Boredom in Class

by Guest Blogger
September 19th, 2013

By Mark Bauerlein

Last month in Education Week, I penned a commentary on relevance in the curriculum with survey data on high school dropouts. The trend is clear: ask recent dropouts why they left school and they set boredom at the top of the list. One 2006 study found that 47 percent of them claimed that school was boring and 69 percent said that school didn’t motivate or excite them. For those students, it wasn’t the difficulty of the work that drove them away. It was the tediousness.

A standard answer to the disengagement problem is that we need a more relevant curriculum. After all, people note, how can an African American junior in Chicago relate to a poem about an 18th-century English country churchyard at night? Added to that, the surveys show that teachers all too often stick to the most uninspiring teaching method, the lecture format, which the students  find deadening (so they say). Let’s have more contemporary novels and fewer classics, more topical themes and fewer historical contexts, and let’s incorporate more collaborative and self-direct learning, fewer podium presentations.

What will really help this young woman graduate from college? (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

It sounds commonsensical, to be sure. Boredom can ruin academic achievement, even for bright students. Materials closer to their actual lives will surely raise their interest, we assume, and consequently their scores, too. Besides, if we wish to train students for the real world in 2013, why force-feed them texts and facts from long ago and far away? Sixteen-year-olds wonder how studying a group of hard-core Christians who landed on Cape Cod 400 years ago will help them get a job, understand the health care debate, become adept with digital tools, and win friends and influence people. And, in fact, lots of 40-year-olds ask that question as well.

Before joining the call for relevance in the curriculum, let’s put boredom and relevance in the light of what is, perhaps, the overriding factor in secondary curricular reform today: college readiness. College readiness has become the standard by which a high school education is measured, the foundation, for instance, of Common Core standards in math and English (as well as literacy in science, technical subjects, and social studies). Formerly, educators aimed to ensure access to college for all high school graduates, setting college admission at the end of the secondary school mission. But having witnessed hundreds of thousands of high school graduates enter college, be forced to take remedial classes, and drop out before they finish their first year, educators have shifted their focus to college retention. Now, they believe, it isn’t enough to get students into college—we have to keep them there until they earn a degree.

So, curriculum and standards experts work backwards, determining what students learn in high school by that which will serve them well in college, what they will learn in middle school by that they will need in high school, and so on. The Common Core initiative followed this pattern, and so the standards and accompanying materials rightly called for a curriculum rich in the content presumed in the next grade levels, including exemplary informational texts that will accumulate year-to-year in the mind of a student and prepare him or her for college history, science, English and civics.

Increasingly, however, people are realizing that college retention depends not only on cognitive skills and academic knowledge, but also on a set of “soft skills.” They include persistence, time management, self-motivation, and other attributes of independence and organization. Now that they have left home and high school, first-year college students no longer have parents to monitor their hours and teachers who see them every weekday and check their homework. The guidance and command of the home have ended, and the teachers they have in college see them only a few hours a week and often never connect names with faces.

Here is where the boredom factor enters and can prove damaging. In high school, when students get bored, parents and teachers notice and urge, push, motivate, and assist them past it so that the work gets done. They seek out relevance-inducing adjustments to let students know, “Listen, this material is important to you, and we can make it interesting,” and far too often they proceed to drop that nineteenth-century novel and choose a popular contemporary one, hoping to plant a novel-reading habit that someday will extend to finer and older works.

But when students get bored in college, professors aren’t so reactive and flexible. If a student tunes out in class and submits C-level, work, the teacher may invite the student to office hours for a chat about the next paper or test, but that’s about it. If the student never shows up, well, life goes on. Parents aren’t around, either, so what is a student accustomed to being coddled and entertained to do?

Another soft skill becomes crucial: working through boredom on your own. It’s a disposition that has little to do with intelligence or knowledge, more a matter of stamina than intellect. If the U.S. history textbook bores you to death, it says, you still must get through 20 pages in the next hour. Biology 101 may have no relevance to your career plans or personal tastes, but you still have to complete it to fulfill a General Education requirement. Many first-year students don’t easily absorb such blank and impersonal facts of college—especially when their home and high school environments catered more to their personal interests than their actual needs—but they are binding and they call for a different attitude. The more you can ignore your ennui, the easier it will be to pass the course. The less you judge the course on personal grounds, the less likely will you recoil from it and consider dropping out of college. (You might even learn something that sparks genuine curiosity.)

