Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Boredom Begins at School

Boredom begins at school
 By Albert Nerenberg, Special to the Gazette April 25, 2010

Is there a place where boring people is deliberate? That would be our schools, says The Boring Institute's Alan Caruba, where we train young people to be bored and to bore others.

MONTREAL – The Boring Institute was created in 1984 to salute achievement in total boredom. Originally it was a publicity stunt: Founder and publicist Alan Caruba, would announce the most boring celebrities and TV shows of the year, often to great acclaim. Amazingly, Caruba soon wouldfind himself the go-to person for expertise on boredom.

What is it? Where does it come from? That's easy, says Caruba. Boredom begins in school. The original Boring Institute.

For almost two decades, Caruba's lists of the dreary, the dull and the over-exposed would blaze across major media. For example, in 2002, the Boring Institute named Anna Nicole Smith, Ozzy Osbourne, Martha Stewart and even Osama bin Laden among the year's top boring celebrities. “Pretty well anyone could do this if they had the time. But I’m the one who does it,” Caruba told an interviewer at the time.

The Boring Institute’s announcements were a hit. Caruba would find himself on major American TV and radio shows merely pointing out the obvious: As people they may not be boring, but there’s only so much you can take of Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt or Kate Gosselin. The truth is the Boring Institute didn’t really exist outside of Alan Caruba’s house in Maplewood, N.J. But in the course of running the institute, something weird happened to Caruba. He soon became something of an authority on boredom, possibly because no one else was. There has been very little formal research into the issue.

“I never planned to become an expert on boredom. I started out just trying to have a little fun,” he said.

Caruba would be inundated with media requests to talk about the relationship between boredom and major issues like depression, suicide and the high-school dropout rate.
He quickly came to the shocking, perhaps unboring conclusion: Boredom’s no joke.
“I realized when doing this that boredom is actually a very serious problem. Boredom kills people, probably a lot of people,” he said in an interview.

“If you look into it, you’ll find some of society’s most serious problems have boredom at (their) root,” he said.
“Many people commit suicide simply because they’re bored. If you look deeper at almost any suicide, you usually find boredom is a factor. Boredom drives drug and alcohol addiction, and divorce.”

Few advocate boredom, and probably any of us could find ourselves boring people unintentionally. But is there a place where boring people is deliberate? That would be our schools, he says, where we train young people to be bored and to bore others. You don’t have to go far to find a kid who will tell you school is boring with a capital “B.” But maybe that’s because they’re kids?

“Learning can be some of the most exciting experiences anyone can have. Schools manage to turn it into a form of mental torture,” says Caruba. “I would say almost any child eventually finds school incredibly boring. But isn’t boredom subjective? You may hate math but I may love it. Some kids do say they enjoy school. And aren’t efforts being made to make school more stimulating? “I think we all spot boredom the minute we are exposed to it,” said Caruba. “Whether it’s a boring speaker, a boring author, or a boring teacher.”

Surprisingly, some educational reformers contending with elevated school dropout rates across North America echo Caruba’s views.

While the usual issues have been raised to explain the crisis – overcrowding, teacher stress and diverging student needs – one issue is conspicuously absent: the boredom factor.

Educational reformer Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise University, is the co-author of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys. A few years ago, Wilhelm decided to go back to school. As part of a long detailed study, he and another professor spent months following 52 high-achieving, average and troubled high-school boys through their daily school routine. Wilhelm said they were stunned by the experience.

“The first thing that astonished us when shadowing kids through school was … how absolutely boring it was,” he said in an interview. “I can tell you with authority that boredom in schools is a serious problem. Everything from bullying to dropping out happens because we are boring kids. Boredom is an underestimated force in education.” Ironically, the real-world challenges facing the young generation are anything but boring. They’ll be expected to contend with such gargantuan challenges as climate change, technological adaptation and supporting the massive retiring baby-boomer generation.

Is boredom really so bad? According to new research, it sounds like boredom can kill you.

In a study published in February, researchers at University College London analyzed surveys, conducted between 1985 and 1988, of the boredom levels reported by 7,500 civil servants, age 35 to 55. Last year, they noted those who had said they were bored were 37 per cent more likely to have died by the end of the study, April 2009.

