Judy Willis

The Arts Inoculate Against Boredom and Its Consequences: Dropping Out, Physically or Virtually

When a high school eliminated the last-period guitar instruction elective available to students who had attended all of the day's classes, there was a significant dropout of the students who tolerated their other classes to enjoy the pleasure of that guitar class. What a shame at a time when we are experiencing the highest high school dropout rate our country has ever had. For the first time in our history, for students in high school, it is now more likely that their parents will have graduated than they will graduate.

The number one reason students give for dropping out is boredom. More specifically, they report that the information is not interesting and not relevant, and they have no personal interactions with teachers. This response is understandable, because high-stakes testing has turned many classrooms into places of mind-numbing lectures and drills about information students do not value. In these conditions, the most successful students are not the most intelligent or creative; they are the students who most successfully memorize facts and procedures.

Students are not only bored by failure to connect through interest or relevance, but they also develop the belief that they are not good at the subject and never will be. Because students correlate intelligence and aptitude for a subject with what they perceive as value—test scores—they interpret what may only represent their lower success at memorizing and retrieving facts as a lack of intelligence and aptitude. This expectation results in the negativity that reduces their brains' likelihood of extending effort on that subject.

In survival terms, withholding effort when there is low expectation of success is beneficial. For example, it is a beneficial response for preserving the life of a fox in a region with limited prey to avoid chasing a rabbit running rapidly uphill. The energy expended is not likely to result in energy restored when the chase fails to yield a meal. The human brain weighs 3 pounds and uses 20 percent of the body's oxygen and glucose. It has the same survival mandate as the fox to limit energy and effort when low yield of success is predicted based on past experiences.

The cycle for disengagement and the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure is sustained because, without effort, the student does not keep up with the foundational knowledge needed to understand the subsequent lessons when the facts are ultimately connected into a larger concept. This student might have had excellent skills at creative problem solving and concept construction, but the bigger picture was not evident at the time the facts were given and their memorization was tested.

To promote engagement and effort, students need early opportunities to find personal pleasure and relevance in the material they need to learn. Knowing from the start that they will produce representations of the learning creatively is an inoculation against boredom and low effort. When creative representation of learning through the arts is introduced from the beginning, sustained or interspersed throughout a unit, and recognized by the students as valued because these representations are part of their assessments of learning, the brain perceives a greater possibility that effort will be rewarded by pleasure and success.

When students have choice in their representative productions (drawing, computer art, skit, script, rap songs), the brain is no longer disengaged by perception of low yield of pleasure or success and is not stressed by mistake anxiety, because of the options to participate through strength. The representation of learning through creative arts promotes pleasurable expectations because there is not a single correct response or product. Students have increased engagement with minimal mistake anxiety.

In terms of acquisition of knowledge, their creative work reflects processing through the higher brain executive functions—symbolic representation of information that is not the mimicking of sensory input (information) in the same way it was received requires analysis, relational thinking, and prediction.

Younger students cannot legally withdraw physically from school, but their brains have alternatives to serve the same purpose of avoiding the stress of boring, frustrating experiences. In the absence of expectation of opportunities to experience pleasure, the brain seeks to create its own pleasure. When students don’t have opportunities to think, explore, interpret, discover, and create as part of the class instruction, their brains seek alternative sources for creativity. Unfortunately, these are often the behaviors we consider acting out.

Children's brains have memory associations that link the creative arts with the pleasures of play or enjoyable experiences. You've seen the reduction in acting out or zoning out from students not engaged by passively listening to classmates' reports or shared, whole-class reading when they have the option of sketching representations of the content they hear while listening. The incorporation of creating art reduces the brain's need for engagement that results in students defacing desks and books. The opportunities to act (as in skits) reduce the reactive, lower brain's response of acting out when in the stress state of boredom and frustration.

This is the last in a four-part series on creativity and the critical importance of the arts in providing students with a well-rounded education that meets the needs of the whole child. Read the first, second, and third posts in the series.

Judy Willis is an ASCD author and expert on learning-centered brain research and classroom strategies derived from this research. Connect with Willis on ASCD EDge and on her website, RADTeach.com, and follow her on Twitter.

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