I Choose “No” to Engagement…

UPDATE: on Dec. 2nd @sethgodin published this on his blog:


I’m reading a book – by all accounts a great, award winning book – but I just can’t get into it. I don’t see the greatness, and I don’t connect with it. Is it the book, or the fact my kids are jumping around me, the kettle is boiling, my radio is playing my favorite song, and I just can’t choose what to pay attention to…Or am I bored? 

Boredom is an emotional or psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in his or her surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious. (WIKIPEDIA)

My circular argument: Boredom is the opposite of engagement. Engagement is in opposition to over-engagement. Over-engagement can lead to boredom.

At our second face-to-face for Cohort 21, many of our participants talked about tedium-is-the-messagethe issue of engagement. Leslie McBeth wrote a great post about it, and recently it was a focus on CBC’s IDEAS, in an episode entitled “The Tedium is the Message“. In this episode, and something in opposition to Leslie’s post, there is the idea that boredom can lead to an increase in creative thinking:

As a society, we have zero tolerance for the emotion [of boredom]. Possibly to our own detriment.
“We  are spending too much time trying to get rid of boredom, swiping and scrolling every moment of the boredom or tedium that their can possibly be, and yet, in doing so we’re actually becoming more bored as a nation.” — Sandi Mann

There are different ideas about just where our war on boredom may be leading us, who and what the casualties may be.  Also up for debate, is whether adding little, or even a lot more boredom to our mental diet could be just the thing for our addled age.

So, tuning out can be valuable. Spacing out can be a way to come back and be more creative. But the proponents of wellness, meditation and mindfulness have known this for a long time.

Enter the practice of Yoga, the mindful moment, and the meditation in class. These are strategies that I champion and have implemented in my own practice, and in the schools in which I work. I believe in them. However, I wonder if these strategies aren’t just interventions…

I wonder about these practices as ways to disguise a deeper issue… one that we hesitate to bring up in education because it can fly in the face of all we hold dear. I freetimewonder if we are not forgetting about the concept of “Free Time”. Time that is free for our students (and dare I say ‘ourselves) to choose what it is that we do…To choose how to spend our time. A recent article from MindShift that was reprinted from “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids” by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown & Sarah Miles :

Another nationwide study found that children under 12 years old have approximately two hours of free time during the day and that this decreases as they get older (Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001)…Of course, the benefits (or risks) associated with the amount of free time depends on what kids do with that free time. Watching TV for three hours each day may be detrimental to kids, but spending unstructured time playing with friends or family is associated with positive outcomes (Barnes, Hoffman,Welte, Farrell, & Dintcheff, 2007; Larson, 2001).

To what extent do our students know what to do with ‘Free Time’?

Making Choices…

Where are our students asked to make meaningful choices? Choices that ask them to Not over-extend themselves, and be ‘over-engaged’?  Not just the ‘should I go to my drama rehearsal or my field hockey practice tonight?’ choices, but real choices like: ‘how is being a part of these two heavy commitments adding value to me? What stresses are they putting on me? Should I just do the Senior Play this year?’

How might we build and cultivate the skills to make, and support students in the making of real choices?

We see such talent on our students: the student-athlete is a term used often in our schools. And we want our students to engage in the opportunities that help them build these talents, and find their passions.

Kids Matter, an Australian organization writes: Having the skills for thinking through decisions makes a good decision more likely, but it doesn’t guarantee one. Other things can get in the way

But, as was investigated in the IDEAS episode, how can they “go deep” in sports, and truly appreciate their talent, and interrogate their experience to see if it is their passion, when they are stretched elsewhere? Like the book-reading example above, or a student who is reading a novel while their phone is close by will report, more often than not, that the book is boring – is it because it is boring, or is it because the other thing prevented them from engrossing themselves in the experience?

im-fine-quote-2What is wrong with a student saying “no” to being over-extended, and allowing for more boredom in their lives? More daydreaming? @kcarlson has written recently in her blog about how “So many [of our students] suffer in silence, slogging through when things get tough, afraid or unable to ask for help, and worst of all, feeling alone. Drowning.  “I’m fine,” has become our trigger response when asked how we are, but it’s often just not true.” I wonder too, if we slog through from one engagement to the other, without being engaged.

