Ferris Buhlers Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The high school movies of my generation resonate with our own experiences in school and one core belief about what school inevitably is. It is boring. We believe that being bored in the classroom is part of the natural order of things. Not all the time, mind you, but plenty. But is this reality one we are really willing to accept for our children? Some have argued children must learn to accept it. Learning how to get through it is part of the point, right? Wrong. Overcoming boredom isn't a matter of character development. And experiencing it may not be healthy.
Boredom comes as a result of a lack of engagement. You can't learn something new if you aren't engaged in the process. Our tendency is to it is the child's responsibility to become engaged by simply "trying harder", or getting more "focused". That's like asking someone to find your bad jokes funny by practicing laughing more.
Boredom causes children to become inattentive. As all parents are aware, there are negative consequences for students who are not attentive in class and the threat of these consequences can trigger stress. Bored students feel stressed when they are called on to answer questions and they haven't been listening. They may fidget, doodle or find other methods to keep their minds active and these activities are rarely acceptable.
Many times teachers can't see past the behaviors that indicate boredom and rather than examining the environment and the activities, they begin to assign negatives to the child -- which only causes greater stress and does nothing to ameliorate the feeling of boredom. It becomes a vicious cycle where the child is expected to learn but is unable to become engaged in the lesson because it may too passive to provide the necessary stimulation to engage the brain in learning.
When children repeatedly express boredom with their studies, what they are really saying is, "Help, my brain is starting to atrophy from lack of use!" In his 1997 book, Coping with Chronic Stress, Benjamin Gottlieb points to dozens of studies which demonstrate that under-activity in the brain may trigger a health threat by promoting atrophy of nerve cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for spatial and verbal memory.
Without knowing it, children who complain of boredom are actually trying to stay healthy. According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, when people experience too much stress the body releases a hormone called cortisol. When people experience prolonged stress, which can conceivably happen from the tension between the expectation to achieve and the reality that lack of stimulation is making it impossible to be attentive, their bodies may produce excess cortisol, causing it to cut back on its production of other hormones, such as testosterone. Without adequate levels of testosterone, it is impossible to maintain, let alone build, muscle.
Armed with this information, parents and teachers should take it seriously when young people repeatedly express boredom with their studies. When students express that they are bored, they are not simply complaining, they are offering adults diagnostic information. They are telling us that they do not feel challenged, that their brains are not stimulated in healthy ways. So why don't we listen to these complaints?
We don't listen to the cries of boredom because we aren't sure what to do about them.
One of the main problems with our pre collegiate educational system is that while there are excellent examples of what works to engage kids, these models rarely find their way into mainstream media. If people don't know what a challenging, creative education looks like, how are they supposed to replicate it or demand it for their children?
As President Obama calls for higher standards and greater accountability, it seems the time is ripe for our nation to also take up a serious conversation about what an engaging and challenging school environment looks like for the learner. Young people are aching for engagement. We should join our voices and challenge the mainstream media to fuel this conversation by providing ongoing examples of engaging classrooms and programs. We need to demonstrate to all teachers and parents the ways schools can stimulate learning. A far as I see it, for children this is a matter of health and well being.