Freedom, Boredom and Motivation

by Stephanie Sarantos, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the Spring 2001 issue of The School Bull, the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

At The Clearwater School, students are able to freely choose their activities and pursuits, every day of the year. So it is surprising to hear a student exclaim with loud angst, “School is so boring! There’s nothing to do!”

How can students get bored in a school that doesn’t have mandatory assignments, preset curriculums or time schedules? Students who transfer to Clearwater from other schools often expect to escape boredom, knowing that they will be able to do exactly those things that interest them most. Instead they may discover that Clearwater students experience boredom of a wholly different kind. Boredom that leads to great results – like self–initiative, self–confidence and the ability to set and accomplish personal goals.

Boredom in Traditional Schools

In traditional settings boredom is usually linked to a lack of freedom. Students have little choice over how they spend their time. One choice they do have is how to express their boredom. Each individual’s style of expression influences how teachers, parents and institutions respond. For example, some students find that school is just uninteresting – subjects may be too dry, too easy or too difficult. Students may act on these feelings by spacing out, drawing, writing or thinking about something else during class. Institutions respond by trying to create more entertaining classes to engage a broad range of students.

Other students find that school doesn’t fit their temperament, learning style or personal rhythm. These students usually want to be active when required to sit at desks. They tend to act out, underachieve and become management problems. Institutions tend to label these students as troublemakers or at–risk kids. They may be offered interventions or punished.

Yet another group of students experience schoolwork as too easy or below their level. They may underachieve, stop working altogether or learn the system and get good grades – without investing themselves personally in their work. Institutions often tend to ignore these students.

Boredom at The Clearwater School

Students at The Clearwater School are not expected to find mandatory activities interesting. They are free to follow their own rhythms throughout the day. Staff members do not make it their business to tell students what is important for them to learn or do or think about. The freedom that defines Sudbury schools leads to other kinds of boredom. For example:

One kind of boredom is, “I know exactly what I want to do, but I am not doing it.” This boredom may occur because a friend has not arrived at school yet, materials are not available or the student must wait for a turn.

Sometimes, boredom means, “I do not know what I want to do.” Students may enjoy freedom for awhile – intently pursuing activities for days, weeks or months – but often they reach a day when nothing seems to captivate them. They can’t quite figure out what to do next. This kind of boredom presents itself as aimless wandering, pacing in circles or sitting in one place watching other students flow in and out of the room. This boredom is like a time of rest – a space that opens and stays empty until the student is struck by the next impulse.

There is another kind of boredom that seems to be a phase of maturation and education. “School is so boring,” means: “I am not ready to take responsibility for determining what I do at school, and ultimately with my life.” This is a kind of essential boredom. It has nothing to do with how an individual fits with an imposed, external set of expectations or activities. This boredom is much more personal – it expresses the need of each individual to create meaning in one’s own life.

At The Clearwater School, boredom is considered a phase of learning. Bored students are not punished or labeled. Staff members do not try to alleviate boredom by offering entertainment or ideas for productive uses of time. If staff offer help, it is to help the student understand and learn from the experience of boredom. Staff may talk with students in order to understand the situation and the student’s feelings or to share their own experiences of boredom. Staff may feel uncomfortable themselves, as they watch students experience boredom, but resist the temptation to intervene. Students are left to experience the full extent and accompanying discomfort of their boredom.

The Place of Boredom at The Clearwater School

It is ultimately up to each student to find a way out of boredom – to take responsibility for finding out what to do with his or her life.

Hal Sadofsky is a graduate of Sudbury Valley School and a cofounder of Blue Mountain School in Oregon. In his Blue Mountain School Newsletter article “Entertainment, Boredom and Responsibility,” he describes his response to complaints of boredom:

This is life! It is up to you to chart a course you find interesting and worthwhile. It is ultimately your life and you have to recognize that. This is your life, make what you want of it.

Taking personal responsibility for all one’s actions is one of the hallmarks of a Clearwater education. Hal states:

The most fundamental educational lesson we hope our students will learn is that they are responsible for their own education, and in fact for their own lives. Actually internalizing this and all that goes with it is the best lesson they can have for the rest of their lives. I believe that it is important for people to acquire knowledge and skills, but I don’t believe I can or should force them to do so. Much more important is for our children to learn that if they value something it is worth working for, and that if they have a goal they care about, they need to take responsibility for realizing it.

Students learn how to take responsibility for their lives through practice. Each time students decide what to do with their time, they are learning what it feels like to take responsibility for the course of their lives. Taking responsibility for personal accomplishments can be wonderfully empowering; taking responsibility for boredom can be painful. Students stuck in boredom have not yet figured out how to take responsibility for determining their next activity in the day – let alone the direction of their lives.

The way out of boredom is by marching through it. Eventually students realize no one else is going to tell them what to do and they begin to think about what’s important to them. They find the courage to make decisions based on their interests and the goals they have for their lives. This process can take months, even years. The skills gained from transforming boredom into motivation at school prepare students for their adult lives. They practice the skill of decision making and develop self–initiative and confidence. These characteristics are well worth the investment of time and trust The Clearwater School offers.

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