it took years to break the habit.
Comment: Thinking about it … it's kind of funny. right now im sitting in school, being bored outta my head, i surf the internet, and i find this whole thing, i keep reading what the person wrote and what the reader wrote … and the whole class is finished now, and this whole thing kept me entertained … ya we do suffer from bordness … i dont think there is gonna be a solution … thats just nature … unless u find somethin to do …
Comment: Almost any teen in any school could be writing this today. Waiting for the next bell. Most of what goes on in school is so scheduled and programmed right down to the minute-by-minute detail of each lesson plan that it is almost more productive to color squares by the minute. Since children are so often bored in scheduled classes and don't pay attention, homework is assigned. Homework is documented evidence that school does not work like it is supposed to, for can any of us imagine spending almost eight hours a day in class and still needing to do "homework" to learn the lesson?
Pair these colorful excerpts with research findings from the 2007 & 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement. This research project "conceives of student engagement as a deeper and broader construct, one that allows us to capture a variety of ways in which students may or may not be engaged in the life and work of a school" (Yazzie-Mintz, 2009, p. 2). The data in Figure 1.1 are excerpted from the extensive study of more than 134,000 student responses from a diverse representation of public high schools (91 percent of total sample) across the United States.
Figure 1.1. Data from the 2007 and 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement
Pervasiveness of Boredom in School
Two out of three respondents (67% in each year) are bored at least every day in class in high school.
Approximately half of the students (51% in 2007, 50% in 2008) are bored every day.
Approximately one out of every six students (16% in 2007, 17% in 2008) are bored in every class.
Only 2% in each year report never being bored.
Reasons Why School Is Boring
More than four out of five cited a reason for their boredom as "Material wasn't interesting" (83% in 2007, 82% in 2008).
About two out of five students (41% in each year) claimed that the lack of relevance of the material caused their boredom.
About one-third of the students (33% in 2007, 32% in 2008) were bored because "Work wasn't challenging enough."
Just over one-fourth (27% in each year) of respondents were bored because "Work was too difficult."
More than one-third of respondents (35% in each year) were bored due to "No interaction with teacher."
Perceived Impact of School on Future Success
Not more than one-third of the students reported that their school contributed "Very Much" to their growth in the following areas related to rigor and relevance:
"Acquiring skills related to work after high school" (23% in 2007, 24% in 2008)
"Writing effectively" (31% in 2007, 30% in 2008)
"Speaking effectively" (27% in each year)
"Thinking critically" (32% in each year)
"Reading and understanding challenging materials" (28% in each year)
"Learning independently" (28% in 2007, 30% in 2008)
"Solving real-world problems" (20% in 2007, 21% in 2008)
Source: Adapted from Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2009). Engaging the voices of students: A report on the 2007 and 2008 high school survey of student engagement (pp. 5–8). Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from http://indiana.edu/nceep/hssse/images/hssse_2009_report.pdf
Educators and parents may bemoan the lack of self-discipline of today's learners, but it is unreasonable to expect children to commit themselves to work that is educationally deadening. Boredom not only weakens students' focus on their schoolwork, it can also engender frustration that can manifest itself in depression and anger. The following quote comes from Fritz Redl (1972), who has been described as the father of modern psychoeducation:
Boredom will always remain the greatest enemy of school discipline. If we remember that children are bored, not only when they don't happen to be interested in the subject or when the teacher doesn't make it interesting, but also when certain working conditions are out of focus with their basic needs, then we can realize what a great contributor to discipline problems boredom really is. Research has shown that boredom is closely related to frustration and that the effect of too much frustration is invariably irritability, withdrawal, rebellious opposition or aggressive rejection of the whole show. (p. 297)
Not surprisingly, many educators have become committed to the notion that improving student engagement is central to school effectiveness. In fact, when I was working with a group of administrators at a leadership retreat, it was the most commonly cited focus of site-based improvement plans. While the leaders believed that student boredom was a serious problem in elementary through high school, they were less clear on the source of that boredom. They had identified possible solutions (cooperative learning, technology tools, and performance tasks), but they were largely fixated on creating external sources of stimulation rather than examining the internal motivation of the learner. Boredom cannot be cured with neat tools and temporary breaks from drudgery; it is symptomatic of the profound disconnect between the learner and the learning organization. To blame, punish, or negatively label the learner for that disconnect is, at the very least, shortsighted. There is nothing wrong with our students as learners; they just don't learn well under the conditions we have designed.
Perhaps you are unmoved by how students "feel" about their learning experience. Some critics would in fact suggest that feelings are irrelevant; ultimately, school is about getting results and accomplishing targeted goals. Consider the following student achievement statistics for elementary, middle, and high school performance.
