Make children embrace boredom

6th November 2009 at 00:00

Earlier this year, I gave a lecture on the problem of socialisation at the University of Amsterdam. Afterwards, a group of Dutch teachers confronted me and insisted that "we had become obsessed with motivating children" and had unthinkingly adopted a "worksheet culture" that alienated children from the world of books and education.

As far as they were concerned, the constant reliance on worksheets symbolised their schools' confusion of motivating children with educating them.

Sadly, the relevance of their observation is not confined to Holland. In Britain, too, motivating students is often represented as the principal mission of education.

Deliberations on the curriculum are more preoccupied with the question of how to motivate than what to teach. Policymakers declare that the curriculum for maths or science or history must change because children are bored and switched off by it. This leads to a situation where pedagogic innovation is frequently associated with the invention of motivational fads and gimmicks designed to keep children awake. All too often, the intellectual content of what pupils learn is subordinated to the imperative of motivation.

The motivation of students has always been a matter of concern to educators. What has changed is that the focus on motivation is now often at the expense of the intellectual content of the curriculum. Many motivation and behaviour-management techniques used in schools foster an anti-intellectual climate in the classroom.

Today, an elusive quest for a boredom-free classroom leads to a one-sided reliance on techniques and gimmicks that distract children from engaging with a challenging curriculum. So earlier this year, a Westminster Government-commissioned report suggested that teachers could hold their students' attention through adopting techniques from popular contemporary television quiz shows.

Pedagogues should always promote forms of teaching that enhance the appeal of a subject and stimulate the aspiration to learn. A subject should always be open to new innovative forms of teaching. But what should be taught needs to be evaluated according to very different criteria. The content of a syllabus needs to provide students with an understanding of the subject. And often there are elements of an academic curriculum that cannot be recycled as a directly relevant and enjoyable experience.

Motivational techniques are useful tools for encouraging students, but on their own are rarely successful in fostering an effective learning environment. More worryingly, the obsession with motivation often contributes to the deterioration of the academic ethos of a school, as well as standards of discipline.

It encourages a culture where the question of how to keep children interested overrides the issue of what the content is. That's why some curriculum engineers take the view that since it is not possible to motivate children to read books, it is preferable to show them DVDs or give them worksheets.

Michael Rosen, England's Children's Laureate, noted that many pupils are going through their formative years without reading a single novel. He denounced the practice of giving children short extracts on worksheets as "absurd" and "pathetic".

My own discussions with children aged seven to 11 confirm these concerns. Many schools have all but given up on the idea that children - especially boys - can acquire the love of reading.

The imperative of motivation also has a corrosive influence on teacher- pupil relations. So-called "boring teachers" in England have become the target of Ofsted's ire. The regulator claims that the deterioration in behaviour is due to lack of stimulation in class. All of us have encountered a "boring" teacher in our school years and we understand that a state of tedium is not a desirable feature of education. However, Ofsted's preoccupation with boring teachers threatens to undermine the authority of the educator.

Unfortunately, the idea that a boring classroom environment is responsible for the ills that afflict education has gained influence over the public imagination. In a recent conversation on the radio, one teaching union leader was told by the interviewer that boring classrooms were responsible for high truancy rates.

Whether we like it or not, it is not always possible to motivate every student, and episodes of boredom are a normal feature of children's lives. When responsible adults hear a child complain "I am bored", they will not respond by transforming themselves into clowns. Nor should teachers avoid engaging with complicated and challenging issues in order to spare their pupils a difficult challenge that might be interpreted as boring.

It is worth noting that the impulse to motivate is often based on a disturbing loss of belief in children's capacity to engage with intellectual challenges. The assumption that children need constant motivation has encouraged the institutionalisation of a pedagogy that tends to infantalise them.

Nor can real motivation be the outcome of a clever technique. Historically, children become motivated to learn through a combination of different factors. Experience of life and the desire to improve one's life chances has often served to motivate children to take their education seriously. Within the school it is the authoritative guidance and the inspiration provided by teachers that has helped to motivate young people.

The aspiration to learn and the motivation to study are outcomes of family and community influences, and the authoritative leadership provided by schools and teachers. Real motivation is not the outcome of a clever technique but of a school culture that takes children's education seriously.

- `Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating' is published by Continuum Press

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University and author of `Wasted: Why Education is Not Educating'.

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