Ed’s Charge: To Serve Vegetables or Candy?

A couple weeks ago (I know, I know: my posts take a while — life very busy, will do better, etc., etc.), I found myself in a globe-crossing twit-scussion about why it’s important — yes, important — to kids’ future-preparation for them to occasionally experience and overcome boredom in the classroom. I twisted fully into the conversation after a couple tweets by the UK’s Tom Bennett and, because it’s a deeply held belief of mine (one I spend a good amount of time on in Education Is Upside-Down, in fact), couldn’t bring myself fully out, even several days hence.

Here’s how it started:

Tom issued this…

and this…

and, identifying & agreeing with these sentiments, I sent Tom a link to an opinion piece I’d seen in Education Week a few years ago: ‘The Paradox of Classroom Boredom’ by Emory U professor Mark Bauerlein. (Quick aside: Bauerlein is also the author of The Dumbest Generation, one of my all-time favorite ed books. I admire it so much, in fact, that when I was seeking endorsing blurbs for my book’s cover, I felt I just had to send a manuscript to Mr. Bauerlein and hope for the best. He generously penned one, and it’s something I’ll always cherish and look on with great pride.)

I urge you to follow the link above so you can read the piece and ponder it. If you don’t have time, however, here’s the way-too-quick version: Bauerlein, a seasoned professor, argues that K-12’s students are actually being harmed by all the enterprise-wide efforts to engage them. In short, he believes K-12 ed’s engagement-prioritizing approach damages kids (and by extension post-K-12 settings, which must account for large numbers of these kids) in how it creates distorted, unrealistic expectations about the nature of learning and work, thus stunting students’ growth toward being truly ready for post-K-12 life.

Tom about blew the lid off the corner of Twitter I stroll about in, then, when he tweeted this:

It was favorited. It was re-tweeted. There were affirmative shouts of ‘Damn right, gotta have some boredom! Life‘s not always thrilling or concerned with your engagement!’ and, conversely, cries of ‘Why, you…you Gradgrinds! You’re raising these children to be dull and dutiful, and you’re sucking the beauty and wonder out of learning!’ Some tweeters found Bauerlein’s points fair and intriguing, others saw his argument as full of holes, and still others thought the real issue was post-secondary instructors themselves — that they should respond to what we know about today’s kids by increasing the engagement levels of their instruction. (Still others, I’m pretty sure, never actually read the piece at hand. Clearly not responding to any of the rationale therein, they chose to just knee-jerk ‘You’re crazy! Boredom’s never excusable! Let the babies enjoy life!’-like slogans back at Tom’s tweet.)

I jumped in and exchanged views with the lot of them, and it was invigorating. Seriously. In the words of Karin Chenoweth, ‘This is how we get smarter.’

That said, it was a little troubling to see so many respondents over-reacting to the praise of boring learning tasks. Their responses indicate that they feel I, Bauerlein, Bennett, and/or anyone who agrees with this stance actually wishes to (paraphrasing now) ‘paint a bleak picture of our world, where boredom is portrayed as an inescapable part of learning’, ‘create legions of docile automatons’, or ‘force-feed kids cod-liver oil and no sugar’. They seem to assume that everyone on the engagement-cautious side of the argument is either interested in tormenting kids or lamely justifying their own inability to be interesting instructors (or both), and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think I can speak safely for the Bennetts and Bauerleins of the world when I say that we all want kids to be joyful in their classrooms and in learning. We all hope they can, in the moment and beyond, experience education’s joys and rewards, just as we did.

We just never want such joy to be prioritized more highly than the learning and internalization of things that will truly help our students succeed later in life — and yes, that includes doing one’s best on tasks one doesn’t find terribly moving or exciting of themselves.[*] Having been there, we know that Being Genuinely Educated’s joys can’t really be attained any other way. (Much the same way, for instance, a bodybuilder knows they’ll never see the muscle growth they desire without lots and lots of painful workouts and nutritional discipline.)

Speaking for my classroom alone, I always did my best to build it around this very priority. As one of my colleagues and I liked to put it, we always put ‘vegetables over candy’. Very simply, we saw our charge as to get our kids to ‘eat vegetables’, even when it seemed all kids wanted to do (as kids tend to do) was ‘eat candy’. We were proud of — and continually sought to improve — our ways of ‘preparing the vegetables’ for kids’ consumption, but were always mindful to never give up on the importance of the vegetables. We served pure ‘candy’ from time to time, of course, but did our best to keep it to special occasions and when we were satisfied our kids had had appropriate and sufficient ‘vegetable intake’ toward their later ‘health/well-being’.

