If Learning Is Boring, You’re Doing It Wrong

boring imsge

When students enter my “Introduction to the College Experience” course, the think that learning is boring.  They figure with a syllogism like this

P1 – 1) School is a that helps students learn.

P2 – 2)  School is boring.

Egro 3) Learning is boring.

While P1 might be true some of the time, without a conditional, it isn’t always true which therefore makes it false. P2 is also demonstrably false so some people some of the time and therefore makes the conclusion false.

I would say that P1 is NOT true most of the time and P2 IS true most of the time which makes the conclusion seem true, but I would actually argue with the validity of the underlying notions in P1. For many students, school is not a place where students learn or at least learn effectively and they don’t learn things they want to learn, which begs the question, of what is learning in the first place.

What is learning?

When I asked a student in class today if she knew how to ride a bicycle, she said yes, but she hadn’t ridden in over 3 years. When I asked her if she learned anything in her Earth Science class last year, she also said yes.  I then asked her if she was to be given a grade based on a test on a test of whether or not she could ride a bike or a test covering what she learned about Earth Science, she told me that she’d rather take the bike test. When I asked why, she said it was because she knew she could pass because she actually knows how to do that. While it is true that Earth Science might be more complex than bike riding for most people, it is also true that this student sees a real difference between these two learning experiences and it is instructive to note.

When we learn things that we want to know and things we can connect to ourselves, learning is fun. Even if it is difficult, like falling off the bicycle or struggling to understand the evaporation/condensation/precipitation cycle, we continue to try because we want what is there and we can connect something important to our ability to ride a bike or understand earth science to something we want in the world (“I want to ride to the store with my friends” OR “I want to understand how clouds form”).

How do we get learning wrong?

Marcus Lemonis, in my favorite TV show (The Profit  http://www.cnbcprime.com/the-profit/) talks about business being about People, Products and Process. Often, when we are in classes for school, we are not connected enough to the subject matter or the people or the purpose. We need to know that our brains are hardwired to learn. We need to focus the our attention on things that are worth learning or place ourselves in situations where we are likely to care about the People, Products or the Way (Process) we use to learn.

When we are in situations where we know very little about the subject so we have little background knowledge, we cannot place the information we are supposed to be learning to anything meaningful that will stick. We get bored and frustrated. In short we fail to launch because we are not connected. That isn’t learning

We also don’t learn when we are not challenged. All of us do things where we know we will be successful, where we have enough skill or knowledge to perform well.  Stretching to do something new is scary. Making mistakes is not valued in school so we learn to take little if any risk and we don’t move so we get bored.  That isn’t learning either

How should we get learning right? 

Our brains our wired to spot patterns and notice variance in the pattern. We should be looking for the sweet spot when we learn. What is that? When you find a task that is easy enough for you to attempt it but hard enough where you are not successful all the time. No teacher or school can tell you where that spot is.  You have to discover it on it on your own. You have to monitor your thoughts: Is this too easy? Is it too hard? Or do I not know enough yet?

When I mountain bike on a trail, I push myself. Technically speaking, I am not a terrible rider, but I am not a good or great one. I am competent. I know how to ride and what to look for.  Sometimes I get into a rhythm and it feels like magic the way the bike and I turn together like a seamless machine. But, if I ever hope to better, I need to fall down. I need to push myself beyond what I think I am capable of. If I stop pushing, I can relax but I will soon be bored.


4 thoughts on “If Learning Is Boring, You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. Jackie says:

    “When we learn things that we want to know and things we can connect to ourselves, learning is fun.”
    I think this statement is very true in regards to how material is presented and taught in school. I’m taking education classes to become an elementary teacher and I’ve learned that the drilling of standardized tests are detrimental to our future students. It takes away from their creativity and passion for what interests them. No one should wake up and dread going to school, no matter what age they are. An effective teacher is one that can make learning fun for their students and explain the material in such a way that they can use it in “the real world”. When students can establish that connection, then I believe that is when they will learn to enjoy learning!


    • Thanks for the comment Jackie. I really believe that is why younger kids learn so quickly; they are able to see connections to themselves in nearly everything. Sure there a bit self -absorbed, but they haven’t yet learned to disconnect from what they are learning or even many times, be conscious of the fact that they are learning. It takes formal education for most of us to learn that trick.



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