September 23, 2021

Arthur C. Brooks: The Real Reason Kids Don’t Like School

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Arthur Brooks writes a weekly column for the Atlantic entitled “How to build a life.” Recently he focused on education, suggesting that the reason some children dislike school has nothing to do with academics.

When it comes to long-term well-being, few interventions raise happiness as much as education. In 2015, using data from adult populations across 85 countries, the Austrian researcher Erich Striessnig found that people who had completed secondary education were 10 percent more likely to say they were happy than those who hadn’t finished high school, after controlling for income differences. Meanwhile, a completed college education raised happiness by 30 percent.

One possible explanation for these findings is that learning stimulates a powerful basic positive emotion: interest. Carroll Izard, an emotion researcher, defines interest as “the central motivation for engagement in creative and constructive endeavors and for the sense of well-being.” Simply put, exposing people to ideas and the means to acquire knowledge gives them the tools to produce ongoing happiness throughout their life. It’s no surprise, then, that reading—which adults try to cultivate a love of in children—has been found to increase life satisfaction.

Yet children’s attitudes while they’re in school don’t reflect education’s enormous happiness benefits later in life. In a 2020 survey of more than 21,000 American high schoolers, the top two feelings students said they experienced at school were “stressed” (79.8 percent) and “bored” (69.5 percent). Some of them expressed positive emotions such as pride and cheerfulness, but overall, nearly 75 percent of their self-reported feelings related to school were negative.

You could easily dismiss this mismatch as something of a grasshopper-and-ant problem, in which effort that’s a drag in the moment leads to great outcomes later on. But I think there’s more to it than that. For many children, school is not just hard work, but also intensely isolating. Research shows that 80 percent of children face loneliness at times in school; that emotion is linked to boredom, inactivity, a tendency to withdraw into fantasy, and a passive attitude toward social interactions. To say that loneliness can kill interest in school is not an exaggeration.

Conversely, friendship at school is by far the biggest predictor of enjoyment and positive behaviors. Gallup has found that having a best friend at school is the best predictor of student engagement in both fifth grade and 11th. Similarly, a study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Warwick, and the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students with “reciprocal friendships” (wherein both sides see the relationship the same way) are more likely to enjoy school and are more successful in the classroom.

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