Is there a place for boredom in education?

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

In 2014 does all learning have to be entertaining?

In a recent Slate article Konstantin Kakaes, a Schwartz Scholar at the New America Foundation, argues that is not necessarily the case. In response to an editorial in the New York Times Mr. Kakaes, strikes a blow for an occasional dose of tedium in math education:

“This weekend, after American students failed to impress on the international PISA exams, the New York Times editorial board ran a piece asking ‘Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?’ By ‘boring,’ the Times apparently means any math that is substantive in a traditional sense: ‘arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry.’ So let me answer the question: Anyone with an understanding of what math actually is believes it must sometimes be boring.”

Mr. Kakaes does agree with the Times on one point—there is a severe crisis in math education in this country. Unfortunately, he includes that newspaper’s editorial board among the mathematically challenged.

“(The NYT editorial writers) do not appear to understand what mathematics is, how it is used in the sciences, or why it is important. The Times’ solution, ‘a more flexible curriculum,’ is euphemism for erosion of already-lax standards that would only make our present problems worse. What should replace boring old quadratic equations and logarithms (which aren’t really all that scary)? The Times is vague, emphasizing only that standards shouldn’t stand in the way of ‘nontraditional but effective ways to learn.’ The Times doesn’t specify what these novel ways of learning might be, either, but it does lament that too few high school students take engineering classes. Here’s the thing, though: That’s because to do most engineering at a level other than play-acting, you need to already have basic high school math and science mastered. This is like reacting to a study that shows 2-year-olds don’t crawl fast enough by insisting they start running wind-sprints.”

Fundamentals are, well, fundamental

Math is not unique in being built on the need to master basic and sometimes boring skills.

For 99.9% of the population learning to play a musical instrument requires hours and hours of tedious practice including copious amounts of audibly painful fundamental steps. Mind numbing attention to scales, finger positions, breathing techniques, reading music, etc. is required before anything approaching pleasing sounds can be produced. To verify that reality take a moment to listen to a rehearsal of a typical sixth-grade orchestra.

Likewise, it is unlikely that Payton Manning threw a perfect spiral when he first picked up a football or Stephen King’s first written draft was flawless. The same need for slow progress is true for every skilled-based educational curriculum. Foreign Language classes do not commence with fluent conversational interactions. Learning grammar, mastering biological terminology and locating countries on a map cannot avoid the need for significant memorization. And as Mr. Kakaes correctly states mathematics is the champion of subjects demanding the rote knowledge of the basics. While the talented crew of Sesame Street was able to make individual numbers entertaining, even the Muppets cannot give the same pizzazz to learning the multiplication tables from 2 through 12.

Making boring work

All learning cannot be entertaining. Some portions of mastery require mind numbing attention to details. Of course this requirement does not preclude the possibility of making a classroom interesting and invigorating. It does, however, make hard work a requirement and fun often becomes a luxury. There is an antidote for the need for the mundane—a teacher’s passion. When students are asked to assess their best teachers the two most frequently heard comments are “They care about me” and “They love their subject”. I would add a third trait that is perhaps more difficult for an adolescent to express. Great teachers convince their students that their curriculum will be relevant in their lives.

The correlation may not be direct

I understand the disconnect often found in education. Outside of my classroom I have never used the quadratic formula. Nor have I employed irrational numbers, cube roots or an infinite series in any meaningful manner. Certainly it is not unusual to find extremely successful individuals whose professions appear to have little in common with the degrees they have obtained.  For example, I know a math major working in marketing and a computer engineer with a degree in chemistry. Although their vocations are not directly linked to their education they are thriving as a result of the thinking skills they gained in high school and college which have allowed them to become extraordinary problem solvers at their jobs. These are not isolated stories. Employers understand that there is a direct correlation between individuals who have gained mental discipline in their studies and the ability to transfer those talents into other intellectual pursuits.

Currently, there is movement in the right direction. The Common Core States Standards (CCSS) are a positive step. They place a major emphasis on real world applications in education. These connections must be constantly reinforced in the classroom. That cannot, however, always be accomplished with games or videos. Instead, it requires teachers that understand that the ultimate goal of the classroom is the link between improved thinking skills and problem solving regardless of the particular curriculum.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.