The Boredom Charade

by Guest Blogger
September 24th, 2013

As Mark Bauerlein explained, boredom is a top reason students give for dropping out of school. Why?

There are lots of possibilities—many noted by the commenters on Bauerlein’s post. Yesterday I mentioned watered-down curricula and insufficient teacher guidance. Since this forum is all about knowledge, these seem to merit a little extra discussion. Two points are particularly important: (1) topics students know little about may seem boring and (2) holes in students’ knowledge can be downright scary—feigning boredom is easier than admitting to being lost.

Both of these can be addressed with a content-rich, grade-by-grade curriculum in the hands of expert teachers.

Gina DiSipio-Parrish, a second grade teacher at Pioneer Preparatory School (where 67% of the students are English language learners and 94% quality for free or reduced-price lunch), has found that building knowledge often leads to future interest:

All of the lessons spiral and build on each other year after year so that children are repeatedly exposed to the academic content. As a result, students are able to deepen their knowledge base as they progress through their educational career. For example, in second grade students will learn about ancient Greek civilizations, and listen to Greek myths. Then in sixth grade, children will have the opportunity to read these same myths themselves and build on their prior knowledge. We all know that the more a child already knows about a topic, the better their attention and the more increased their interest and subsequent learning experience.

Perseus and Medusa courtesy of Shutterstock.

There’s no reason for young children to take an interest in ancient Greece before they know anything about it. Yet, with a knowledgeable, skilled teacher helping them understand ancient Greek life and beliefs, the topic becomes fascinating. (Has anyone ever thought Medusa was boring?) Even better, as DiSipio-Parrish points out, the foundation she provides greatly increases the odds that her students are looking forward to reading some myths themselves later on.

This interaction between a strong curriculum and a strong teacher is the heart of a great education.

The intentional, coherent building of knowledge that DiSipio-Parrish describes is ideal, but real life is rarely so smooth. What might happen to a student who entered Pioneer in sixth grade? Would she be looking forward to reading Greek myths if she had never heard of ancient Greece—or worse, if she still struggled with fluent decoding? Doubtful. What if her previous school spent much of fifth grade on Greek myths, would she be eager to read them again? More doubtful.

As Daniel Willingham has explained, enjoying learning—maintaining curiosity—depends on being challenged at the right level:

Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” here, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking…. It’s notable … that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating. And there’s not great pleasure in simply knowing the answer either.

This is why a strong curriculum is just a starting place. A strong teacher has much to do in customizing that curriculum to create the right level of challenge for each child. If Pioneer’s new sixth grader has never heard of ancient Greece, rapid intervention to provide context is crucial. Without it, boredom is the best case scenario—total lack of comprehension, disengagement (driven by the need to save face), and those first few steps toward dropping out are possible. In contrast, if our new student has already read many Greek myths, an advanced unit may be in order. Or, a better use of time may be condensed units on any content Pioneer teaches in earlier grades that the new student had not yet learned.

Boredom is a symptom—not a problem to be solved by selecting more entertaining content. Our bored students may need help in developing perseverance and grasping the greater purpose of their schoolwork. They may need gaps in their knowledge and skills to be filled. They may need a more challenging climb. At different points, most students probably need all of these things.



  1. You got it: Boredom IS a symptom, and it is – quite truly – one of the key teaching skills (often lacking) to identify the underlying problem(s).

    Yet there is more to it than even your observations – as appropriate (and as parallel with mine in the last thread) as they are.

    First, let me correct another error: Boredom is not why kids drop out. Kids drop out when they face more-of-the-same rather than what you – and other good teachers – can and sometimes (but not enough time) provide. And they drop out because they learn – from those teachers – that they have nothing more to gain by staying.

    The multi-decade studies of the Chicago School Research ( have the most extensive database on attendance, grades, and grade retention, derived from one of the most needy urban populations in the nation. Their data are rich because, in the 1980′s, the city was one of the first to consolidate attendance, promotion, and other data as a precursor to planned school desegregation. (I know because I was one of those consultants planning it.)

    That database more than clarifies that grade retention is the single most common cause of drop-out behavior.

    The alternative is not “social promotion,” but, rather, “timely intervention” or “early intervention” to find out why the other pre-dropout symptom of erratic attendance occurs. Much, much more likely is attendance a better measure of dropout probability than boredom – at least in part because it can actually be measured, counted, and it adds up. THEN, when you hold back a kid, breaking the social networks they share with their peers, and convincing them that they “don’t know enough” for the next grade – in other words, when you teach them they’re too dumb for the next grade – they LEARN it. When they learn they’re dumb, they’ve got a great reason to drop out.

    The cure is a lot simpler than the condition: engage them in some activities that counter that attendance pattern. Whether it’s free breakfast or gym or sports to start the day, or mentoring from another kid a few grades ahead, or just asking THEM to take that day’s attendance – whatever – address the problem of attendance and you’ll solve both boredom and dropout results.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — September 24, 2013 @ 11:50 am

  2. Boredom is a symptom of the skills heavy and content-free education that most schools today swear by. I am regularly told to teach the standards not the content(language arts). When teachers focus on teaching skills, content often becomes a collection of trivial, boring, unchallenging short-stories. When I try to get literature like The Iliad, The Odyssey, or Hamlet, I am routinely questioned and told to “teach the standards.” Instead of having students read about the Trojan War, the journey and adventures of Odysseus, or the internal conflict of Hamlet, we feed students a steady diet of short, cute, inoffensive stories which are supposed to be relevant to students lives.

    Comment by Kevin — September 24, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

  3. [...] The Boredom Charade [...]

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