And how did students respond? Well, it is true that I had (and deserved) something of a no-fun reputation. After all, I only occasionally showed movies in class (and always for instructional purposes), I gave challenging & high-point-total grammar exams on final days of terms (when everyone else was showing movies), I never offered non-academic (or much other) extra credit, I had a stingy late work policy, and all the rest. On a very different hand, my classroom also had a reputation among kids as being a fun and safe place to be: characters were allowed to be characters there, the teacher there loved mixing it up with kids, and it often had a good amount of laughter.

My favorite indication of this balanced student sentiment, though, came when I was named ‘Most Inspiring Teacher’ in the yearbook’s ‘Teacher Hall of Fame’ poll of all students (enrollment around 1700 at the time). Even better, the title I was given was improvised by the yearbook staff after I finished first in voting for four of the six categories (I forget exactly which, but I think ‘Funniest’, ‘Most Helpful’, and ‘Most Challenging’ were three). To me at least, it proved that the students I’d had could appreciate what I’d all along intended to build: a classroom where they’d eat the vegetables I’d prepared, not because I’d covered them in so much butter and sugar that they were damn near candy, but because they’d gone along with me and agreed that doing so was the best thing for themselves in the long term.

Forgive me if the above sounds indulgent. I’m just hoping to make a point here, which is that I wish conversations like the one I recounted in the first half of this post didn’t always reduce to either-or slapfights. For once and for all and for crying out loud, ‘Defending boring lessons’ is not a call for all lessons to become boring. I — and I’m pretty sure Mark Bauerlein and Tom Bennett — would love for all kids to be filled with joy at school. This joyfulness aspiration is secondary, however, to the content, skills, and dispositions we believe is our primary charge, and we want all practitioners to more carefully measure their joy-facilitation as they plan and execute their instruction. For simply, prioritizing students’ engagement over positive work habits and content proficiency — and believing the two sides cannot exist in productive balances — is ultimately doing kids more harm than good.

[*] By the way: If, as an adult, you can honestly say that you never — not in your job, not in your relationships, not within the economy, nowhere — do anything you’d rather not do (which many respondents claimed to me was true in their cases),  I’m guessing you must have either [a] utter scads of money or [b] no trace of a conscience. As someone with not much money and a rather over-active conscience, I’m sorry: I simply can’t identify.


5 thoughts on “Ed’s Charge: To Serve Vegetables or Candy?

  1. As always, terrific blog, Eric.

    I wonder, is “boring” the right word? I’m retired and have all the time in the world right now, so I’ve been using DuoLingo to re-learn Spanish (I took 4 semesters of college Spanish years ago). DuoLingo lessons are incredibly repetitive- they focus on reading, writing, and hearing a few new words repeated over and over in sentences that are only slightly varied in structure. These lessons are just hard enough that I get a question wrong only infrequently.

    Are the lessons exciting? No. Am I bored while doing those lessons? No. I bet I’d get bored very quickly if I were getting most of the questions wrong, however.

    There’s some other affect that applies – something between “fun” and “boring” – but at the moment I can’t think of a word that works. I think fun tends to apply that aren’t effortful. Watching a movie is fun. Riding a roller coaster is fun (or at least I assume it is for people who ride them; you’ll never get me on one). Learning Spanish though repetition isn’t fun, but it isn’t boring.

    And just like I don’t want to spend all day learning Spanish, I don’t want to spend all day watching movies or old TV shows.

    I’m with you Eric, if I understand one of your points – young people need to be made aware of how rewarding sticking with doing the repetitive work of becoming fluent in a skill or body of knowledge can be.

    1. Glad you liked it, Ken. The me from six years ago that wrote it (and I now, of course) thanks you. 🙂 To me, Bauerlein’s, Bennett’s, and my ‘boring’ there is the right word…but a bit of shorthand for ‘not everything taught here can possibly be interesting to everyone all the time, which means some of it will have to be boring for some of you some of the time; still, it has all been deemed *important*, even if you can’t see so right now’. Some stuff, basically, and very much like vegetable-eating, is boring but important–there is no substitute for its nutritional value. (Developmental psychologist David Yeager has done great things with the term ‘boring but important’, by the way. The field needs more of that guy.) Not sure if this addresses the question well enough, but wanted to add a bit of clarity if I could. Must get back to grading/planning now. Take care, KS.

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