A friend of mine recently told me she was growing concerned because her son, an elementary-school student, started saying he “hates school.” It’s troubling, and by the time students reach high school, most feel the same way.

What shocks me is not that students say they hate school–that’s nothing new–but that the adult world doesn’t seem to understand why kids feel this way. (Or, if they do, don’t seem very motivated to actually address the problem.)

The “why” behind the hatred isn’t hard to figure out. Ask them, and students will tell you: they hate school because it sucks, it’s boring, and it’s a waste of time. At least, that’s how it seems to them. Again, this is nothing new. People of all ages, in all time periods, and in all cultures dislike things that are of poor quality (“sucks”), that are not mentally engaging, challenging, or stimulating (“boring”), and that have no readily perceived value or application to survival, personal growth, or enjoyment (“waste of time”). This is common sense. So why do we get angry at kids when they express the same sentiments?

Scientists who study the brain and how it learns have been telling us for a long time that the brain is hard-wired to attend only to those things which seem necessary for survival and/or bring pleasure. So why are we shocked when students are turned off by schools or teachers that don’t provide high-quality, challenging, and immediately applicable instruction? And I’m not talking about “edutainment” here.

However, what’s wrong with having some fun? What’s wrong with play or with laughter? Play, fun, laughter, enjoyment are integral components in learning, and things adults not only seek out but are willing to pay huge sums of money to get. Certainly not all things worth learning are fun, but shouldn’t we want students to associate learning with enjoyment? Don’t we say we want them to become “life-long learners,” and to “enjoy learning”? Then why are we so often set on removing the enjoyment from the school day?

Unfortunately, that is exactly what’s happening as a result of high-stakes testing. I’m not anti-testing, and I’m certainly not against high standards. Nevertheless, the approach the world of education is taking towards standardized testing is choking the enjoyment out of the classroom.

For example, some elementary schools in the DC area are limiting or removing recess from the school day.

First of all, health experts are warning us that the youth of the nation are suffering a crisis of obesity and poor health. So in response we … limit recess?Second, this is a direct response to the high-stakes testing and number-crunching of the current educational mindset. In the words of one of the elementary school principals:

My goal as a principal is to make sure our children have uninterrupted lesson time.

“Uninterrupted lesson time”!? Have you ever spent any time with six-year-olds? Nothing with them is uninterrupted. Young children are not wired to sit for extended periods of time without involving their bodies in their learning. Even as adults, we get restless after about thirty minutes.

What about healthy development–is that not a better goal? Study after study has linked physical health and development to mental health and development.

And what about enjoyment? Does the school have no responsibility to ensure that students not only learn, but also “learn to enjoy learning”?

From the same article:

Pressure to raise test scores and adhere to state-mandated academic requirements is squeezing recess out of the school day. In many schools, it’s just 10 or 15 minutes, if at all. In some cases, recess has become structured with organized games — yes, recess is being taught.

How can this not make us angry? How much further does the stupidity have to go before the adults of the world stop letting politicians make decisions about education (rather than educators, psychologists, neurologists, and others who study child and adolescent development and work with young people daily)?

Instead of demanding lots of tests, easily-plotted numbers, and “time on task,” we should be demanding instruction that’s engaging, challenging, and stimulating from teachers who can help students see how the learning is relevant. And if we have some fun along the way, even better.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Jeff says:

    I know it’s kind of dumb to do this, but I am going to post a comment in which I agree with you 100%.

    I hereby agree with you 100%. Put this post on a billboard.

  • Tina says:

    I also agree. I found this article when I was searching for ways to engage the kids who have the ‘school sucks’ attitude. No, the answer is not edutainment, but what is the answer? Many kids come from homes where they have much more pressing issues than equations, world geography, and writing skills. When kids are just trying to get their basic needs fulfilled, how do we engage their minds. I have several kids who use the “I’m stupid” crutch. They aren’t stupid–they don’t care to put any effort into anything regarding school. Unfortunately, they are simply putting their time in because they are made to do so. It is sad, really.

  • Bosco Burns says:

    I also agree completely. It makes me angry how kids are controlled and used in this way. In other countries they make issues about child slavery and labour but here no-one cares about it

  • Edde Walker says:

    Why is it that there are so many who see these problems, and yet the slide into monotonous rigidity continues? I am looking for a way to help my daughter (14). Talented, intelligent, straight A student that hates school so much, she attempts to fake illnes 3 – 5 days a week to stay home. She used to enjoy learning…now she does the work to get the A’s simply because she doesn’t know how not to. I need an alternative to Public Education, before she is lost completely to the joys of learning & personal development.

    • Eric says:

      I personally believe that public education needs a true dedication to the cause through things like true economic investment (rather than punishing with one hand while siphoning money into the private sector with the other), and leadership by educators and researchers in the field (rather than politicians and business execs).

      Dean Shareski recently wrote a related post about joy in education: “Robbing Students and Teachers of Joy

      Thanks for the comment. I’m still hoping for change, but in the meantime, I hope your daughter can find some places to explore her interests inside the walls of school.

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