Alex Baron is resident assistant principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District of Columbia. After starting his career as a preschool teacher at KIPP DC, Alex earned his Ph.D. at Oxford. He then returned to the classroom in the Denver public schools before taking up his current post. Alex will be diving into why students hate school, how to enhance student autonomy and curiosity without sacrificing order, and how COVID-induced innovations could actually help us achieve the kind of schooling that allows students to study what excites them.
It's tough to look into the eyes of a bored preschooler. On a pre-COVID school visit, I observed a kindergarten classroom during "writing-skills block"; it was even less fun than you might think.
A boy glanced at me with the ineffective surreptitiousness of young children who are trying to hide something from you. The more he peeked at me, the more my interest piqued. When I asked to see his writing, he tottered backward to reveal a self-portrait of a frowning boy that said "I hat school."
I smiled and asked why he hat(e)s school. He regarded me with his tiny furrowed brow, as if asking, "Could you really be so obtuse?" He replied with the refrain that unifies students across ages, socioeconomic classes, geographies, races, languages, and more: "School is boring."
The "I hat school" story underscores an animating tension of schooling: Kids must acquire common knowledge (e.g., spelling "hate" instead of "hat"), but educators must somehow share that knowledge without boring kids into curiosity-crushing oblivion.
In this post, I want to explore how schools bore kids. In the second post, I'll discuss ideas that show promise in increasing student engagement.
This year, I've interviewed over 40 P-12 students about what they mean when they say "school is boring." In response, Michael, a 9th grader at my school, said, "You're forced to learn stuff that you don't get to pick. If we got to pick just some of it, we would actually be interested in it. We don't get to choose anything."
Michael often doesn't pay attention in math; many days, he grapples with the teacher's Rubik's Cube and researches solutions on his phone. Similarly, Aniya, a 10th grader, says she loves beauty products but "hates science." She then said, "I know makeup is all about chemistry, but we don't ever talk about that or anything we like, so that's why I hate it."
Michael and Aniya are often admonished for "not paying attention." The irony is that they, like so many other students, are deeply focused (on Rubik's Cube, makeup kits, elaborate doodles). Children are paying attention—just not to us.
But why? My takeaway from the interviews is that when kids say school is boring, they often mean that it's autonomy-crushing. Michael and Aniya have meaningful interests, but, at school, pursuing those interests, or making meaningful choices about their learning, just isn't part of the equation. Even Eduardo, a 2nd grader, said "When we were in Pre-K, we got to pick our centers. Now I just feel so bored—we don't get to pick anything, even though we're older."
In fact, as students get older, opportunities for autonomy seem to diminish. Students in upper grades often trudge from bell to bell, being told to learn things about which they never expressed interest, and then being endlessly judged by how they perform. In no other nonremunerative or nonpenal context would we find reasonable this control over a person's day.
I'm not trying to advance an ethical argument about control. I'm saying that full control, as a practical matter, doesn't work. It backfires. When students lack autonomy over the substance and circumstances of learning, many will minimally engage with work or avoid it altogether. They miss out on the very thing we're hoping they'll do, which is learn. As Plato said, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold in the mind."
The control also belies the notion of our "high expectations" for children. By controlling learning, especially in adolescence, we convey to students that we don't believe they're capable of making decisions for themselves. When kids do experience freedom, they sometimes make bad decisions; we adults often consider those bad choices as evidence to support our regimented education model rather than as a symptom of what's wrong with it.
To be clear, I don't propose that schools become student-driven funhouses. Children must acquire the requisite knowledge to live choice-filled adult lives; to get there, we educators must constrain their academic choices to ensure they attain that knowledge. At most schools, though, student choice is as minimal as student engagement, and this is not a coincidence.
At many schools, the opportunity for student choice arises in two main areas. First, schools offer elective classes. In my experience, though, students are often placed in particular electives due to scheduling imperatives. If the only elective open in a high school student's "open" period happens to be photography—boom, that's what they're taking, regardless of their interest. The notion of choice at the heart of the word "elective" thus curdles into a cruel misnomer.
Second, many teachers try to infuse agency into their class. Some do an exceptional job. But far too many teachers do what I did in my own math teaching—offering a masquerade of choice: "Would you like to find the parabola's roots by completing the square, factoring, or quadratic formula? You pick!" With a choice like that (again, from my own teaching experience), I'd hat(e) school, too.
The typical lack of autonomy is rarely educators' faults—we ourselves have minimal autonomy. Formulaic work is aligned to state tests, so we give formulaic work. If the tests aren't looking for independent thought, why would the prep work be otherwise? Moreover, many teachers have large student loads—mine was 137 last year. Even if I wanted to give engaging, open-ended assignments, it turns out that grading 100+ creative masterpieces would be, well, grating.
I'll stop there. In sum, for a country that loves freedom, we give students a stunningly small taste of it during their educational life. Students say, "I'm bored," which may be code for "I feel disempowered through my education."
In my next post, I'll explore structures to increase student autonomy without compromising critical student learning. By infusing more agency into school, maybe we can effectively teach kids how to spell the word "hate" without making them feel it so much at school.
— Alex Baron