How Do You Get Kids to Want to Learn the Boring Stuff?


A reader commented on my recent post about Victoria’s photography (“How are you going to teach XYZ?“) and made the excellent point that:

I think the question behind the question ‘how you going to teach XYZ?’ is really ‘how are you going to teach XYZ when it is so boring nobody would *want* to learn it if they weren’t forced’… isn’t it? Is that not really what they are getting at?

It’s a great point, and one I thought deserved addressing!

Before moving on, I should note that this is a common unschooling topic but I do not really consider myself an unschooler.  Those who have known me for a while may know that I was asked to leave not one but two unschooling email lists!  🙂  I use words like “relaxed eclectic” when describing how we learn, and also just try to make it all just plain fun and interesting.

If you want to toss around labels, ones that probably fit us include unschooling, Montessori, unit studies, child-led learning, Charlotte Mason, hands-on learning, Waldorf and funschooling.  But since I have been known to say “I want you to start doing every day” or “You can use my iPod but you have to do 20 minutes from the educational section first” then I’ll never really belong to the true unschooling camp.

That said, we definitely use a lot of unschooling principles in our homeschool and in a lot of ways we’re closer to unschoolers than just about anything else.

So how do you teach those subjects that kids don’t necessarily want to learn — calculus, biology, algebra, etc.?

Here are some thoughts on that.

  • Firstly, you don’t necessarily worry about them all. Just because they’re in a standard scope and sequence for your average 9th grader doesn’t mean your 9th grader needs them at all.
  • Secondly, you wait to see if your child chooses to learn them anyway. Even if she finds the subject boring, she may decide to learn it because she’ll need it for college or for a job she’s interested in for her future.  Many unschooled kids sail through their early years with no interest at all in math, for instance, and then dive headfirst into studying it in their teen years to get into a college they’re interested in.  Happily, this tends to take very little time to catch up on years of missed drudgery, once the kids are motivated.
  • Another option is to take away the boring aspect. I can’t tell you how many classes I suffered through in high school and college, that I discovered with great surprise that I loved once I was allowed to learn them in more interesting ways.  I took a geology course in college that was the epitome of boredom, for instance, but when Daryl took me rock hunting for the first time and I started to learn about types of rocks, minerals and fossils I really got into it.  Then when I designed a geology curriculum for homeschool days at the petroglyphs and we made up fun games to teach the rock cycle, found hands-on ways of classifying rocks and that sort of thing, I discovered that I really love geology.   All of my kids have always loved geology, since they grew up with geology meaning rock hunting, rock cycle games, the Moh scale, collecting fabulous treasures and so on.
  • Lastly, you can make it worth their while! No, I don’t mean bribe them.  I mean show kids how the information helps them.  Various “boring” subjects like geometry, statistics, physics and grammar suddenly get relevant when kids are involved in projects like rebuilding a car, figuring odds, remodeling their rooms, saving money, submitting an article, learning to throw the atlatl, figuring out supplies needed for a building project, blogging or starting a business.  Even hobbies like shooting pool or LEGO building can be improved with some knowledge in areas like physics and geometry.

The older I get and the farther away I get from my “official” education, the more I realize that almost everything in life is interesting. Not everything is taught in interesting ways though!

If kids need to learn something (for college, to help them with a project, out of interest or for any other reason), they’ll become motivated on their own.  The next step is to help them find the resources that will teach it in an enjoyable, accessible way.  Lucky for us, more and more of those sorts of resources exist (many of them free!).

Of course, since I am not a real unschooler, I’m also not opposed to saying things like, “Here, do this page of XYZ and then we’ll do a fun craft!”.  🙂

2 thoughts on “How Do You Get Kids to Want to Learn the Boring Stuff?

  1. I think it is easier when we drop our preconceptions about things. If we think something is boring that translates to our children. My children rarely find things boring as they come to everything fresh. They want to know more about things, so they ask and explore. Hands on learning does change ones perspective as you illustrated with geology. Also, my children aren’t afraid of math as I love it. If I presented it as hard, scary, impossible stuff, it would be.

    On the other hand, I think people ask that question, because they think the subject is “hard” and “needs” to be taught by a professional. The feel the average person cannot comprehend chemistry, physics or calculus. I believe that most of unschooling/homeschooling/life learning is being able to find information, fantastic mentors and resources to aide in your learning journey.


  2. I try all sorts of methods to make the topics interesting, or my son’s learning fun. We have a whiteboard where I will write answers, and he shoots with a dart gun for the correct answer. Just doing little things like that can make the learning more entertaining and fun for both parent and child.


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