The actual boredom probably didn’t kill them, the researchers said at the time. But people who report feeling bored more may be at higher risk for other factors like “excessive drinking, smoking, taking drugs and low psychological profiles,” according to the report by Annie Britton and Martin J. Shipley, who work in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. However, in an email Britton explained the study itself was “to see whether there was a statistical association between self-reported boredom and risk of death during follow-up.”

This is not a major study, she said, even though the public seems to want one. Britton said the authors have been “amazed by the media interest.” A response to the study on Psychology Today’s online site, by Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University, is titled: “Science shows you can die of boredom, literally.” “This means that death by boredom is right up there,” he writes, with known killers like smoking and high blood pressure. Yet “nobody is talking about boredom.”

But as Kashdan notes, “Boredom might not be the direct culprit. Someone who is bored is unlikely to be motivated to maintain a healthy lifestyle.” The study it turns out is a bit preliminary. A couple of professors were staring out the window one day when they decided to analyze data from an old study. So it’s by no means a formal scientific study of the impact of boredom, which scandalously has still never been done.

So while the current science of boredom is a little flimsy, Kashdan said in an interview, one way to understand boredom is to look at its opposites – engagement and interest.
“We know that novel, engaging, curious activities reverse the cognitive decline of old age for example,” said Kashdan, who has just come out with a book on curiosity called Curious. “We can extrapolate that extensive levels of boredom could have the opposite effect.” McGill University professor of education Jon Bradley puts the blame squarely on political oversight of the education system.

“Teachers haven’t made it boring,” he said. “Politicians have made it boring. Every time there’s a crisis in education, we engage in a kind of fundamentalism. We say: ‘We’ve got to get back to basics.’ In every other profession we rely heavily on new research.

Education is the only profession where we go: ‘What happened 50 years go is better.’ ” As a result, said Bradley, educators often move in the opposite direction of what research is telling us about learning, particularly the young science of play.

“For children, play and learning is one and the same. Play is how children learn,” he said. “Meanwhile we take all the fun out of school. Phys-ed is gone, woodworking is gone, art is gone, music is gone. Then we pile on dull, dreary textbooks. We’ve removed play. We’ve demonized it and we’ve turned (play) into sports, the purview of jocks.” Perhaps because the concept of boredom is a recent innovation, it’s not heavily contemplated. The concept of boredom first appeared in print in a letter in 1768 by the Earl of Carlisle who mysteriously complains that his friends “are to be bored … by Frenchmen.”

Since the 18th-century, the twin concepts of “boring” and “interesting” have quickly exploded into Western consciousness. But boredom is still mainly seen as a trivial but necessary social evil, and somehow maybe even good for young people.

The study of boredom starts to get interesting when modern neuroscience kicks in.
In 2008, Mark Mintun, a professor of radiolology at Washington University in St. Louis, released a study based on scans of bored brains. He made a surprising discovery. The brain is highly active when disengaged or bored, consuming only about five-per-cent less energy than when active. We might think bored brains are turned off, but in fact they may be churning away, the study of the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans suggests.

Boredom is likely a state of unacknowledged anxiety, said Wilhelm. A number of studies have linked ongoing rumination, the constant rethinking of things, with depression. And it’s pretty clear that almost no one reports enjoying the feeling of being bored.
But isn’t a little boredom a fact of life, and particularly a fact of young life when there’s just a lot to learn? Maybe. But it’s a little disturbing that contemporary psychologists often link boredom with depression.

So how is it that our education system seems to be dedicated to boring, depressing and stressing children? No teacher actually gets up in the morning saying: “Today, I’m going to bore the crap out of a bunch of young people.” But that’s what often happens.
Former Manhattan schoolteacher, John Taylor Gatto, author of the recently published critique of compulsory education, Weapons of Mass Instruction, has an explanation. It’s not just the kids who are bored.

“I became an expert in boredom,” writes Gatto of his 30 years of teaching students in top Manhattan schools. “The teachers were every bit as bored as (the students) were.”
Gatto described the cynical dance of well-meaning teachers whose enthusiasm would eventually be destroyed by the dull stares and nodding-off of students.

He said it’s not the fault of the students, the teachers or even the administration. It’s the entire machine. The Boring Institute.

