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Corn Flakes

In last week’s post, I reflected on some rather startling data on student boredom. (See No Way! July 22nd.) Due to what they report as a lack of interest in the material placed in front of them or an inability to find their school experiences personally relevant, nearly 50% of students polled admit to being bored in school. And, it is this boredom, this overwhelming feeling of disengagement, that contributes to a drop-out rate that is a national disgrace.

There are writers who argue that being bored from time to time is not a bad thing. They suggest that kids need to acquire the self-management skills to persevere when faced with a situation that they don’t find particularly fascinating or immediately engaging. These writers suggest that life doesn’t always guarantee our preferences; that sometimes we need to get over ourselves, suck it up, do our best and move on. And, you know what? I don’t disagree, any more than I might disagree with the assertion that a certain state of boredom may facilitate creativity, that being in a “neutral” mental state, where doodling and daydreaming are the most strenuous activities, could very well unlock and free up one’s cranial potential toward innovation and creativity.

Let’s not get confused by what I mean by “boredom.” There’s the “I’m bored” kind of boredom that usually translates to “I’m not being entertained. I want to do something fun.” Or there’s the mind-numbing, paralyzing “get me out of here, I can’t take this anymore!” type of boredom. The first type is tolerable, though irritating, and may even be a little amusing at times. But, it won’t typically push someone over the edge like the second type can - push one over the edge and out the door.

It’s the repetitious, tedious, frequently monotonous boredom, the kind where it’s impossible to find a reason or the motivation to engage, type of boredom that is the enemy of learning. It’s like corn flakes.

We know corn flakes as an American staple. They have been around for a very long time. (Since 1894, initially for a bizarre reason.) They have, at least some, nutritional value. We’ve been told “they’re good for you” and they hold a position of honor and tradition at many family breakfast tables. What could possibly be wrong with corn flakes? Nothing, except . . .

Suppose you were given a steady diet of corn flakes. Nothing else. Just corn flakes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. No milk. No berries or banana. Just a bowl of corn flakes. And, by the way, you are not to get clever with them by inventing new recipes for corn flakes. No. To add insult to injury, you have no idea why you are being subjected to this restricted diet and no one has bothered to explain it to you. In fact, you weren’t asked if you like corn flakes, let alone an inquiry made of whether your digestive system can tolerate corn! None of that. Simply, “Here are your corn flakes. Be a good kid and do as you’re expected. Eat your corn flakes.”

How long would, or could, you tolerate that?

Sadly, there’s a steady diet of “corn flakes” in many classrooms. Here is what it looks like, all too frequently.

Teacher: “As I present new material using a PowerPoint, you are to take accurate notes. You will need these to prepare for the unit test. After the lecture, you will read pages 29-46 in your textbook. When you’ve finished the reading, complete the worksheet I’m handing out. When you’re done with that, exchange with your neighbor and score each other’s work before both sheets go into the ‘In’ basket. They’re due by the end of class today. Any questions?”

Student: “Why are we studying this?”

Teacher: “Because it’s required.”

Student: “Is it important?”

Teacher: “If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be required.”

Student: “I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand.”

Teacher: “Just do the assignment.”

And, to make this sad tale even more sad, this same scenario is often repeated multiple times in a single day, and over many days and weeks of a student’s academic experience.

Sound like corn flakes? How long should kids be expected to tolerate this?

I’m not attacking traditional approaches to instruction. Direct instruction has a place. Reading pertinent information is obviously a good thing and demonstrating an understanding of what was read is reasonable. But, let’s address boredom by offering some strawberries with those flakes, by letting students engage with them and try new approaches. (Chocolate milk on corn flakes with sriracha sauce? Maybe, or maybe not.) Kids need to understand what they’re doing and why it matters. They need to be encouraged to explore, to inquire, to innovate.

In The Education Kids Deserve, I propose a set of questions that should become habitual in establishing a relevant experience for learners by keying on their curiosity. These four questions are:

1. What? (What am I curious about? What do I want to know?)

2. What if . . . ? (If I do this, what might happen?)

3. So what? (Does this matter? Who cares?)

4. Now what? (What is the next thing I need to do or continue exploring to further address my curiosity?)

The problem isn’t corn flakes, per sei. The problem is when they are the only option. Allow me to repeat myself . . . It’s the repetitious, tedious, frequently monotonous boredom, the kind where it’s impossible to find a reason or the motivation to engage, type of boredom that is the enemy of learning.

Remember the variety pack, that ingenious packaged bundle of eight different cereal choices? That’s what we need. That’s what kids deserve. Guaranteed - a steady diet of nothing but instructional corn flakes will be boring.

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