Forcefully boring young people is necessary…

In many schools, a fifth of all boys are prescribed Amphetamine-related drugs because they have been diagnosed with an attention deficit. But these pills are not intelligence-in-a-bottle. To put it differently, taking Adderall may not make you smarter at all:

Although there is a perception among students that stimulant medication may improve academic performance, studies in adults without ADHD suggest that stimulants do not promote learning and may in fact impair performance in tasks that require adaptation, flexibility, and planning. Stimulant-induced improvements in cognition in individuals without ADHD were mainly evident in those with low cognitive performance, suggesting that stimulants may be more effective at correcting deficits rather than enhancing academic performance. (Nugent and Smart, 2014)

To be clearer, with psychostimulants, you might do better at basic arithmetic if you cannot normally do arithmetic, but you could do worse at higher level tasks.

The problem is that students diagnosed with ADHD have commonly other learning disabilities. And it might be these other disabilities that are helped by drugs:

The efficacy of psychostimulants was documented on specific areas of achievement for the ADHD+ [ADHD with learning disabilities] group, but this review did not support the administration of psychostimulants for students with ADHD- [ADHD without learning disabilities]. (Zentall et al., 2013)

There is a larger issue… what do kids think of these drugs? Many teenagers do not like them, at all:

Overall, adolescents reported very low satisfaction with stimulant medication. (Pelham et al., 2013)

I should be clear that I am pro-medication. If we do find intelligence-in-a-bottle, I want the first bottle. If taking amphetamines makes you better at what you care about, then please take it.

I am concerned however that these pills might just be the system pushing the blame on the biology of students. Imagine if the movie industry decided that people who cannot enjoy their movies should take pills instead?

My impression is that schools are unable to face the truth: they are boring and unpleasant to a lot of students.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I failed kindergarten and was put in a special class. This came about because I would not learn my phone number, or to count up to ten. Throughout my primary education, I refused to learn my multiplication tables. Yet I went on to get a PhD. I am pretty confident that I do not, nor did I ever have, a crippling cognitive defect. Yet I fear that I young version of myself would be prescribed pills today.

If my life depended on it, I could listen to a teacher for 50 minutes without losing a word. I could memorize long tables of numbers. But as a kid, I refused to do it because it is boring and unnecessary.

As a middle-age tenured professor with dozens of published research papers I can say with confidence that rote memorization of the multiplication tables would have been useless to me. I think it is, at best, of a very limited use to a very limited number of people…

Now, there are kids that simply cannot learn to read or to multiply because they have a disability. It seems that drugs can help them. They should certainly take them. But if your little boy cannot be bothered to do rote memorization or other boring school-related tasks, is having him take pills the real solution? Is it fair to force generations of kids to do boring unpaid work because we say so?

There were things that I really disliked as a student. Rote memorization was one of them. Another was the lecture. Even to this day, I cannot listen to most lectures without getting bored in the first 5 minutes. I think I might even be an extremist in this respect: in college, I skipped most of my lectures, or just attended them to know when the assignments and exams were. I then worked on my own at the library, or with close friends.

Simply put, even in college, the ability to listen to boring people for extended periods of time is not a necessary skill. Rote memorization is also not very important: it might help you on some tests, but you are not going to win a Nobel prize by taking tests.

I also hated the always-on social component of school. You are always with lots of other people you barely know. I find this very distracting and exhausting. Say what you will, I believe that human beings are geared toward working within a small tribe. Classrooms far exceed the size of a tribe. How natural is it to be forced into a oversized tribe?

Some will reply that school is not meant to be pleasant. It should be boring. But why? Where is the evidence that forcefully boring young people is necessary? Where is the evidence that rote memorization makes you smarter? What is the real purpose here?

Credit: Greg Linden pointed us to this New York Times article on AHDH.

8 thoughts on “Forcefully boring young people is necessary…”

  1. I fully agree.

    I’m not an expert, so I will just provide a link a talk by Ken Robinson:

    It’s less than 12 minutes and summarises several relevant aspects. There is an idea that I would like to highlight:

    Learning is pleasurable (our brains are designed for that). Children have fun when learning something they consider useful. In animals games and learning are basically the same thing, play and train. Something very similar could be done for children. There are many games (actual games, not “educational games”) that they will happily play that are in the end an optimization problem, which can be addressed using maths.