Perhaps we should add “coping-with-boredom” to the list of college-readiness indicators, and K – 12 pedagogy should temper the quick and easy tactic of relevance. Yes, teachers should select materials true to the learning goals of the subject and also likely to interest the students. But they should also recognize that some materials that students must learn can’t be avoided or compromised, even though students will find them oh-so-dull. Boredom is bound to happen, and instead of trying to escape it by changing course contents, teachers should try to neutralize it by changing student expectations. It is possible that teachers may go too far in presenting an exciting, relevant curriculum, unintentionally giving students the message that their boredom is a justifiable condition that somebody else must remedy. Better for them to absorb a different lesson: boredom, in itself, is no reason to stop working.

 

25 Comments »

  1. This is an important piece. I would add that oftentimes, I find students who list “boredom” and “tediousness” as reasons for why they don’t enjoy school (or drop out), use these words when they mean (instead) that school is challenging, or when they have to think deeply, or when they
    have to take risks that may lead to some failure at first before success. Citing boredom shifts the blame; and, in some ways, we have encouraged it by putting all of our energy into attempting to make everything we deliver/cover/”coach into” in the classroom relevant.

    Comment by Dennise O'Grady — September 19, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

  2. “Boredom” is merely a symptom, not a cause, and any teacher who accepts symptomatic assessment as a real motivating factor for dropping out is a fool. More often than not, boredom reflects hearing the same – or similar – things many times, again and again, like “why didn’t you read that” or “why is your attendance still so bad.” Many times, boredom reflects too much teacher-talk, and not enough kid-talk or, more generally, other-talk, like why working with others is considered “cheating,” or why it is important to “be on time,” or when does a deadline count because you are the one most “responsible” for delays. It’s not so boring when a deadline means others depend on you, or when collaboration exists to improve both or all players in a team, or when listening is an active instead of passive activity, inviting feedback, comments, and even complaints.

    And regarding your “soft skills” – look at the SCANS Report of 1992 – there are about 1900 of them. They’re not terribly subtle, but they do share some common patterns: they can’t be scored on a 100 point scale, since they can always be improved. They usually involve both the student and somebody or something else – ranging from “inquiry” to “teamwork,” “responsibility” to “using technology.” And they often can be documented in portfolios – easier and less competitively than tests and scores and “objective” hard data. Finally, and this is why soft skills are rarely boring, they are very rarely measured and very often assessed, and that feedback from assessment is considered useful, not judgmental.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — September 19, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

  3. The main reasons students drop out of college is also boredom and relevance. The only differences are they are paying paying for the privilege and going to college isn’t compulsory.

    If you want a lower drop out rate, fix the product.

    Comment by Rob — September 20, 2013 @ 9:33 am

  4. Perhaps the reason the students are bored is that they are NOT being offered a rich, deep, relevant curriculum along the lines of the Core Knowledge curriculum. Not in elementary school, not in middle school, and not in high school. Students spend much of their time on “test-prep”. This mostly consists of content-less, skills-oriented worksheets designed to prepare them to pass a test.
    By the time they get to high school, they have been spending at least half of a school year for each of nine years on these empty activities. I would be bored too.

    Comment by Cheryl — September 20, 2013 @ 9:54 am

  5. The possibilities for technology to affect education are vast. Blended learning-that is learning in the traditional sense of the brick-and-mortar university mixed with online learning is already showing its benefits. A big player in this area in Europe is https://iversity.org/. These MOOC providers work with pedagogy experts to provide an interactive and engaging learning experience, along with peer to peer learning (which in my view is hugely important). Sure, with online only courses you are not in the same physical classroom as the lecturer-but these norms and expectations are changing by the day.

    Comment by Ronan Mc Guire — September 20, 2013 @ 10:04 am

  6. This is a compelling piece, and I agree with almost all of it. I wonder, though, whether boredom is really the issue here. Very few subjects are inherently boring (unless they’re empty); even individual topics have something interesting, if one knows how to find it.

    For instance, when learning a language, one could view the verb conjugations as boring, or one could take interest in the stresses, prefixes, suffixes, and vowel mutations. It becomes beautiful when you take it into the mind in a certain way.