Modern North American compulsory education is based on an obscure 19th-century militaristic Prussian model of standardized education, Gatto said. The idea was to prepare most students for jobs that were likely to be regimented and naturally, dull. That system has remained unchanged and essentially unchallenged for decades. Kashdan, who is an advocate for dramatic reform of the education system, concurs.

“People have forgotten how antiquated the system is,” he said. “That system has persisted despite the fact that we’re in a different economy now. Schools as factories no longer make sense. There’s no reason to bore people. I’m not saying we need clowns and balloons and popcorn to entertain people.” The boringness of education is looked on as an intractable and mysterious problem, but that’s not true, said Wilhelm. New science of cognition is increasingly at odds with standard education.

The ban on playing that begins most school days naturally “runs counter to optimum learning,” said Wilhelm.When human communities feel safe, children’s play breaks out. It stands to reason that when play is banned, stress breaks out.

Wilhelm said the intensely boring experience of school passes through clear stages.
First the kids are isolated:“Studies show that children like to work together,” he said. “School is the only place where you’re made to work alone. Kids are smarter when they work together and have more joy.” Then comes the droning:

“When you lecture at kids,” he said. “You’re working against basic human needs. One kid summed up education this way: ‘Guess what the teacher already knows,’ ” he said.
Then test time: “Then we discourage them by testing stupid stuff,” said Wilhelm. “What do teachers mark? The errors,” he said.

“That’s really motivating,” he said sarcastically. Imagine if, as an adult, people were constantly pointing out your errors in driving, working and carrying on a conversation, Wilhelm said. You’d probably go bonkers.

Could the right to drone exalted at the Boring Institute explain why so many adults are such accomplished bores?

“No wonder kids are bored,” Wilhelm said. “When you see people who are really learning, they do it with joy and utter engagement. Kids are not naturally bored. They want to be engaged. The great tragedy of education is that we could teach the same stuff in a slightly different way and it would be interesting.” So what’s the alternative? Amazingly, said Wilhelm, there are working and successful alternatives that are not so distant, abstract or impossible.

“Even people who hate school will say they had one teacher who was great who taught them enormous amounts,” said Wilhelm.

Wilhelm studied the “one great teacher” phenomenon.“It tends to be the music teacher or a coach, or something along those lines,” he said. “It’s not that those teachers were any better than the others, it’s that those specific classes often involved direct engagement – playing an instrument, putting on a play, building something, or competing.” That stuff is real with real consequences. The rubber hits the road. There’s risk and payoff, and the learning comes alive. “That is the key to ‘unboring’ education,” said Wilhelm, and is central to what’s called the Inquiry Model.

“This has never been tried on any large scale in the U.S. or Canada,” he said. “The places that have tried it in New Zealand and Finland are having huge amounts of success. That’s been my career. I believe you can make this happen with tremendous results.” Teachers have little freedom to innovate because of constant pressures from the curriculum. Administrators are under pressure to improve grades, and soon the kids are staring out the window and biting their nails.

The Inquiry Method was popularized in the 1940s by John Dewey, an American education reformer. Dewey believed optimal learning and human development occur when people are confronted with substantive, real problems to solve. Wilhelm said the Inquiry Model works under the following assumptions:

 Engagement is a “basic.”  Kids working together.  Solving real problems. n Less emphasis on grading and testing. n Teacher is less lecturer, more facilitator. n Kids are apprenticed into knowledge. “Take Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare,” Wilhelm said. “No kid is excited about it. But if you say we’re going to study what makes and breaks relationships, something that matters to them, suddenly they’re engaged.“ It’s simple, said Wilhelm:

“We can teach the same stuff, but teach it within a framework that meets human needs for engagement.” The Inquiry Method isn’t the only idea generating excitement in educational reform. “Kids have greater cognitive development when they exert themselves physically in a playful manner,” said Kashdan.

Gatto notes the real tragedy of school is all the unfulfilled potential.

Almost all kids enter the system immensely curious. But after a few years in the Boring Institute, most kids are nodding off, texting their friends or disappearing inside their own brains. Soon they only really care about grades. For many even that, too, dissipates and dropping out starts to feel like a relief. In time. they’ll be learning everything there is to know about Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt and Kate Gosselin.

Education creates a society in which only a small minority seems to possess great talent, ability or even genius. People who teach kids sometimes discover otherwise, writes Gatto: “Genius is as common as dirt.”

© Montreal Gazette

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