Sunday, May 31, 2015

Boredom and time sinks in child-centered classrooms

One of the most underappreciated of sins is wasting people’s time. Frittering away an hour of someone else’s time, if you think about it, is not that different from shortening that person’s life by one hour.

Time wasting is all the more toxic in environments that are difficult to escape, and/or where the opportunity cost (the value of what you could potentially be doing instead) is high. For example, K12 classrooms. Here, the most obvious symptom of time wasting is boredom.

Enthusiasts of today’s technology-enhanced, “child-centered,” “real-life relevant” classrooms often describe traditional classrooms as boring. Surely desks in rows, rote drills, and pen, paper, textbooks and chalkboards are inherently duller than manipulatives, interactive screens, multi-media projects, student-led discussions, and students facing one another in desk pods.

But some of the core features of today’s classrooms make them more boring than ever. Culprits include having students work in groups rather than independently (a.k.a. cooperative learning), and assigning students of different ability levels to each group (a.k.a. heterogeneous grouping).

1. Combining group assignments with heterogeneous grouping ensures that few students are working within their Zones of Proximal Development. This makes the assigned tasks too easy for some students and too difficult for others—disengaging both parties and slowing down everyone’s progress.

2. Students are generally less engaging as teachers than teachers themselves are, and student-led, teacher-decentered discussions are often rambling, confusing, and repetitive: slow to move through the material and/or to get to the point.

3. Many of today’s solve-in-multiple-ways-and-explain-your-answer math problems and be-colorful-and-creative multi-media projects involve a very high ratio of busy work to actual learning.

4. The pod-based seating that facilitates group work means that half the students now have their backs to the front of the classroom. Factor in that today’s teachers spend less time in front and more time moving around, and it’s no longer possible for bored students to shield behind their textbooks and notebooks the more engaging material (the cartoons, the puzzle books, the adult novels) they once snuck in from home.

5. Boredom, in turn, is a much-underappreciated source of misbehavior. Aggravating this, student-centered classrooms foster in fewer and fewer students the habit of listening to and learning from their teachers. Students, in short, are harder and harder to teach, and are more and more distracted and distracting (no, you can’t just blame this on extracurricular technology and social media!).

For those who nonetheless still do want to learn academics, six plus hours daily in classrooms of restless and distracting classmates is a terrible way to waste a brain.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

And here's the thing: it's one thing to be bored because you have finished the work quickly. At least then, you can be alone with your thoughts or with a free choice book. It's another level of awful to be bored by a clunky process of "exploration" and student-led discussion.

Barry Garelick said...

A recent twitter dialogue that I read had Dan Meyer (aka dy/Dan) talking about how the open-ended question "Come up with an equation with 5 and 3" is worthwhile. He stated:

"Kids like those questions because they feel creative in math class. They're exposed to other students thinking. They get the generation effect with minimal extraneous load. They get to see lots of worked examples..." and so on.

In my experience some kids may like it, but many tune out. If it's welcomed it's because it's a good way to pass the time until class is over. They get to talk, to BS a bit, and "feel creative" but not much math is learned.

Auntie Ann said...

Kids love class when the feel like they are getting away with blowing the whole thing off, when they think they are pulling one over on their teachers, and when they instead spend the day chatting and gossiping. Yes, kids love that.

It's torture on the kids who actually want to learn something, but for the majority, it certainly is "fun",

lgm said...

It is a waste of time for a proficient student to be sitting in a whole class discussion with students who are academically behind. Those students do not learn from the solutions offered by others, and disrupt instead of respectfully listen. They get angry, and they take their anger out on the proficient students when the aides dont have quick reflexes. With whole class, the on grade level or advanced child cannot leave and do his personal project. He must retreat into his mind. Is that what we want? Our top children to zone out, never working at school in their zpd?

Anonymous said...

I didn't find out until college that I was offered acceleration - skipping first grade - but all of my 1-8 teachers obviously knew, because they all were fine with my reading/working on my own in class - and would make suggestions for new books. They'd just tell me which page/problem/paragraph to read/solve at board etc. I learned far more that way than I ever would have, if I had been expected to pay attention to material I already knew. Today's group work would have been torture. My own kids hated it, and they were in leveled classes most of the time.

concerned said...

Students can be cognitively engaged in group settings and individually, but some administrators (evaluators) seem to believe that cognitive engagement can only happen in a group setting or through student to student interaction.

Catherine said...

This is wonderful!

S Goya said...

"3. Many of today’s solve-in-multiple-ways-and-explain-your-answer math problems and be-colorful-and-creative multi-media projects involve a very high ratio of busy work to actual learning." Only if not well-managed by the teacher.



"5. Boredom, in turn, is a much-underappreciated source of misbehavior." I do not agree. An awful lot of parents excuse their child's misbehavior as boredom, whether justified or not.

Katharine Beals said...

' "5. Boredom, in turn, is a much-underappreciated source of misbehavior." I do not agree. An awful lot of parents excuse their child's misbehavior as boredom, whether justified or not. '

It is not an either/or issue. Both these statements can be true:
1. Boredom is a much-underappreciated source of misbehavior
2. Much misbehavior is not caused by boredom