In a classroom, the reward for efficiency is boredom

The productivity industry is huge. Companies spend billions of dollars training employees to be more productive, tips and tactics are common cocktail party chatter, and even universities are teaching productivity tools as a way to differentiate themselves.

What’s surprising, though, is that no one teaches productivity to children. In school we teach kids to be efficient factory workers: get some assignment done the way we tell you to get it done. If the class spends twenty minutes to get something done, each student spends 20 minutes to get it done. The reward for efficiency is boredom, waiting on everyone else.

In the real world, it’s a different productivity that determine our own success: Personal productivity: deciding what we want from our time and then developing productivity strategies to meet those goals. In adult life, understanding one’s own priorities is a prerequisite for being productive—productivity is about focusing on what’s important.

Jessica wrote a great comment about this topic:

I have a theory that successful self-directed learners have a better handle on time management. You look at successful people and they know how to manage their time, who to ignore, who to listen to, what to pursue, what to prioritize and what to build upon.

As far as I’m aware we all found what we loved or were interested in or passionate about regardless of if we were schooled or not. Not being in the confines of a schooling system is about being able to use our immediate resources to our advantage, such as income and time which compounds growth.

Jessica’s comment reminded me of when I first took my kids out of school. It seemed like we had huge amounts of time. The day seemed almost endless while the boys tried to figure out what to do with themselves and I tried to keep them from fighting with each other.

I sent them on walks to go visit my in-laws. Their house is a little less than a mile away, across hay fields and corn fields, and it was a perfect journey for my seven and ten year old sons. Our neighbors on the other side of our farm are the same distance away, and the kids walked there when the neighbors got home from work.

In the winter I dressed the boys up warmly for the walk.

In the spring they walked with baby kittens snuggled on their shoulders or tucked into their pockets.

Today if I told the boys to go take a walk, they’d say they have no time. Their days are filled with farm chores and music practice and all the things that interest them. One son is learning 3D graphics, one son is learning biology and algebra. Both like playing video games and schedule their days to leave enough time to do that.

Today the issues we face are about priorities. My son spends all day on 3D graphics and then he’s disappointed that he missed one of his three cello practices. Or he went on a disc golf tournament and he is all stressed out that he is “missing a day of work”.

Teaching the kids to fill their own days with high priority activities is the first step. Teaching the kids they have to give up some of those activities in order to really go after what they decide is most important: that’ s what adult life is all about.

18 replies
  1. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    When I was 9, I went to a garage sale with my grandma. I found an old Brownie camera there and picked it up and looked it over endlessly. My grandmother noticed and gave me a quarter to buy it. It started a love of cameras and photography that persists to this day. (My photos:

    I have no regrets about the path I took through school because it led to my career in software development, which I also love. I might not have discovered this had I not been introduced to it in school.

    But my photography always took a back seat. Now that I’m pushing 50 I’m deliberately doing more things that simply make me happy and I’ve returned to photography with a vengeance.

    I wonder what would have happened if I had been more free to explore it on my own back when I was young.

  2. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    This is brilliant!

    I was that bored kid in school. I knew how to work quickly but there was no benefit for me. They assigned me more work. I remember the SRA individualized learning packets I did to fill my time. What a waste!

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      This happened to me when I was in school as well. Eventually, the teachers started to give me classwork that was several grade levels ahead and it would take me the entire class to finish. I did not appreciate that at all. I liked finishing the same work quickly and having the free time to write my own stories afterwards, starting in 2nd grade. Why couldn’t they let me continue my creative writing instead of assigning me meaningless advanced tasks?

      • mh
        mh says:

        I was speaking with a fourth grade public school teacher recently. She’s a relative. I was mentioning how, when the kids get excited about things, I just load them up with resources and help them connect with a mentor and let them do projects and independent studies, even if it sidelines our regular day/week/month plan.

        She told me she is forbidden by law from assigning a student any extra or different work that the entire class is not assigned.

        Forbidden. By law.

        Students who finish work early must help the other students in the class or just wait around.

        So much for creative writing when you finish early. So much for individuality.

        And so much for that tool from the teacher’s toolbag. You can’t encourage a bright child with an interesting follow-up project; you can’t assign a disruptive child a distracting research project and presentation. You can’t differentiate among the students at all.

        I don’t envy teachers.