    Many students lack the patience to see what a subject might hold–and their impatience is actually applauded and exacerbated by adults. We hear so much about how students need to be “active learners,” but the curriculum and methods promoted in the name of “active learning” can actually foster passivity. It takes seriously active learning to find out what’s interesting about an unfamiliar subject or a poem from a distant place and time. These things are (often) far from boring; they just require putting one’s immediate needs and urges aside.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 20, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  7. Not all students should go to college. Having all High School students on a college track is a large part of the problem of students dropping out. High School should have vocational/commercial tracks along with college tracks. The choice of which track to take should be completely up to the student. The students should also be allowed to switch tracks any time they want. Most European countries use this system very successfully.

    Comment by David J. Krupp — September 20, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  8. This was an interesting topic. I often made one or two students a year who seemed to be bored in class. Its either they need to be challenged or they cannot do the work. In the school in which I teach we are always working toward those students who are below grade level rather than enriching those students who are already capable. This article was great to hear and enlighten for the situations in my school.

    Comment by Cassie Bernard — September 20, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  9. “Tracking” as suggested by Krupp is, in fact, the primary source of dropout behavior: when one’s destiny is foreordained, there’s no reason to challenge it. Quality vocational and academic courses overlap and complement each other, reducing that “boredom” rationale. “Choice” for a 16 year old for the rest of their life is cruel and unusual punishment, and, frankly, was only justified in an industrial age – and there are many too few industrial jobs left to use that kind of logic. Instead, “tastes” of different occupations, careers, college or work experiences have far more value, both academically as well as community terms. Most high school seniors could be tutors to younger students, for example, which tests both their interpersonal and academic or vocational skills in real world situations.

    What’s boring about school is this kind of ignorance among academics: stop saying the same thing and pretending it’s a new idea. It’s not.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — September 20, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  10. I don’t blame kids for being bored in schools today. There reason is simply that there are very few good teachers. Break up the teacher’s union, allow charter schools to flourish and innovation will occur.

    Joe: you want your kids/students to engage with technology and work on projects with their fellow students. You want kid talk instead of teacher talk? Great, but that is the last thing I want for my kids. I was never more bored than doing group work and projects in schools. I also learned nothing doing it.

    I was bored as could be as a student until I had a teacher who was a great lecturer and brought history and literature alive with the ideas that mankind has wrestled with for centuries. These kinds of teachers have been run out of the schools in favor of faddish bureaucrats who embrace the latest panacea for education. The latest in my school district is, of course, technology. We are spending millions on an iPad for every student in our district. As if that will improve education: HA!!!!

    Comment by Jaren — September 20, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  11. And I don’t mean that with charter schools innovation will automatically occur, it will just let people choose the type of education that is best for their kids.

    Our society is so pluralistic that the one-size-fits-all approach of the public school is failing. I want a Classical education for my kids. I should be able to choose that type of education.

    The schools’ response to the student’s perceived boredom has been disastrous in my opinion. The Hunger Games is now literature and grammar and punctuation aren’t even taught anymore because word processing programs are supposed to make those skills unnecessary. And those skills are “boring” so why should students spend time studying them (so they say)?

    The students are the architects of their own learning in our local schools. It is sheer folly from my perspective, but when the administrators stand up and talk about empowering and engaging the students people are easily duped.

    Comment by Jaren — September 20, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  12. So it would seem that students bear some responsibility for their own success or failure. Why can’t either the right-wing accountability movement or the left-wing student-centered movement acknowledge this truth in their rhetoric? Probably because there’s profit in claiming that we can engineer student “success” under their particular reforms.

    As a high-school dropout, I can attest to my complicity in my own failure. Thus my later return to school and my eventually becoming a teacher—working for five years at the same high school from which I’d dropped out—meant more than they might have otherwise. And while one case is no predictor of others, it does illustrate another truth of education: no matter who’s in charge or what reform dominates, the “outcome” of education will always be uncertain. Would that our leaders might someday stop posturing and start admitting this truth.

    Comment by James OKeeffe — September 20, 2013 @ 4:04 pm

  13. I would assume that the reason this is on the Core Knowledge blog is that it matters that kids actually have access to content to care about it in later years when they are often declaring how bored they are.

