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Why Science Says School Is Boring

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By Shael Polakow-Suransky, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, & Doug Knecht

All human thoughts and actions bear the shadow of the brain's original, evolutionary purpose--to keep one's body alive and functioning in the world. Neuroimaging experiments show us that we use the very same brain systems to feel our bodies as we do to experience our relationships and moral judgments and to navigate complex cognitive tasks. Our brains sense the insides of our bodies not only to regulate blood pressure, breathing, and digestion--but also to process the subjective, experiential dimensions of our social and emotional lives.

That is what students are communicating when they tell us that school is boring. What they mean is that they cannot connect what is being put in front of them with what is going on within them. They cannot connect what they are being asked to do to the content of their spontaneous, internal thoughts. When considered this way, the notion of educational relevance takes on a new meaning. The assignments we ask students to complete need to enrich their internal narratives--their story of who they are, how their world works, and what's worth thinking about.

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Education must help students learn to connect these internal narratives to the content and skills that they need for productive lives. The problem with many of our classrooms today is they often focus exclusively on rote skills, neglecting or even actively undermining the narrative-building process. This means that kids don't learn well because they have no compelling reason to--they have no emotional investment in the assignments they are asked to complete. When students manage in the absence of broader meaning, they often do it by creating superficial relevance that applies only within the immediate educational context--to please adults, for example, or pass tests.

This is part of why many students who graduate high school struggle once they enter college. The skills they've acquired are fragile, highly context-dependent, and too often disconnected from their core beliefs about how the world works. Though there is a current focus on instilling "grit" and "growth mindsets" in students, no amount of grittiness can compensate when the skills we are asking students to develop are divorced from a meaningful narrative of how the world works.

Students need opportunities to feel the power of interest and deep understanding, to infuse their cognitions with emotion, and to expand the range of issues that they care about. For example, a network of high schools in New York City--the New York Performance Standards Consortium-- have a waiver from the state's standardized tests. Their students do original research, design science experiments, write literary essays, and develop mathematical models, which they work on over the course of one to two years and then present to a panel of teachers, peers, and family members. 

The high levels of preparation and engagement students exhibit in these schools is dramatically different from the resistance and boredom that permeate so many traditional classrooms. Not surprisingly, students from this consortium also have significantly higher graduation rates and college outcomes than their peers.  

Our schools must change to respond to these lessons. First, we need to support teachers to build trusting and respectful relationships with their students--relationships that foster an environment for self-regulated learning and intellectual curiosity. For students struggling with the challenging conditions of poverty, recent research linking trauma to changes in our brain architecture make it an especially urgent priority to ensure our classroom settings nurture these relationships as a foundation for academic learning. 

Second, we need to move away from annual testing focused on basic skills and begin to assess deeper learning. The standardized testing regime is a primary driver of how teachers and students spend their time, and as a result there is little time for the learning activities that are necessary for reflective, critical, and creative thinking to take hold.

Finally, system and school leaders need to support teachers to design and use curriculum that challenges children to think and connect what they are learning to who they are through hands-on, interactive experiences and opportunities for deeper reflection and personal ownership.

If we want our children to think more in school, they need to care more about what they are learning. And for that to happen, we need significant changes to education policy; courageous changes that will require substantial innovation and investment in our public schools.

Shael Polakow-Suransky is the president of the Bank Street College of Education. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Doug Knecht is the executive director of the Bank Street Education Center.

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