Tag Archives: Democratic Schools

Conversation and happiness

Language Log recently had an interesting post about a study that found that happy people tend to have more substantive conversations. I was reminded of the kind of conversations we had in Sudbury Jerusalem. I’ve written about it before (for example, in The Secret Weapon) and I thought I’d bring up the connection here. As the Language Log post explains, the study doesn’t say whether it’s substantive conversation that increases happiness, or being a happy person that increases substantive conversation.

But it’s interesting to think about how this relates to democratic schools. My experience is that a democratic school is a good place for substantive conversation. In Sudbury Jerusalem, I was a student who rarely had any classes and spent much of my time socializing, talking. It was a place where the general atmosphere is happy rather than depressed. I noticed that in school, we talked a lot, and had a lot of really good conversation, and I never considered whether it’s just because people are often in a good mood (I, by the way, often was not in a good mood, despite a lot of conversation — maybe that’s why). I also never considered that this might be why people are often in a good mood.

I don’t know, but I had other things in mind. The school democracy itself, it seems to me, encourages a culture of talking things through. It’s what we would try to do in School Meeting and in committees, and it’s often what we would do to solve conflicts before resorting to a Judicial Committee complaint form. And the other side of things, the personal freedom, simply gives people more time to talk. There’s always conversation going on all over the place, and it makes sense that when you get to talk with people a lot, you eventually get to deeper, “substantive” conversations.

But maybe the large amount of conversation in democratic schools is caused by something else. Maybe it’s the nature of the school as a community in which people operate freely in the same spaces, together; the school is a very social environment. This is also something that probably contributes to the general happiness of the population. Actually, considering that more social environment are probably causes for both happiness and for conversation, maybe this is the causal link behind the study’s findings. People with more social contact are happier and have more substantive conversation (as compared to people with less social contact.) It definitely makes sense to me.

The Importance of Being Bored

Boredom is not a problem to be dealt with, but a crucial learning process that needs to be given space.

People often ask why Sudbury schools can’t “just offer a few classes for anybody who is interested”. In reply I would answer, “why bother?” – if somebody is truly interested they can always start a class. Staff time is one of the school’s most precious resources; investing it in offering classes “just in case” could be a waste if nobody is interested.

But there is another reason why these schools don’t bother. This reason is that Sudbury schools value boredom.

Boredom has gotten a bad rep. There are entire industries geared towards providing parents and children with antidotes for boredom. But boredom isn’t actually a bad thing.

Boredom is the feeling of not being highly motivated. It’s unpleasant, which is why it makes us try and find a way to get out of it – leading us to to engage in high-motivation activity. There is nothing quite as satisfying as doing things you are highly motivated to do. Boredom is a part of our instinct to find that kind of drive – how can it possibly be a bad thing?

In Sudbury schools, we see that boredom plays a significant role.

Because students are allowed to do whatever they want and nobody tries to cure them of their boredom, they sometimes find themselves in a strange situation: They have all these options around them, people playing, painting, talking, studying or teaching, reading or writing, listening to music or making their own, yet unlike all of those people, they are bored.

This boredom means something – it means they don’t have something they are highly motivated to do; they have not found something that brings out that drive in them. Despite the extraordinary variety of self-organized activity within the school, they have not identified something there which they feel driven to pursue.

People cope with boredom in different ways.

Some find something to do – not necessarily something great, just something. They “peck around”, trying all kinds of different activities, some that already take place, some they create themselves. Often they keep pecking around, rarely sticking with the same thing for long, because none of these things dispels the boredom – none of these inspires enough keen interest and motivation to make them want to keep at it.

After the pecking (or instead of it), some sit around and whine about how bored they are; those around them will try and interest them in new activities – or get annoyed and tell them to stop whining. Sometimes, with or without the whining, they might start talking with someone about their boredom. Conversation often inspires all kinds of new ideas; at any rate, it keeps you busy enough.

Whatever you choose to do with your boredom, it ends sometime.

Sooner or later you do find something interesting enough that you really get into it, and then the boredom is gone. Sometimes you find something like this among the activities you “peck” at; sometimes you figure it out in conversation; often, it suddenly occurs to you after weeks of boredom (it might have been right under your nose the whole time!)

It could be anything — a game, a series or genre of literature, a religion, a science. It can be anything a person might care to spend time on. And people will pursue a newfound interest as if obsessed, often spending days on end just doing that one thing. In Sudbury schools, students have the time and space for that.

This process is cyclical – you may find something really interesting, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll never be bored again. Boredom is a natural part of living and learning.

Usually, when someone finds something they really like, they’ll be happily busy for a few hours, days or weeks. If they’re lucky, it will last for months. In some cases it might even last years (when you get paid for it, it’s called “a dream job”). But eventually, people exhaust their interest and get bored again.

They may have read every single history book they could get their hands on, or they played enough soccer to last them a lifetime. Maybe they discovered that that really tough video game is much easier to beat once you really apply yourself to it, or they realized that they want to do more than just work in a pet store. Boredom kicks in – and moves them to find something else that can really motivate them.

I believe you find motivation and keen interest in things that you consider valuable, or potentially valuable. Sudbury schools don’t claim to know better than the student what is good for them. Instead they say “it’s up to you to figure out what is good for you, what is important to you – and it’s up to you to go and get those things!”

People routinely become excited and motivated about things they identify consciously or unconsciously as important or useful.

Kids discovering reading and writing are often amazingly enthusiastic about it. They just gobble up all the reading they can get their hands on, or scribble out all the writing that they can.

You see the same excitement in somebody acquiring a new language, learning about numbers and arithmetic, learning to sketch or paint – learning almost anything, really. (Unless, of course, they are doing these things because they are forced to — then, it’s usually an awful chore.)

It is the fact that Sudbury schools do not try and cut off the search for an interesting new thing that allows students to explore themselves and the world around them in search of something interesting – something that may be valuable for them. And allowing this to happen means students learn to live with boredom rather than suppress it.

People who suppress boredom end up settling for less, stop exploring, and possibly end up doing things they really don’t care about. This is good if you want your kid to work in a dead-end menial labor job, but it probably isn’t what most people want for their children, or for themselves.