Friday, August 24, 2012

Understanding and excuses

Often when people say a kid has an attention problem, they really mean he has a problem pretending to give a shit about things that bore him
I saw this retweeted this morning, and at the time of writing, it had 48 retweets. It comes from @demand_euphoria. I don't follow her and I have no idea what the context of this tweet is, so I'm not writing this to engage with her or her intent, or to have a go at her. I'm more interested in the idea that it expresses, because I think it floats about a lot. I also think, when taken completely seriously, it's a huge problem.

The development of attention is really only about things one finds boring - paying attention to something you find fascinating is rarely a problem. (Although there might be great variability between how long different people can hold that attention. From a functional point of view, one needs only to be able to stay focussed for long enough to do something useful. I recognise that there may be conflict between the optimal attention span of any given person, and the requirements of classrooms.) The implication in the idea expressed above is that the fault lies with the material if it's boring. Last year, I heard so much about making classes interesting I was starting to wonder if we were being trained to be teachers, or circus performers. I do have some sympathy for the argument - if I had my druthers, I'd rip huge swathes of boring, unnecessary crap from the junior science syllabus in NSW.

However, we simply can't excise all boring stuff from our lives. There are excellent reasons to automate times tables, for example, but doing so is boring. Housework is boring. I can't imagine that there's ever been a profession anywhere that has no component which is life-suckingly dull. One of the main objectives of childhood is to learn how to apply yourself to stuff that needs to be done, in order to be able to get on with the genuinely interesting stuff. This isn't just a function of school, it's a property of life.

I would suggest that a child who has a problem giving a shit about stuff he/she finds boring has a lot to learn about life - which is ok, she/he is a child, learning is what it's all about. It's our job as parents to help them learn it, and not decide that the world needs to stop being dull for the sake our child. Explaining why boring stuff is important is the first step. Providing tricks to manage the boring can help too - like listening to music while cleaning, setting mini goals, or giving yourself personal rewards for ploughing through the dull stuff.

Learning to pretend to give a shit about the stuff you find boring IS what developing attention is all about. Understanding what kids have a problem with and supporting them where they are to get to where they need to be is what parenting and teaching is all about. Making excuses and blaming the world for being what it is doesn't help anyone.

(Please note, once again, that I'm not suggesting @demand_euphoria is making excuses or anything else, her tweet just triggered this more general observation.)


  1. I wish I'd read this last night before having the discussion with my 9 year old about homework being boring. I did suggest that he talk to his teacher about why they do homework but he didn't think she'd listen.

  2. I have very similar conversations with my 9yo regularly - some homework is boring and productive, some much less so. I do think his teacher should be able to explain what he's getting out of his homework - if she can't, she should be considering why she's setting it!

  3. It's not about boring, to me. It's about whether it's my goal or someone else's.

    My daughter is a dancer. Much of ballet class is mind-numbingly boring and repetitive. Two years ago she decided to quit because it was boring, and then she missed the dancing, so she started again - and now we don't hear any complaints about the repetition because she is determined to become stronger and more flexible and to earn her pointe shoes. It's the same drill. It's the same set of movements (longer, actually, because she's moved up a notch). But now she's doing it because it will get her where she wants to go.

    In school, however, she is given rote assignments that are incredibly boring and she has no understanding of where they will get her. She does her work because she wants to please the teacher, but she sees it as a game and not as a step to learning something interesting or valuable. It is possible, through inquiry and differentiated instruction, to support kids as they develop their own goals. A kid who wants to build a rocket will learn the times tables so she can do the necessary calculations. A kid who wants to be a dancer will learn the times tables because he needs to understand time signatures and rhythms.

    I took calculus in high school and college and did quite well, but I didn't actually understand calculus until I started reading EKGs in medical school. Then it mattered to me.

  4. I agree completely (and had exactly the same experience with calculus, only it was 3rd year electromagnetism that made me understand it). Teachers and parents can help kids learn to do the boring stuff by helping them see why it's necessary - and of course ditch the stuff that isn't actually achieving anything!

    I also think the "please the teacher" motivation gets a lot of kids through, but not all kids are pleasers. Not giving a shit about the boring stuff is probably more accurately described as not giving a shit what anyone else thinks of them. That's still a trait that needs to be wielded with care - managed well it leads to strong, independent people who'll take risks to achieve their grand visions, managed badly it leads to sociopathic behaviour. I'm pleased to say my 7yo is tending slowly to the former! :)

  5. "Explaining why boring stuff is important is the first step. "

    See, this is where this idea can get stuck, because of the need to differentiate between educational needs and entertainment wants. Kids are sometimes bored because work is too hard for them, sometimes bored because they're not interested in stuff/would rather be doing something else but they need to learn it, and sometimes bored because it's pointless busywork repetition of stuff they mastered two years ago.

    In the middle case, sure, that boring stuff is important. In the two other cases, however, they're finding the work "boring" because it's not the right work for them - and doing that work is _not_ important, because it's not meeting that child's educational needs in any way.

  6. I agree - as I said to Mindy, if you can't explain why it's important, then it's probably busy work, and I hate busy work with a fiery passion. I had forgotten about your first case though, and you're absolutely right. It's especially relevant as they get older - my kids are still young enough to say stuff that's too hard is too hard, but I know as they get older, kids (and adults!) are more likely to cover for finding things hard by labelling it boring. I still think the first step is to explain why it's important and work with the kid where they are to find out what the problems are. But you're absolutely correct in that you need to keep that possibility in mind, or you won't ever find out why the kid is not moving forward.