Does School Have to Be so Boring?

How to make learning more relevant to today's teen.

Posted Aug 31, 2019

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Walk down a hallway in any American high school, and you can hear the sound of pens doodling on notebook paper and students sighing. As a new school year gets underway, let's face it: Too many students are bored out of their minds.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that while 80 percent of elementary students they sampled were engaged in their studies, with each passing year, fewer kids felt this way. By junior year, only a third of students were optimistic about school.

More striking, when a 2004 Gallup asked teens to choose the top three of 14 words that captured their feelings about school, “bored” was the most frequent answer (selected by 50 percent of the students). “Tired” was a close second.

Since this problem has many causes, there is no simple fix. However, one thing that parents and teachers can easily do is provide a rationale for why students have to learn what they do. I doubt that Plato asked Socrates why he had to learn philosophy, but I hear it all the time: “Why do I have to study math that I will never need?” or, “Why does Shakespeare have anything to do with me?"

Best-selling author Daniel Pink called relevance "the fourth R." It seems to me that helping students see the relevance of their studies would make them less boring.

This blog is not a bash on teachers. In fact, I figured teachers had the best ideas about making school relevant, so I interviewed some of my favorite educators in the country: Jon Downs, acting Head of School at The Millbrook School, a boarding school in Connecticut; Tom Ashburn, middle school principal at Newark Academy, an independent school in New Jersey; Debra Tavares, science teacher also at Newark Academy; and Chai Ready, Director of the International Center at The Punahou School in Hawaii

Chai Ready feels that making the curriculum relevant to students is extremely important because many jobs that students will have 10 years down the line have not even been invented yet.

Chai told me, “We don’t know the worlds we are preparing our students for.” He also believes that because students have so much information at their fingertips, schools should focus on teaching values and thinking skills.

Here is what else I learned from these master teachers, broken down by subject.

Math teaches kids how to think.

If you don’t believe me, ask the teenage girl I recently sat next to on a plane. She was flipping through her Instagram feed, saying, “I don’t look like that girl,” and “I’ll never be that thin.” Seizing the opportunity to do some field research, I introduced myself as a psychologist who writes and speaks about teenagers.

Among other questions that I posed to her and her friend was this one: “Why study math?” She told me that “it teaches you how to think logically.” Jon Downs agrees. He joked that even though no kid goes off to school excited that “today I will become a better thinker,” making a logical argument comes in handy when convincing their parents they need a new cell phone.

When my son recently called in a panic, because his car stuck just as he was about to drive onto a ferry, I asked a series of questions using inductive reasoning: What are all the individual factors (the parts) that can lead a car not to start (the whole)? I immediately thought of the battery, but my wife figured out in the nick of time that the car was stuck in drive. Thank you, geometry, for the gift of inductive and deductive reasoning.

The truth is, you never know when you will need to use math. Well, actually, you do know: all the time. I was not the strongest math student, and I knew I’d never enter a math-heavy field, such as engineering or computer science. Boy, was I wrong to think that psychologists do not need math. Aside from having to learn statistics to complete my dissertation, in various jobs I held managing psychiatric programs, I had to create budgets and ensure they were adhered to.

Science teaches kids how the world works. 

Debra Tavares reminds us that if necessity is the mother of invention, science is its backbone. Science involves problem-solving, creativity, and experimentation. Without science, there would be no innovation, not to mention no cell phones, computers, or microwave ovens.

Ever lost your keys? It’s a chronic problem for me. So if the necessity of being able to start my car or open my office door has given birth to a tracking device that can fit on my key chain, science made it happen.

Ms. Tavares feels that students who think poorly of science don’t understand that it touches every aspect of their lives. She told me, “Smart backpacks and smart clothing contain solar fibers so you can charge your devices without having to leave them behind. Even better skateboard wheels evolve to offer better performance using science.” She encourages her students to look deeper at the things they have, the things they want, and see how they can solve problems using science. You can encourage your kids to do the same.  

English helps students understand themselves. 

I wish I had Tom Ashburn as a teacher when I was in the 8th grade. English would have been a lot more interesting. Tom explains that when he teaches English, he asks kids, “What does it mean to be human in this book?” or “What is it like to have a conflict in your life like the one the character is struggling with?”

Why read Shakespeare?  Themes like jealousy and betrayal (Othello), ambivalence and inability to take action (Hamlet), deception and manipulation (Macbeth), and forbidden love and passion (Romeo & Juliet) are relevant to most teens.

Discussing the relevance that a book your son or daughter is reading has to their lives might yield a more productive conversation than “What did you learn in school today?” By the way, if you want your kid to read more, let them watch you read. Modeling is the best way to encourage children to do anything (except clean up their rooms—nothing works for that).

As for writing papers, Jon Downs says that kids may not see the relevance of clearly communicating the injustices described in To Kill a Mockingbird, but someday they will surely want to express their feelings to someone they love eloquently.

History teaches kids how to make the world a better place.

It is a bit clichéd, but we should learn a lesson or two from history. As divided as our nation’s politic has become, it is important for students to understand concepts like populism, authoritarianism, and socialism, and see how each of these movements fared throughout history.

No matter what your political orientation, it is dangerous to reduce complex issues such as the Second Amendment to black and white bullet points. Knee-jerk reactions create a lot of trouble. There is so much to be learned when we appreciate the nuances, historical context, and interpretations over time of any issues the world faces today.

Education makes us all better people. 

Ultimately it’s vital for parents to stress the importance of learning. As Jon Downs observed, it takes a lifetime to master the skills students are introduced to in school, and learning should be a lifelong endeavor.

I tell my middle school and teenage patients that I want to make sure the person in the voting booth next to me has at least a fundamental understanding of how the world works, so they can be a more informed voter. Across every subject, education helps us to become better decision-makers and problem solvers.

The internet has opened up many worlds, but it also presents kids with the opportunity to make bad decisions every day. Critical thinking help kids make good decisions. The more complex the world becomes, the smarter and better educated we all need to be.

References

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/03/23/gallup-student-poll-finds-engagement-in-school.html

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2009. New York.