    I think that is an important part of success. Starting from an objective and then finding the means. It’s much easier to learn something when there is some motivation other than “you must remember this for the exam day”.

    On a side note. I feel most policies today should be reconsidered considering the objectives, the means, the success and the alternatives. It seems many things are done just because they were done that way before, the assumptions are never reconsidered, the world may change, however we patch the current system in the most shallow and superficial means, without reconsidering the fundamental objectives of something as important as education. The reason for this may be in the educational system itself, which is not focused on solving problems or diagnosing them, but in memorizing stuff. Math problems are not really solved either, a method to solve them is memorized and applied.

    To conclude. I hope we will see the day when education is composed of a series of optional challenges (as games), because people (and children) have different preferences, leading to acquire the skills and knowledge required to overcome those challenges.

  2. Agreed. I think lectures can be replaced by excellent documentaries or other videos created by the best at it. Classes would consist of experiments, individual and group study. Professors would no longer have to teach (unless they were extraordinarily good at it) and then they would be making the aforementioned vidoes. Teachers would be instead mentors who would would help individual students on demand.

    Most learning would take place in individual projects.

  3. You are making judgments and conclusions based on the idea that “studies in adults without ADHD” generalize to children who have ADHD. Yet, many studies have found that medicines affect children differently from adults, and people with ADHD of any age are affected differently by stimulants than people who do not have ADHD. Stimulants often have a calming and focusing, almost depressive, affect on ADHD kids, in fact, the polar opposite of the effect the same drugs have on adults without ADHD.

    I don’t think ANY educational conclusions about how stimulants affect kids with ADHD can be reached based on a study of adults without ADHD. The two simply don’t relate.

  4. @Paige

    Only the first study I cite refers to adults but it should be clear that Amphetamine is prescribed to not just kids but also teenagers and young adults.

    As for studies showing the benefits of Amphetamine-related drugs in education, they are indeed very real, but very few of these studies differentiate between students with only ADHD and students with ADHD and learning disabilities.

    Sadly, students with problems often have multiple problems including ADHD and other disabilities. It seems that Amphetamine helps these students get better grades. Of course, they have typically terrible grades to begin with.

    However, according to Zentall et al., 2013, these drugs are *not* effective for students who only have ADHD.

    Let us be clear: if I had to self-diagnose, I would say that I “suffer” from ADHD because I cannot stand boredom. But who gets to decide whether I am normal and functional? Or whether the problem is elsewhere?

  5. I completly agree with this post. Just one question. As a tenured professor, don’t you need to give some lectures? And if yes, what do you do to avoid giving boring lectures?


  6. @Stephane

    I do not lecture. For regular courses, I primarily teach online. This effectively means that I prepare assignments, I post them online, students complete them on their own schedule. Here is what a course of mine looks like:

    I also supervise student projects (undergraduate and graduate). In such cases, there are meetings and email exchanges… but no lecture.

    I am not exactly sure why anyone is still lecturing formally in 2014.

    This being said, I am sure I am boring to a lot of people a lot of the time. But I try to offer students what I wish I had received.

    I described my teaching philosophy on this blog some time ago:

    How University professors ought to be teaching…

  7. “Even to this day, I cannot listen to most lectures without getting bored in the first 5 minutes. I think I might even be an extremist in this respect: in college, I skipped most of my lectures, or just attended them to know when the assignments and exams were. I then worked on my own at the library, or with close friends.”

    Totally agree. I did the same thing.

  8. Hi Daniel,
    I’m a mom of a 15 year old son and I love your posts. After feeling exasperated as a homeshooling parent of a son labeled with ADHD (he’s been in public and private schools as well) I Googled, “What to do when your 15 year old can’t memorize math facts,” and your post popped up.

    I had already reached the conclusion on my own that he would not ever memorize them, and that we would just move on. I was thankful to see that there are others out there, much smarter than me, who agree. I just don’t know what to teach him. He’s an 8th grader, and I wonder if he’ll be able to succeed at Algebra. Does he even need Algebra? What about real world math?

    I shared your post on our homeschool curriculum site and many others are going through the same thing, all in agreement!

    Thanks for speaking up for the kids, teens, and adults who don’t fit into the box, and frankly don’t want to.


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