Katya Anderson, responsible for customer experience at Capital One wrote a post that resonates with this as well:

The peril of trying to do it all is that nothing that truly matters gets done. Our real work, in whatever moment we find ourselves, is not to perform. It is to imperfectly be together and listen to each other. It is to look beyond our packed agendas to the greater possibilities that hide in plain sight, out there in the world and maybe even closer, in our own hearts.

The Pressure Trap…

There isn’t anything wrong with asking students to make choices. Of course not! But there is a pressure that is out there to engage in all facets of life. There are many who want to have a say in the ‘packed agendas’ of our students… it may come from a coach, a favorite teacher, a parent, or peers.

Do we, as schools offer too much? Do we as parents have a tough time saying no to opportunities? Is our timetable and calendar too busy? Do we allow our students to say ‘yes’?  These are the initial questions to ask ourselves…

I’d love to hear if, how, and any strategies you have to support students in making choices so that they can be engaged, truly engaged. I for one, no longer use the word busy. I use the term “Highly Engaged” – this is for two reasons: one is to deflect the notion that to be busy means to be accomplishing only a little while expending a lot of energy; and, two, that engaged conveys a message of caring deeply about what it is that I am spending my time on. It’s a little piece, but language carries a lot of weight.

6 thoughts on “I Choose “No” to Engagement…

  1. Garth, your post made me think about a few things we are doing at TCS to help students make choices.

    Last year TCS worked hard to create a new schedule to address some the issues to identified in your post. One was how over-programmed our students seem to be and the fast pace at TCS. One thing that was heavily considered when creating the schedule was the idea of creating a situation where students had to make choice. We found that many of our students wanted to be involved with too much and they were not able to fully be engaged in everything they were doing. Being involved in a variety of different things (especially clubs) meant a lot of meetings. And in the old schedule, these meetings seemed to be crammed into the only time open – lunch. Sometimes students didn’t even have time to eat lunch because they had so many meetings that they felt like they had to go to. In the new schedule, lunch was set aside as a time for actually eating lunch and no meetings could take place in that time – for both students and adults (role modeling here) and a “flex” period was added to the schedule in each day. Different things take place in the Flex periods. Sometimes it is a class, sometimes learning skill seminars, sometimes nothing – students can choose what they want to do with their time, on these days some kids do homework, others go shoot hoops, others hang out with friends, and some go to meetings. What is awesome about the new schedule is that club meetings take place on three days, and students have to choose what club to be involved with if the meetings happen on the same day, they simply can not do both. I think this empowers students to make the choice of where they want to be, and with what they want to be engaged with and hopefully they care a little more about what they choose to spend their time on. I also know that students love the Flex periods where they are free (and able to choose what they’d like to do) because it is some of the only non-programmed time in their day – hopefully, this gives them space to doze off, daydream, and be bored.

    Students also have more choice in how they want to be involved with our extra-curricular program (Service, Arts, and Athletics). The expectation is that they are involved, but how that looks for each student is a little different.

    I just listed a lot of things the school is going as a whole, but I wonder how I (or we as teachers) can make small changes. We offer choice in reading, assignments and how to show understanding – does this help for students to be truly engaged?

    … As I was writing this (during Flex), a student wandered into our office and half-heartedly looked for her advisor. When asked if she needed her advisor who was teaching she said, “no, not really… I’m just bored”.

    1. Thanks for this comment Nichola, and it’s great to see the systems in place that the school has provided for students to be making choices. However, I do wonder how deliberate this is? How much are our students aware of the reasons behind making choices, and where are they getting the support in making these choices. @lesmcbeth is asking some other great questions as well.