    In my experience there is a fine line between stretching to learn something and it feeling too difficult and checking out. I had this experience when traveling and watching tv in another language, but making the effort to practice when I met other people.

    The fact is that children have been subjected in many cases to arbitrary worksheets pulled from the internet or from some packet by some educational publisher that is meant to teach them some skill. They don’t learn a lot and when it gets really difficult they get board because it is too big of a stretch. Boredom is often a lagging indicator of a child that has had limited opportunity, poor educational curriculum and teachers often struggling with classroom control. To be honest I don’t know that CK implemented across the country would really solve for all of this but let’s hope better written curriculum can make a dent.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 20, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  14. This is a very interesting topic. As an educator, I want to know what causes children to decide to drop out school and what we can do to prevent it. A couple of years ago, my school started to apply some changes that, according to research, will help to lower the dropout rate. Some example of such changes include reducing the class size, investing more on early childhood education, and implementing an after-school program for those students who are having difficulties. Being in a smaller class enables teachers to identify those students who are at risk of dropping out (whether they are bored, find classes too hard or any other reason) and will help us to provide them with the appropriate support they need. It is a long-term commitment, so hopefully we can say that we were successful in accomplishing our goal.

    Comment by Julie — September 20, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

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    Pingback by Boredom in Class « The Core Knowledge Blog | Learning Curve — September 21, 2013 @ 7:30 am

  16. Although there is always a potential of boredom in school, that it is so prevalent now points to fallacies in our educational system, built on the principle that not all children need an “academic” curriculum, and that many cannot manage such a thing anyway. Another way of expressing this is to say that the philosophy denies the value of transmitting information about what the world is. Furthermore, a study of educational theories and practices during the past hundred to hundred and fifty years shows what James pointed out, that we have been trying to engineer student “success” from the beginning.

    The emphasis on relevance is a distraction, highly regrettable, from the serious business of preparing children for their lives. The emphasis on student interest is equally as regrettable a distraction.

    Consequently, children too often are not given new-to-them information when they go to school. Theory says, of course, that they will seek out the information they want. Such a notion ignores the fact that many do not know what they want to learn, they do not even know what there is to learn.

    Students complained to me that they had “done” the rain forest three times: in elementary, in middle, and in high school. Apparently there was not even any sequential building on past information.

    Mark Bauerlein made a comment in his blog about “changing student expectations.” I think that is a great idea. Instead of teaching them to look always inward at their own interests (limited because of their age and lack of knowledge), let them know that in school they will be looking outward toward things they do not yet know about. And show them, every day and all the time, how to push, motivate, and assist themselves.

    I believe Core Knowledge does this, but am not sure the Common Core does.

    Comment by Susan Toth — September 21, 2013 @ 7:45 am

  17. I presumed this article would have been written by Diana.

    “…the surveys show that teachers all too often stick to the most uninspiring teaching method, the lecture format, which the students find deadening (so they say).” Bingo. It’s deadening because the brighter students in the lecture are already familiar with the “lesson” being presented while the slower learners never had time to master the prerequisite lesson in the sequence. When will teachers learn? Schools are supposed to be designed to meet the needs of their students. In a lecture, the only needs being met are those of the short-sighted instructor.

    As for boredom being an excuse to drop out; I’d have to question such a theory. Do sixteen year olds really drop out of school because they’re bored? Not in my experience. They drop out because they’re hopelessly overwhelmed by the curricula and/or their situations in life. They’ve been overwhelmed in school since they entered at five to six years old because they had no/minimal literacy or numeracy skills the kindergarten/first grade teacher was attempting to present. They also had limited social skills to sit still long enough to pay attention to a lesson because they had incomprehensible (to most) home lives with little to no structure in their lives.

