We are currently teaching the most entertained generation in the history of humankind. I don’t say that disparagingly; my generation is not morally superior to the students I teach simply because we had access to exponentially less entertainment. (And we certainly had access to more than our parents.)
But consider: YouTube is incredible. The blogosphere is amazing. Television is in a Golden Age.  Video games are breathtakingly immersive and creative. A kid with an Xbox and an internet connection can save the entire universe using a one-in-a-million custom-designed character, or she can build an NFL franchise from scratch, or he can conduct hyper-realistic urban warfare against people around the planet — and that’s all before turning the video games off and using the Xbox as an Internet access device. Most of my free-and-reduced lunch, rural-suburban students seem to have access to many of these things.
And here’s what makes all of this entertainment unmatched in history: it’s fantastically customized to me. For example, the 5,000th most-subscribed YouTube channel has over 400,000 subscribers.  This means there are at least 5,000 streams of media freely available to anyone with access to YouTube that are compelling enough to garner 400,000 (or more) people to appreciate them. And I don’t have to wait until my show comes on — and I can use apps to make advertisements go away. And as soon as one video is finished, YouTube recommends more to me, all videos that it thinks I’ll like based on my viewing behavior.
And we’re just talking about YouTube right now! (My students are very into the ‘Tube.)
Here is my point: it is madness for our schools to try to out-entertain the world. It is madness because we can’t; much more so, it’s madness because even if we could, we’d be achieving something much lower than an education.
Don’t feel bad that your students don’t find you entertaining. Feel bad if you are not in front of them attempting to model something more compelling and timeless than entertainment. Feel bad if you have allowed insane edu-policy to disabuse you of the idea that teaching is noble work. I’m not saying feel bad if you’re not perfect, and by “feel bad” I don’t mean feel guilty. Just embrace the life-giving, hard-feeling conviction that we got into this to do so much more than ensure that our students are “engaged” in a sense synonymous with “entertained.”
Look: I’m not saying, “Let’s try to make our classes as boring as we can, then.” That’s messed up.
What I am saying is that we ought not to avoid teaching our kids to read Things Fall Apart or five primary sources about the Sepoy Mutiny just because some students may find these things initially boring. Last week, when I gave students an article of the week about troubles in Saudi Arabia, I went into the lesson knowing the topic is… well, boring to the average 14-year-old American.
But something happens when we actually take our students seriously enough to teach them to read and discuss texts like these.
Suddenly, “some random book about a tribe in Africa” becomes a context for discussing, say, masculinity and femininity — topics that would certainly be boring to the majority of ninth graders without the novel as a prompt for discussing them. As if by magic, a nineteenth century “rebellion that nobody’s heard of” begins generating sophisticated, text-based hypotheses and compelling, naunced arguments. And Saudi Arabia, once you use a few simple moves to help students enter into the article about it, becomes a fascinating, troubling place indeed. “Wait, what’s flogging?… She went to jail for doing what?”
Some of the things that I thought looked incredibly boring when I was a high schooler — things like being a faithful spouse or an attentive parent — have turned out to contain plenty of mundane moments. There’s just nothing sexy about changing a diaper, disciplining a child, learning to fold laundry “correctly” or having meetings about the family budget — at least not to me. I’d be far more entertained watching YouTube.
Yet these “boring” things have proven to add up to the richest earthly stuff I’ve ever tapped into.
Education, I think, should be kind of the same way. Engagement is much different than entertainment.
- Wikipedia does a fine job of collecting sources here. (See the References section.)
- As per SocialBlade.com — see here for updated information.
Thank you to the educators at Thornapple Kellogg Schools; these people gave me a quality education filled with lots of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and growing. (Some of it, at first, was boring.) I am in their debt.