Debate Magazine

How to Create Schools That Help Kids to Learn to Overcome Boredom, Instead of Learning to Tolerate It

By Stevemiranda

PSCS just finished “Intensives Week.” That’s when we freeze the regularly scheduled classes and students sign up for one class that lasts all day, every day, Monday through Friday.

A group of around eight students formed a band and spent the entire week learning to play a series of Motown songs—“You Can’t Hurry Love,” “ABC,” “My Girl,” stuff like that. Day after day, they played music, over and over, getting better and better each time. They finished the week by watching a documentary about the Funk Brothers, the studio musicians behind the Motown sound. They’re going to continue rehearsals throughout the fall in preparation for a public performance in the winter.

Another group of students spent all five days building a 53-piece Rube Goldberg machine. The students would spend some intense focused work time on their own individual piece to the contraption, then periodically take a step back to collaborate with classmates on how their section could contribute to the overall project. And when they needed a break, there was time available to head over to the park to get some exercise.

Two other groups spent most of the week off campus. One set of students went to a ceramics studio and made pottery all week, and the others studied marine biology through a series of field trips, including a few to the Seattle Aquarium.

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Like the block class system used at schools like Quest University and Colorado College, giving students the opportunity to immerse themselves deeply in one area of study for an extended period of time can yield rich rewards. For example, the energy I felt in the Motown intensive was unbelievable. I have to believe that the students’ relationship to the music of that era is now changed, forever. I don’t know if it would have been possible for them to achieve that level of mastery if the class had met, say, once a day for an hour each, spread out over three weeks.

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There’s an aspect of this that is not easy to see unless you’re looking for it. Traditional schooling, with its factory-like schedule to the day, is very effective at teaching kids how to tolerate boredom. With classes running 55 minutes each, it’s almost pointless to complain to anyone about being bored in class—by the time they realize they’re bored, class is half over. They know that if they just keep their mouth shut for another 20 minutes or so, the bell will ring and they can move on. Why kick up a fuss?

When students are in an activity that is going on all day—or all week!—they develop a completely different relationship to the phenomenon of boredom. If the activity is not stimulating enough, they say something. They have to, because it’s really hard to tolerate boredom for an entire day.

And because it’s just not realistic to expect a teacher to give them non-stop directions for such an extended period of time, students invariably spend a significant percentage of their time self-directing their own activities. In this way, the school structure is teaching kids how to overcome feelings of boredom.

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I spent 10 years teaching in traditional schools, and I’ve heard countless conversations in which adults condemn kids for their behavior. They’re lazy, unmotivated, disrespectful . . . on and on it goes.

My observation has always been that kids’ behavior is usually a rational response to the environment we put them in.

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