    I’ve been around awhile and still have been unable to fathom the policy ubiquitated on schools in the mid to late eighties in this country – terminating our comprehensive high schools and thereby effectively foreclosing the futures of untold US students who never wanted to attend college and were not qualified to do so.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 21, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

  18. First of all I want to say thank you for the blog. I think blogging is the only way that educators can discuss ideas and practices with each other, and get opinions from coast to coast. In my opinion boredom is a collection of problems that come to a head when a student reaches the teenage stage of life.
    In today’s world kids receive information by the brain full everyday using their handheld devices. Then they sit in a classroom where one concept is learned per day. Students need to be allowed to research an assigned topic on their own using the technology they will use in the work place.
    Another aspect of boredom I see in my students is a lack of parental guidance into the importance of school. This compounded with the budding urge to make their own decisions makes for a bad combination. When you get a 16-17 yr old who thinks they don’t need an education. They begin to think about all the things they could be doing without thinking of the consequences that will come with their choices.
    Lastly I think the American education system must catch up with the rest of the world. Desk in rows, skill and drill teaching techniques, and books written by 65 yr old white men are not what the rest of the world uses to train their new employees. Go to Google, Apple, or any other fortune 500 company and look at how they operate. Now compare that to how students are taught in classrooms. The real question we need to ask is why are we shocked our students are getting bored.

    Comment by Matt Day — September 21, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

  19. Matt,

    I have worked in Google-like environments. My “traditional” education prepared me well for them, because (a) I had some intellectual background and (b) I knew how to focus, listen, and think a problem through. In fact, many of my programmer colleagues had taken many lecture courses (which in no way prevented them from experimenting, inventing, and so on).

    I am not saying lectures are the be-all and end-all. But it is folly to have students work in groups all the time in order to prepare them for the “real” world. The “real ” world us constantly being shaped and reshaped, often through dialectic. Teams, open workspaces, etc. need a counterbalance. In addition, some of the most creative fields require concrete knowledge, which may at times be easier to acquire when you’re sitting at a desk in a row and allowed to think.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — September 22, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  20. This article was thought provoking to me. I teach first grade and sometimes hear “my child is bored” from parents of higher performing students who are seeking more “challenging” work for them. With the common core has come a shift in my school from thinking about how we can accelerate (something parents seem to understand) to how we can deepen their critical thinking and enrich them (something much more difficult for parents to understand). Often these children are bored because they quickly grasp basic concepts and need to learn to think critically and attribute learning to hard work, not their “smarts.”

    Comment by Karen — September 22, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  21. One small thing that I do in my primary grade classroom is to require students to wait silently and patiently as summative assessments are being completed by all. Since many are not reading at the level of test questions, I read each question and everyone must wait before going on to the next. I explain that by waiting when they are bored, they are learning a valuable life skill. Test taking and working as a group will be experiences they must master to succeed in school and work so I want them to know it is not all “relevant” and “engaging” but also work to show what they know and move on.

    Comment by Karen — September 22, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  22. I am definitely an “eat your onions” type of grown-up, but much of the new Common Core material (see the EngageNY website) looks deadly boring AND fruitless. Five tedious activities for every paragraph of text (I’m only being slightly hyperbolic). Process thoroughly overgrows the content. Someone here once gave this stuff the perfect name: “literacy kudzu”. I can’t in good conscience tell students to “eat your literacy kudzu”! If the EngageNY “modules” are representative of what’s coming, our kids are in for a whole lot of hideous schooling.

    Comment by Ponderosa — September 22, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

  23. Diana,
    I agree with you that there is a time and place for lecture, and the “traditional” classroom. I also agree there is too much fluff in the classroom with all the groups teamwork etc. But… there has to be time to allow students to learn in a way where they can use the skills they have socially, and technologically. This way they feel that “school” is something they can have fun doing.

    Comment by Matt Day — September 22, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

  24. Great piece concerning the boredom that student feel in the classroom. Being a fourth grade teacher, I face daily choices regarding the delivery of curriculum. As a grade level, we are always discussing how to make the different subject more appealing to the students. It is a strange conundrum we face because students do need to learn, as you have pointed out, ways to self-motivate. Self-motivation should be part of the skill they learn in school, indeed. In order to succeed, students will need to brave boring subjects, books, lectures, and presentations in order to have the intellect to understand more complex matters. I do believe that we as teachers can address this problem early on by working in conjunction with parents. Many parents lack the knowledge of how to deal with the discipline that these children are lacking. It is important to have a plan or list of recommendations ready to resent to them as a way to remedy this situation.

    Comment by Ricardo Franco — September 22, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  25. I agree with you that there is a time and place for lecture, and the “traditional” classroom

    Comment by MD Yusuf — December 23, 2013 @ 2:55 am

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