So, let’s start off this conversation about something we all think we know - after all, we spent a lot of time there: school.
Imagine: A young, new, clueless teacher walking into a classroom. Clueless, not on the content or the material to be covered... but, on the engagement of the students. Presenting the material, the students are asking no questions… The teacher wonders, "Am I going too slow? A lot of empty eyes out there, and no one is asking questions. Are they getting bored?"
The teacher increases pace, and runs through more and more exciting content, hoping to engage the students. But, rather than getting excited, the group seems less engaged, and eyes seem to wander. And,.. no questions,.. just stares. Students leave, and the teacher is still marveling how efficiently he covered so much content in such little time, and then wonders what he has left to cover the next day.
The period ends... the session draws to a close... and the students leave completely shutdown.
But, this shutdown is not caused by boredom,.. rather, the other extreme - by a month's content being dropped in their lap in a day.
They just passed through a bad twilight zone episode,.. Sadly, about thirty years ago, that was me. Not the student - the teacher. Some of us have experienced this in school. Some at work. Some in conversations with family at gatherings. My students experienced this when I started teaching on an emergency license, heavy in content knowledge, but with very little actual education experience.
We all teach. Sharing an education moment with others is not limited to “teachers.” And, one of the challenges each of us has to deal with is reading the engagement of the learner. Boredom and frustration are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they look the same! Too easy leads to boredom, and too difficult leads to frustration. Both cause the same effect - shutdown. For a foreman, reading the learner is needed when training the new hire. For the parent, teaching the kids how to take out the trash, or helping with math homework. Among friends, it is sharing cool things we saw on the web, or read in a blog :-).
Easy is shutdown
I remember as a kid, easy seemed like a good thing. It was why we got the sub distracted at school, right? Made it an easy day. Although, pulling that off did seem to take a lot of work. And, it was really boring afterwards. (Maybe we weren’t that smart!)
I had the ultimate experience with experiencing “easy” in the 80’s on what would seem like a great job. Just out of high school, I was ready to bank a huge paycheck - far above minimum wage (surprisingly, more than many high schoolers make today on their first job). And, it came with twelve hour days and a bonus. The money sounded great. But, when I showed up with the other new hires, the equipment for the line hadn’t arrived. So, we were all given an option, quit or start a slow dance with a broom across the floors of this huge, new open building which was missing equipment. And so it began. We swept,.. And we swept. About 4 hours later, our quartet had successfully completed the task. What now? Sweep again (or be fired!). Yep, we swept away,.. and again,.. and again for 12 hours and then headed home. Funny how much quicker it is to sweep a clean floor. What a crazy day. By the time we were done, the floor had been covered in multiple criss-cross patterns - you would think it was a golf course.
Day 2. Yep, no equipment for the line. Here we go again. Yep, there is nothing easier to do than sweep a clean floor. And, yep, it was borderline insanity! 12 hours! At the door of the facility at the end of the day: the sun was setting, and we were discussing who was going to stay with this job, or find something else. The money was good, so everyone decided to stay on.
Day 3. By this time an interesting thing happened. No, the equipment still had not arrived. But, instead of sweeping, guys are talking about quitting. Guys start finding places to hide to take naps. We were shutting down while pushing our brooms. With the same wood handle feel pushing across the same smooth concrete floor. It was too much to handle! Our actions were now defining insanity. But, if we were caught not working we would likely get canned. But, nobody cared. Nobody cared. It would be better than losing our minds.
On day 4, Finally! When we were put on the line, everyone was ecstatic, and we had learned a valuable lesson. We may have been the weirdos in the building, but we were excited to be working! Easy is akin to experiencing hell on earth. Something to be avoided.
But, frustration is an equally awful experience. I think we each have many of these experiences in our past. The ones we like to forget.
And, while we work out of frustration by perseverance, practice, and getting help, we ironically want to shut down. Which leads to more frustration…
A solution in the classroom.
So… after the first few days as a new teacher, I tried something novel. I asked.
As teachers, parents, friends, boss, mentor, we can ask. And, then, listen. It was essential to know the perceived difficulty level of my students. My students and I began discussing the two ends of the spectrum: Material coming way too hard - leading to frustration, and material which is way too easy - leading to boredom. In a classroom setting, both can be very bad, but appear the same. Did you catch that? They appear about the same. And at each extreme, students shut down. Colleagues shut down. Workers shut down. Friends disengage.
And, so I asked my students where they were... I polled them daily. What an eye-opener. It was an odd thing for a physics teacher to do, but it worked and it solved other problems, too. That loud student complaining ‘no one is getting anything you are saying.’ Yep, he is primarily a solo act. And the students who needed help, we connected, and they got it. One of the best things I did early on in teaching. (Anonymous polling is increasingly digital age easy.)
So,... if you have entered a work situation, or class setting as the stellar individual, everything coming super easy, and a year later are left wondering, “how has everyone passed me up?” Yep, your boredom undercut your motivation and they all did pass you up. The right level of difficulty keeps us at our best. (More about that next time.)
And, if you are having trouble motivating a youth or coworker… you may just want to ask about how tough they perceive an activity is, realizing verbally it may take a few asks to get an accurate picture - or pushes of the broom.