      As for offering choice in academic studies, it would be interesting to offer choice in process as well as in demonstration of learning. For example, to explore the theme of ‘love’ could students choose HOW they explore love? Could they run experiments, read poetry or novel, or a play? Could they conduct interviews? These are all skills within the English curriculum? Then, they would be required to ask why they made that choice, and how that choice is linked to their own emerging understanding of the theme. Hhhhhmmmmm…

  2. Garth,

    A thought provoking post that was anything but boring! As Rosseau Lake College embarks on a bold mission in its 50th year— to reboot it’s master schedule— the importance of “free time” for students has come up often. An “over-stuffed” curriculum, an “over-worked” day, not to mention the work/life balance divide that technology, for all its benefits, has plagued the modern workplace; where is, one wonders, the time to discover your true self. A former colleague of mine in Australia opened my eyes once when she explained to me the importance of “boring” teachers. When I questioned her she explained to me how else will students ever be able to learn to sit still through a funeral, be able to think their own thoughts without distraction during the countless, pointless, sometimes painful meetings that make up most professions. A good point!

    1. Your friend in Australia makes a perfectly relevant and important point, and thanks for picking up on the point about Free Time. Where do we let our students minds wander? Where do we allow students own thoughts to surface…and I am not talking about the importance of ‘wait time’ after asking a class a question. Rather, when do we allow students the time to think their own ideas? I am not advocating for the hiring or encouragement of boring teachers either, because this needs to be a deliberate thing. How is this something we might encourage? Is it through a passion project, or 20% time?

  3. Thanks for sharing, Garth. I love how you always make me think about ideas from a different perspective.

    I completely agree that boredom is essential for our wellbeing, for our creativity and for our relationship with the world. I would argue that my post is not in opposition to your thesis here, nor the Ideas episode. In the Casey Neistat video that I used in my post, he talks about having to “let go of one vine in order to move on to the next.” He was making that difficult choice of saying “no” to something that he was actually really good at, in order to focus his time and energy on other projects that were more meaningful to him. I don’t think that the relentless ambition that I was referring to means doing everything, or “over-engaging.” It means learning how to focus your energy on something that you are passionate about and having drive to keep moving towards that goal. I don’t think that ambition and focus are in opposition to boredom. In fact, if you were to talk to overly ambitious and “highly engaged” people like Casey, they would probably tell you that taking time to be bored and daydream is crucial to their success.

    Some questions I still have:
    – What is the difference in student’s free time in urban vs. rural areas? From my experience and those of my family, kids in rural areas are much less “programmed” than those in urban areas. They also spend more time outside “entertaining themselves” unsupervised and often spend up to two hours a day on a school bus.
    – But on that bus, they now likely have smartphones. What role does reducing “screen time” play in increasing student’s ability to let their minds wander?

    In response to your question about strategies: as a guidance counsellor/adviser, I would often ask students why they were taking part in an activity/service program/sport/club, etc. If they told me it was because it would “look good on their resume”, I would suggest that they quit – even if it meant quitting something that was perceived as “good” like volunteering. This led to some great conversations about choosing to spend your time on things that are meaningful.

    Another strategy is to have students write down all the things that they do in a day – from eating meals to playing sports, being in class, studying, etc. On a piece of paper, students draw circles for each of the broad categories, the size of which roughly equals how much time they spend doing that activity. Then have them reflect on each circle and think about what value that activity brings to their life. I did this with my students last year, and they started to see patterns about how much time they were spending doing things that they didn’t actually find value in. This exercise comes from Ken Robinson’s Finding Your Element, which includes many other ideas for uncovering your passions and strengths.

    Ok this comment is now a blog post in itself, so I’ll stop here!! Thanks for making my sleepy brain work on a Friday night.

    1. Hi Les,
      Thanks for these great strategies! I love the idea of students becoming accounts of their time, and then studying it to analyze it for patterns and ideas, then flushing those out to reflect what their time spent means in terms of what they value. I’m going to do this with the Guidance department for sure! I’ll take a look at The Element as well. I haven’t read it yet, so thanks for the recommendation.

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