Elementary and Middle School Performance
Just under one-third of American 4th and 8th graders show solid academic proficiency in reading and math. Proficiency represents demonstrated competency, application in real-world situations, and relevant analytical skills (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2004a, 2004b).
On international comparisons in math, American 4th graders scored lower than 11 other countries and American 8th graders scored lower than 14 other countries (Mullis, Martin, & Foy, 2005).
High School Performance
Despite an increase in college preparatory courses from 10 percent in 1982 to just over 50 percent in 2004, reading scores did not change and math scores only increased slightly (NAEP Data Explorer, 2010).
On average, U.S. students scored lower than OECD average on the combined science and literacy scale (489 vs. 500) and mathematics scale (474 vs. 498) (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.).
In 1982, approximately 42 percent of high school students were on an academic track and 23 percent were on a vocational track; by 1998, 71 percent of students were on an academic track and only 4 percent were on a vocational track (Hoxby, 2003).
The dropout rate is not necessarily a low-income issue; middle-income students made up 61.1 percent of dropouts from grades 10–12 in 2000 (Kaufman, Alt, & Chapman, 2001).
Some would suggest that school is designed not around the natural intelligence of the learner or around standardized test measures but rather around the knowledge that students must acquire in order to do well in college. They might say that boredom may be inevitable, but it's acceptable as long as those students who do graduate from high school have the appropriate knowledge base to continue their studies and assume more control of their course selection and future vocation. So how do students fare once they arrive at college?
College instructors estimate that 42 percent of college students are not adequately prepared for the demands of college by the education they received in high school; 39 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college say there are gaps in their preparation (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2005).
An ever-increasing proportion of high school students in the United States today aspire to college. Yet statistics indicate that the percentage of college students receiving bachelor's degrees has remained relatively constant over the past 25 years (Conley, 2005, p. xi).
Somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of postsecondary students now require remedial education upon entry to college, depending on the type of institution they attend (Conley, 2005, p. xi).
David Conley posits that student struggles in subjects in science, technology, and mathematics originate in the lack of curricular alignment between high school and college, as well as inadequate development of students' cognitive, interpersonal, and study skills:
Although many high schools do strive to challenge students to engage at deeper levels, the structure of the curriculum and the emphasis on simply completing required courses creates the wrong mentality. Students enter college expecting assignments and tests with clear right and wrong answers that do not require much interpretation or even much thinking. When interpretation is required, they often assume that any kind of interpretation will be acceptable and are surprised and even offended when they are told that they must apply certain disciplinary rules of thinking and analysis in order for their argument to be considered worthwhile or correct. In other words, they have completed the introduction to the discipline without developing the habits of mind necessary to engage fully in the study and understanding of that discipline. (Conley, 2005, pp. 75–76)
So let's review. Students begin their formal schooling as naturally intelligent, curious, joyful learners. Over time, they become joyless, bored learners who survive their K–12 education in order to acquire a high school diploma. If the unexciting realities of elementary and secondary education must be endured by students because of their youth and inexperience, then they should at least benefit in their postsecondary academic performance. But while 90 percent of students self-report their aspirations to attend college (Yazzie-Mintz, 2009), the number of students earning a college diploma has not increased, and the number of students who need remediation in their first years of college has increased dramatically. Given the boredom of students, mediocre results from our schools, and increasing concerns about students' ability to do college-level work, it becomes clear that the current design of schooling depresses the thinking, feeling, and achieving of too many of our learners.
Revisiting the Reflection Question
Is fundamental change possible given the myths about schooling?
This reflection question is intended to trigger not self-loathing or self-defense mechanisms, but rather true curiosity. For now, take comfort in the neurological truth that doing what we have always done is a familiar route that is not easily changed, due to the design of the brain and fear of the unknown. From the perspective of neuroscientist Richard Burton:
The concept of neural networks also helps explain why established habits, beliefs, and judgments are so difficult to change. Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random—there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek has been formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops. … The brain is only human; it relies on established ways. As interneuronal connections increase, they become more difficult to overcome. (Burton, 2008, p. 52)
The discussion of the nine myths above calls attention to those ways of thinking that may be familiar, but still jeopardize the power and joy of learning for teacher and student alike. Change your thinking; change your experience. Chapter 2 delves more deeply into our "paths of least resistance" through the exploration of two additional (and more contemporary) problems: how economic changes have created new expectations for employability, and how multitasking has diluted the quality of focus and attention invested in all efforts.
Those readers worried about having to endure more discussion of problems should remember that the intent is to make the status quo no longer a comfortable place to reside. If the pain of analyzing the accepted realities of today's schools becomes palpable and excruciating— if the failures to successfully educate our students become undeniable—you will be free to imagine a better way. Chapter 6 will revisit the original nine myths with an idea-gathering and solution-finding perspective through the sharing of strategies, processes, and exemplars.