Boredom is Good: the Case for Self-Directed Learning

We once signed up our daughter for private piano lessons. She loved it while it lasted. After a while, we decided to stop the lessons and see what happens. She didn’t miss it and never asked to resume the lessons. Neither did she continue piano on her own. She adored the lessons while they lasted, but once they stopped, she lost interest. The same exact story happened with whatever we signed her up for: gymnastics, clay, Jiu Jitsu.

On the other hand, we never signed her up for drawing or sewing lessons, we only bought her the necessary materials and let her tinker on her own. She loves drawing and sewing, and she excels at these things without taking any private lessons.

This is why I have a dilemma. If you take your kid to classes where there is a teacher, or if you hire a private tutor, your kid gets used to BEING TAUGHT. They get used to relying on a teacher. They get used to the idea that they need to wait for someone to teach it to them. If they rely on a teacher, they will not know how to study on their own. Teachers are like crutches: they support you, but they don’t teach you to walk on your own.

Kids may enjoy their learning while the teacher is around, but will they continue on their own if the lessons stop?

This is why I firmly believe that a learning activity must be initiated AND maintained by the child. If you see that they study something on their own for a long time, persistently, and show progress – then sure, get a teacher to help with a specific technique or a specific part of the subject they are learning. But I think that a teacher’s help should be occasional and limited, so the kids continue to learn mostly on their own. For example, I see my daughter draw on her own all the time, so at some point, if she asks, I would offer my help as an artist, or hire a tutor to help her improve a specific technique. But I would later stop instruction and let her progress further on her own, until next time.

Here’s an even more radical thought: I am not worried if my kids get bored or lazy. I am perfectly fine with it. I even let them be lazy and do nothing. Of course, there are things we don’t let them do because we don’t want them to be addicted to their idleness. We don’t let them play video games, for example. But we let them get bored and be lazy. Why? Because kids are curious and active by nature, when they are given the freedom and time to explore. They will someday realize that laziness is not fun. Boredom is not fun. So when they don’t have access to addictive, easy entertainment such as video games or cable TV, and when they have free access to all kinds of interesting resources and materials, they will, at some point, want to do something. They will pick up a book, or start building, tinkering, and creating.

And this is what we do: we limit or eliminate their access to the addictive stuff, and we give them full access to the inspiring, creative stuff. And then we wait.

They know that there will be no teacher, no tutor to feed them their knowledge. They know that if they want to learn, to create, to entertain themselves, they have to come up with their own ideas and apply their own efforts. This is exactly what I expect to happen.

Self-directed learning is a much more efficient process than teacher-led learning. When someone teaches you, you apply minimal effort to discover information. When you follow someone’s instructions, you don’t have much room to be curious, to improvise. Such spoon-fed knowledge does not last long. For example, I don’t remember anything I was taught in my high school physics class, because I didn’t care and did not continue studying physics on my own. But I read lots of history books and remember everything, because I was interested in learning history and because I learned on my own initiative. When you learn on your own, through your own discoveries and efforts, your knowledge stays with you.

It must be noted that there is no timeline for self-directed learning. The child may learn some things early and some things late, or never. So what? You don’t need to learn things you are not interested in. If you are not interested in the subject, your learning will be a waste of time and will be soon forgotten.

Also, self-directed learning process is nonlinear. The child may progress quickly, but then hit the plateau or lose interest altogether, or try something else. All this does not worry me. There is no rush, the kids have their whole life ahead of them. As I wrote before, I don’t set a goal for my kids to go to college. I am fine if they don’t go to college, and in some aspects, I would be even glad if they don’t. So we don’t need to rush their learning to meet deadlines or to pass tests. Even if they don’t learn some things, I am fine with it, because self-directed learning process will teach them the most important skill: to learn on their own. Which means, they will know how to use references and resources to find the information they need. Which means, they can learn anything they want at any time in their lives.

Many parents feel that their children must get all the knowledge within a specific period of time, such as during school or college years. But then what? Once they graduate from college and lose access to teacher-led instruction, will they continue to learn on their own, to develop interests, to be curious? Quite the opposite: studies show that children’s curiosity and creativity rapidly decline during school years. So by the time they graduate from college, they are likely to be dull, uninterested adults.

I want my kids to be lifelong learners. This is why I would rather avoid teacher-led educational system and let my kids learn on their own.