        • Corrine
          Corrine says:

          If that’s a law where she is, its not a common one to the schools here in California. I’m a teacher and we are required to differentiate work based on students individual needs. Its not a law, but an expected practice. If all students are doing the exact same work and we don’t modify it at all for students that are more advanced or less advanced we would be in big trouble. However, whether or not individual teachers are doing that depends on what their principal is focusing on and how well they pay attention to their teachers.

      • Tracy
        Tracy says:

        I remember finishing work early and many times being asked to help other kids with their work. At the time I found it frustrating, but it was such an eye-opening experience for me at a young age to appreciate that not everyone could processes things in the same way – and it forced me to deconstruct things that came easily to me in order to try to explain them to someone else. It’s an invaluable skill I use everyday of my working life.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Once I got into 4th-6th grades, my “reward” for being efficient was taking over the teacher’s mundane classroom tasks. Collecting tests, laminating things in the teacher’s lounge, erasing the chalkboards…you know, stuff she was being paid to do as part of her job and now I was doing for her for free as a “reward”. I quickly learned to use my free time at the beginning of an assignment so that I could finish at the same time as everyone else.

          There comes a point in most elementary level classrooms where the other students simply do not appreciate being “helped” by a fellow student.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I remember SRA too! We called it “stupid reading assignments” and we all recognized it as something the teacher had individual kids do when she didn’t know what to do with them.

      What I most remember is that I was advancing in SRA more than twice as fast as the other kids in the class. And I remember thinking, if I’m this far ahead, why do I have to keep doing it? Why can’t I do what I want to do while the other kids catch up to me?


  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love jessica’s comments!

    Another great post. I love how it shows this great process of how things started out for your sons and what it has evolved to. It’s so true, at first you may wonder what you will fill your time with as self-directed learners, but it does not take long to find that your days are filled with activities.

    Passions come and go, but they are always chosen by my kids. Some things stick around much longer and don’t ever seem to go away, such as VG design, acting, art, science and music. Others are temporary but take up the majority of the day until my kids have had enough. I never push for them to stick with anything, and I like how willing they are to try new things.

  4. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I wonder if your boys are reappropriating your busy phrases. It reminds me of my 3-year old who echoes my ‘voice’ alot. The other day she told me she couldn’t come in for her bath because she ‘had lots of jobs to do’. The jobs themselves consisted of washing the feet of her brown chicken and trying to teach it to be kind to the other chickens.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s so funny! My nine-year-old said yesterday that he felt like he was “busy all day but got none of his high priority items done.” And I thought to myself that he spends a lot of time in the car overhearing my coaching calls!


  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This is a good post on personal productivity. However, there’s also productivity on a group level that’s necessary for success as an adult. That’s why so much is written about E.Q. and the contribution of the individual to the success of the team (servant leadership). You want to differentiate yourself in both an individual setting and a group environment. You want to be remembered for your contribution regardless of the setting. So I read – “Or he went on a disc golf tournament and he is all stressed out that he is “missing a day of work”. – and I think maybe that’s why there’s some curricula for kids. They need guidance just as much as an adult needs a mentor and training in the workplace. How much guidance should there be with self-direction? Doesn’t that vary with the individual? Isn’t that the advantage of a customized learning plan that may have been derived from a fixed curricula? What I’m saying is self-direction and learning is a good thing as far as it goes. Everybody has something to learn from the experiences of somebody that’s been there before them. Everybody has a different place on the spectrum of how much guidance they need in the different phases of their life which, of course, include kids as they grow up. Also, an individual’s place on the guidance spectrum is not necessarily fixed if they’re able to learn more about themselves.

  6. sarah
    sarah says:

    The ironic thing is, schools were designed to create factory workers, but most of our factories are over seas. Maybe that is why we noticed the school system failing more so now, than before.

    I wonder if we were to recreate a school system based on lower wage jobs how it would look. Instead of workbooks would we be timed on flipping burgers? :)

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      When I flipped burgers, I could make a quarter pounder from start to finish in 15 seconds. The fastest person could make it in 13 seconds. Alas, 7 weeks of burger flipping proved to be too much for me and I never reached such heights as the 13 second burger creating.

  7. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    When I was in middle school, the school created an advanced curriculum that was run by the art teacher. Every other day, we went to the art room for an hour or two and played Apples to Apples or did political debates.

    I always felt a little bit guilty about this, because it was way more fun than the regular classroom, but not guilty enough to pass up the opportunity.

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