Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Forcefully boring young people is necessary…

In many schools, a fifth of all boys are prescribed Amphetamine-related drugs because they have been diagnosed with an attention deficit. But these pills are not intelligence-in-a-bottle. To put it differently, taking Adderall may not make you smarter at all:

Although there is a perception among students that stimulant medication may improve academic performance, studies in adults without ADHD suggest that stimulants do not promote learning and may in fact impair performance in tasks that require adaptation, flexibility, and planning. Stimulant-induced improvements in cognition in individuals without ADHD were mainly evident in those with low cognitive performance, suggesting that stimulants may be more effective at correcting deficits rather than enhancing academic performance. (Nugent and Smart, 2014)

To be clearer, with psychostimulants, you might do better at basic arithmetic if you cannot normally do arithmetic, but you could do worse at higher level tasks.

The problem is that students diagnosed with ADHD have commonly other learning disabilities. And it might be these other disabilities that are helped by drugs:

The efficacy of psychostimulants was documented on specific areas of achievement for the ADHD+ [ADHD with learning disabilities] group, but this review did not support the administration of psychostimulants for students with ADHD- [ADHD without learning disabilities]. (Zentall et al., 2013)

There is a larger issue… what do kids think of these drugs? Many teenagers do not like them, at all:

Overall, adolescents reported very low satisfaction with stimulant medication. (Pelham et al., 2013)

I should be clear that I am pro-medication. If we do find intelligence-in-a-bottle, I want the first bottle. If taking amphetamines makes you better at what you care about, then please take it.

I am concerned however that these pills might just be the system pushing the blame on the biology of students. Imagine if the movie industry decided that people who cannot enjoy their movies should take pills instead?

My impression is that schools are unable to face the truth: they are boring and unpleasant to a lot of students.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with a learning disability. I failed kindergarten and was put in a special class. This came about because I would not learn my phone number, or to count up to ten. Throughout my primary education, I refused to learn my multiplication tables. Yet I went on to get a PhD. I am pretty confident that I do not, nor did I ever have, a crippling cognitive defect. Yet I fear that I young version of myself would be prescribed pills today.

If my life depended on it, I could listen to a teacher for 50 minutes without losing a word. I could memorize long tables of numbers. But as a kid, I refused to do it because it is boring and unnecessary.

As a middle-age tenured professor with dozens of published research papers I can say with confidence that rote memorization of the multiplication tables would have been useless to me. I think it is, at best, of a very limited use to a very limited number of people… Now, there are kids that simply cannot learn to read or to multiply because they have a disability. It seems that drugs can help them. They should certainly take them. But if your little boy cannot be bothered to do rote memorization or other boring school-related tasks, is having him take pills the real solution? Is it fair to force generations of kids to do boring unpaid work because we say so?

There were things that I really disliked as a student. Rote memorization was one of them. Another was the lecture. Even to this day, I cannot listen to most lectures without getting bored in the first 5 minutes. I think I might even be an extremist in this respect: in college, I skipped most of my lectures, or just attended them to know when the assignments and exams were. I then worked on my own at the library, or with close friends.

Simply put, even in college, the ability to listen to boring people for extended periods of time is not a necessary skill. Rote memorization is also not very important: it might help you on some tests, but you are not going to win a Nobel prize by taking tests.

I also hated the always-on social component of school. You are always with lots of other people you barely know. I find this very distracting and exhausting. Say what you will, I believe that human beings are geared toward working within a small tribe. Classrooms far exceed the size of a tribe. How natural is it to be forced into a oversized tribe?

Some will reply that school is not meant to be pleasant. It should be boring. But why? Where is the evidence that forcefully boring young people is necessary? Where is the evidence that rote memorization makes you smarter? What is the real purpose here?

Credit: Greg Linden pointed us to this New York Times article on AHDH.