Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community
“What did you learn in school?”
“What did you enjoy about school?”
If you’ve ever had a similar dialog with your middle school or high school student, you’re not alone: According to a Gallup poll cited in Harvard Ed Magazine, teenagers are bored at school, with only 2 percent claiming to have never experienced disengagement in their classroom.
For parents who may have felt similarly about their academic career, it can be easy enough to brush off these complaints; after all, we slogged through the worksheets and lived to tell the tale.
However, before we tune them out, we should remember that boredom is an alert system; according to Psychology Today, “[it] indicates that a current activity or situation isn’t providing engagement or meaning—so that the person can hopefully shift their attention to something more fulfilling.”
The questions are: first, why is the activity not providing meaning; and second, is it possible to make that shift in their current school environment?
So when you hear your child say, “I hate school,” ask a few more questions. Once you know why they think school is so boring, you can figure out how to help them stop counting down the days ‘til the end of the school year.
Is your child zooming ahead of their classmates, finishing their work and left with plenty of time for daydreaming? Or are they in over their head and daydreaming just the same?
Either way, if their school work is too hard or too easy, they aren’t in their zone of proximal development (ZPD). A popular term in education, the ZPD is the area of growth a student achieves when they are challenged to do something — with the help of a teacher or more advanced peers — beyond what they could achieve alone.
When students are in the ZPD, they are being challenged just the right amount. But it’s not a matter of calibrating a curriculum to the learner’s exact skill level. It’s about the relationship between the student, the material and the instructor / classmates.
Being in the “zone” means learning beyond one’s abilities with the help of scaffolding — guardrails that are slowly removed to accommodate the learner’s development. That’s why being in the “zone” encourages engagement: as learners become increasingly autonomous in one area, they enter a positive feedback loop in which they are inherently motivated to take increasingly meaningful leaps forward.
For a child to be in the “zone,” they to be able to “learn at their own pace.” But just as importantly, they need the support of a curriculum, an instructor and classmates that will enable them to hit their stride. When we say at Prisma that “learning isn’t one size fits all,” we’re looking at those elements together — a curriculum that allows students to set off on their own path as well as a coach and a cohort who help them go further than they could have gotten by themselves.
If your student is coming home with a syllabus crowded with highly structured assignments, quizzes and tests, they may be bored because they lack opportunities for creativity and critical thinking in their school environment. In our assessment-obsessed culture, these opportunities tend to decrease as kids get older, leaving them with less hands-on learning and more Scan-tron sheets to fill out with a number two pencil. It’s no wonder, then, that in the Gallup study cited above, elementary school kids — who have the most room for creativity — were the least bored age group.
At Prisma, we believe that “learning happens through making and doing.” Instead of connect-the-dots assignments, we let students choose their topics — and decide how to demonstrate their mastery of the subject. At the middle school, where kids get more scaffolding (to keep them in the ‘zone’), they get to choose from several different kinds of projects. In our “Unsolved Mysteries” theme, they can make a podcast, write an article, direct a video, draw a diagram or design a model to explore their topic. At the high school, where kids are ready for more independence, they get to design their own project. In our “Future of Health” theme, they're able to design an app or a medical device or even a molecule.
“This is a waste of time. When are we ever going to use this in real life?” — is code for: Your child is searching for meaning in their schoolwork. In a world where tests and assessments dominate the education landscape, it can be easy to accept that our kids have to jump through certain (boring) hoops in order to get their degree and join the workforce.
Project-based learning challenges that imaginary divide between schoolwork and “real life,” arguing that learning should have a purpose in the real world. At Prisma, we commit to that principle by mapping our outcomes onto what kids actually need to succeed; we're not focused on teaching them every single standard or fact from social studies or science.
We bring in real world topics, like AI, the future of health, or disinformation and misinformation. We offer workshops on topics such as how to use design thinking, how to pitch a product, how to design a video game — things that real professionals do in the real world. To make that connection explicit — and personal — we build in time for reflection, so kids think about how these topics connect to their life.
For a child whose passion lies beyond the walls of school, the traditional seven-hour public school day can feel endless.
Here, there are two assumptions to challenge: first, that school needs to take so long; and second, that a learner should park their passions at the door.
If the length of the school day is preventing your child from doing what they love, you might want to consider homeschooling. Because you can go at your child’s pace, when you homeschool, you can cover the required academic material in a fraction of the time.
But that’s only half the issue. The other piece of the puzzle is the role of your child’s interests and how they can be incorporated into the learning experience. At Prisma, we believe in following a child’s lead, letting them pursue the subject matter they find valuable and exciting, even if (especially if!) they don’t fall into a traditional academic category.
A child who loves soccer can follow the economics of player salaries, the representation of soccer stars in the media, or gender and racial equity on the field. A child who feels most at home in the kitchen can study the chemistry of baking, learn the business of cupcake sales, or author their own cookbook. A child who loves theater can research, write and direct their own show.
Don’t worry too much about fitting these interests into neat academic boxes (which don’t exist in the real world anyway). If your child already loves something, they’ve already got a ticket out of boredom: just let them pursue it.
If your child’s boredom extends to every aspect of the school day — they have no favorite subject, every class is a boring class, and they don’t even like electives — that might mean there’s a deeper issue. Spend time listening to your child: find out if they can pinpoint the last time they didn’t feel bored all the time, or even a small moment during the day when they were enjoying themselves. You might get a glimpse into the underlying cause — and a possible solution: “Oh, I enjoyed the group work we did yesterday, but we don’t normally get to do that” or “school was fun until I got separated from my friends.”
If the boredom spills beyond class time and into their free time, you might want to consult a mental health professional to see if there’s something going on, such as burnout or depression. In the case that boredom at school is pointing to a deeper issue, know that just by being there to listen to your child, you’re helping them develop resilience.
“Boredom” - the basics of boredom from Psychology Today.
“Boredom is a warning sign. Here’s what it’s telling you” - a Washington Post article by Richard Sima, that explains the science and the psychology of boredom.
“What does boredom do to us and for us?” - a New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot on the growing field of boredom studies.
In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School — a collaborative field research project, by Professor Jal Mehta and Educator Sarah Fine, to understand the successes and failures of the American school system.
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