Boredom as an Educational Tool

The November/December Utne Reader has one of the best articles on unschooling I’ve ever read in Astra Taylor’s The Democratic Education of Unschoolers. Far from the author’s countercultural upbringing, my own childhood was utterly and conventionally suburban. But what she says about boredom rings true:

Boredom: that’s the big one. It’s boredom we were released from. Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life. I’m always stunned when people say, “Weren’t you bored at home?” Do these people remember being in school? Schools are factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium. Think of the pencil chewing, the mindless drooling, the desperate passing of notes, the desire to disappear, the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.

For us boredom was something to be passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to becoming engaged. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say.

My kids would undoubtedly recognize the tone of that remark—when they ventured to say they were bored, my own version was “Not my problem. There’s plenty around for you to do. Pick something.”

We’re Insidious

The unschoolers are infiltrating again.

Consider the school music program described today in a New York Times editorial piece by David Bornstein:

Little Kids Rock has had remarkable success getting students excited about music class by putting instruments (mostly guitars) into their hands on day one, showing them simple techniques to get started playing quickly, and allowing them to play music that they love to listen to.

The program is controversial, of course—critics say that schools should be teaching more serious music, that letting kids just play around with pop music they like isn’t serious education.

But the program’s supporters sound like unschoolers—they’ve discovered that letting the kids get excited about music that interests them triggers far more:

It’s important to note that the vast majority of the program’s teachers — and its biggest supporters — are themselves classically trained music instructors, who also frequently teach orchestra, chorus or jazz or marching bands. A few of them wrote in to share their experiences with Little Kids Rock. MamfeMan (20) wrote that the program had “shaped the culture of my school, the mind-set of these students, and has been — without a doubt — the most inspirational part of my life.” Another teacher, who is based in Philadelphia and teaches fifth graders, (56) added that when “students who want to learn a certain song … go ahead and learn the chords, and practice till they ‘get it’’’ the belief in learning-through-practice carries over to other areas of school.

Almost makes me think there’s hope for conventional education. If this style of learning catches on so well in music, maybe it’ll spread to other subjects, too.

By the Way…

I’ve neglected to mention that I was asked to serve as a resident “expert” on unschooling over at CafeMom for the month of August. It’s been a long time since I’ve done much homeschooling/unschooling related work, so it’s been kind of fun. Come on over if you want to add to the conversation—I’ll be there off and on every day for the rest of the month.  (They’re even going to have a drawing at the end of the month for a copy of The Unschooling Handbook.)

Getting Real

From Virginia Heffernan’s column, “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade,” in yesterday’s New York Times, about Cathy N. Davidson’s forthcoming book, Now You See It:

To take an example of just one classroom convention that might be inhibiting today’s students: Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, “papers” are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

What if, indeed. After studying the matter, Ms. Davidson concluded, “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

Some of this sounds suspiciously similar to ideas unschoolers have been talking about for years. Ms. Heffernan’s persuaded me—I’ve already ordered Ms. Davidson’s book and am looking forward to its release next week.