A couple weeks ago I had a grade 11 student who was working on a poetry unit – which for him was akin to getting all four wisdom teeth pulled out at the same time with no anesthesia.  Overall, the unit went fairly well, until I asked him to do a final poetry project in which he would synthesize all of the skills he had learned in the unit.  I purposefully left the project very open-ended so he could design the project in a way that would be meaningful and enjoyable for him.  I gave him the essential criteria and then told him to have fun.  Only it was torture for him!  After many suggestions, encouragement, and all manner of advice, the bottom line finally came out: “Can’t you just give me the directions for some assignment and I’ll just do that?  I’ll do an essay or something.”  Ah.

After working for four years at an inner-city high school for at-risk youth, I’ve had some distressing assumption-busting realizations.  Perhaps one of the most distressing realizations I’ve had is this – students expect to be bored by school.  They expect school to feel like torture.  There’s a sense of normalcy when the minutes tick by like hours while in class.  If your eyelids feel like they have ten dictionaries hanging off them like a clingy date – learning must be happening.  There have been numerous times when I gave students creative, ‘out of the box’ authentic assignments only for them to choose the more scripted, ‘boring’ alternative.  So I’ve decided to remove many of the original, boring assignment from my curriculum – it is no longer an option.  But I think I’ve begun to understand why many are drawn to that choice to begin with.

When I started teaching at my school, I thought that because many of my students were, for a variety of reasons, unsuccessful in the mainstream system, they would be eager to explore the idea of learning (and school) in new ways.  And to be fair, some students are ready for something more.  However, there seem to several factors for why so many other students are apprehensive about exploring learning and thinking in creative ways.  First, as a school system, we generally teach our students to be bored by school.  There is no need to point the finger at any one group because we are all to blame – teachers, students, parents, principals, the government.  From a teacher’s perspective, creating engaging lessons can be a time-consuming and discouraging process, especially when students balk at lessons that (gasp!) force them to think critically!  Even though I know many teachers who do their best at creating meaningful, deep lessons, many of my students still come into my class with what seems a learned lethargy.  This feeling is reinforced when we do something perceived as fun by my class and I overhear students saying afterward to their friends, “We had so much fun today, we didn’t do anything all class!”  Why is it that so many students think that learning can’t be fun?

About a month ago I had a formal discussion with my students about what could be done to make school better.  How could their learning be improved?  How is school not working?  Do they like school?  What I found was that most of them seemed content with the way things are.  There was the feeling that this is the way it’s supposed to be.  As a teacher, I feel very acutely certain limitations and shortcomings within the system – it caught me off guard to hear my students say that overall, they were happy with the education they have received and had no suggestions for improvement.

One of the ugly consequences of teaching facts and figures as opposed to creative and critical thinking is that students expect to ‘learn’ without really thinking.  Learning becomes all about memorizing information instead of understanding and personally interacting with the meaning of this information.  I’ve had students get angry with me or beg me for the answer to a question that requires deeper thought.  Some of my students get confused when I tell them that the answer isn’t in the book but that they have to make an inference based on what they’ve read.  In a world where vast storehouses of information can be found at our fingertips, the idea that you might have to spend time thinking about something in order to understand it seems like a foreign concept to many students.  And so a catch-22 is created.  Creating deep lessons takes time, students get up in arms when required to think too much and fight against it, making teachers less interested in developing lessons that will, in the end, be more engaging for both student and teacher.

The question must then be asked, where do we go from here?  How can we move from the notion of education as boring to something more positive?  Although I have some ideas, I think this will form the foundation for another post.  On the bright side, I think change is coming.  I’m having more and more conversations with teachers who want to go deeper and hear more talk at the district level that indicates a desire for change.