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Beyond 'Boredom'

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Addressing complex issues with real solutions

Every few years, the American public becomes fascinated with the problem of student boredom. Newspaper headlines, articles, editorials, radio commentators, and panelists on Sunday-morning talk shows inundate us with anecdotes and research decrying the high levels of boredom in the classroom.

A case in point is the publication by Public Agenda this year of "Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools," a report that enjoyed extensive media coverage. Although the report covers a wide range of issues, most of the news stories about it focused on the conclusion that American teenagers are bored in school. In addition to asking students about the problems of schools, the authors of the report asked them how they would fix these perceived problems. Support for "having more good teachers," homogeneous ability-grouping, and enforcement of higher standards topped the list of student recommendations. ("Survey Reveals Teens Yearn for High Standards," Feb. 12, 1997.)

But reports such as this one--and the media coverage they generate--drastically oversimplify a very complex problem. There is more to student boredom than first meets the eye, and there are several educational strategies that can be used to address the boredom, other than the rather simple suggestions provided by surveyed students.

Research showing evidence that students are bored tells us little we do not already know. In today's fast-paced, information-on-demand, perpetually stimulating environments, children in the schools' relatively passive environment will usually say they are bored, if asked. Indeed, boredom often appears to be a general characteristic of adolescence. But that does not mean educators and parents are powerless to eradicate school-related boredom.

We can address boredom because we know what causes it. With respect to education, the most worrisome causes are a lack of intellectual challenge and a lack of application of knowledge. Dozens of research papers and several books over the past decade have reported the slow "dumbing down" of the curriculum in our schools. The lack of curricular challenge is apparent across all subject areas, from history to mathematics. Research also suggests that the curriculum is seldom differentiated to account for the variability in student interests, abilities, or learning styles. Considering this, the fact that many of our children--especially those who are academically talented--are not challenged and become bored as a consequence should not surprise us.

Overall, students are both in tune and out of step with popular opinion regarding educational reform.

Moreover, students typically believe that the material they are learning is not relevant to their lives and future careers. In the Public Agenda report, in fact, most students said they did not see subject-area knowledge as being something important for them to learn in school. A lack of meaning in their schooling denotes a lack of perceived relevance. With the emphasis in many schools on achieving high test scores, teachers often stress the acquisition of facts and skills over the application of those facts and skills. This focus on achievement as measured by tests scores results in unconnected bits of information that do not carry meaning for the student.

At first glance, the strategies suggested by students in the Public Agenda report appear to be reasonable. But the media's interpretation of the research is highly selective. For example, student support for popular educational reforms such as an improved teacher corps and higher standards was acknowledged. Not mentioned in most reviews was the very strong student opposition to school uniforms (another popular idea) and their beliefs about the relative lack of importance of content-area knowledge. Overall, students are both in tune and out of step with popular opinion regarding educational reform, and their recommendations should be interpreted with that in mind. With respect to boredom, one could ironically note that not one of the suggested reforms is known to increase directly the level of academic challenge or curricular relevancy.

Rather than overinterpreting the results of a relatively straightforward study, educators and policymakers should carry away two notions: First, students feel they could be challenged more than they are now. Second, they believe that the problem is not insurmountable. The most important question still remains: How do we effectively and efficiently address lack of challenge in the classroom?

Educators already use several strategies to increase the level of intellectual challenge and the degree of curricular application in schools. Most of these enjoy considerable theoretical and empirical support, providing evidence that students' inability to stay on task is a function of the learning environment rather than of technology- and media-induced short attention spans (the result, for example, of video games, commercials, and MTV). First and foremost, teachers and parents should be aware of signs that students are not challenged or fail to see the relevance of the curriculum.

In a recent study of "academic survivability" behaviors, researchers found that students who are not challenged usually attempt to keep themselves intellectually stimulated by reading books not related to the class, daydreaming, doing homework for other classes, engaging peers in discussions not related to the class topic, or overinvolving themselves in academic and athletic extracurricular activities. Teachers do not automatically interpret these academic-survivability behaviors as signs that a student is not challenged, however, and often misinterpret them as disrespect or "acting out." These kinds of actions should be interpreted as a subtle student request to be pushed harder academically or exposed to curriculum that is readily applied to real-world situations.

When students are not challenged or do not see the relevance of the material being covered, educators can take several different approaches:

  • Pretest students to determine the appropriate instructional level. Research indicates that many high-ability students already know half of a course's content before the school year begins. Forcing them to cover material they already know is an inefficient use of both the student's and the teacher's time.
In most cases, boredom in school is a surrogate for lack of challenge and a perceived lack of relevance in what is being covered in the classroom.
  • Assess student interests, plan instruction to incorporate those interests, and include time for students to pursue their interests independently. By providing students with opportunities to apply knowledge and skills on topics of interest, teachers give them a sense of ownership over their learning and help them gain an appreciation of the curriculum's relevance. These kinds of activities also facilitate mentorship experiences.
  • Recognize that memorization of basic facts needs to lead to application of those facts. The foundational information is not the end, but the means to the end.
  • Focus on higher-order thinking skills, including analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and critical and creative thinking. Emphasizing complex skills requires students to develop ideas for themselves rather than rely on teachers to tell them what to think.
  • Increase expectations for students, both with respect to conduct and to academic performance. From kindergarten to graduate school, educators often expect less of their students than they should, and as a result, students live down to our expectations.
  • Apply the content directly to real-life situations, thus putting the curriculum in context. Simulations, case studies, guest speakers, and even the simple strategy of providing real-world examples are all ways to make curriculum that is initially removed from students' lives much more accessible and relevant. Delivering curriculum in the form of real-life problems and issues also fosters interdisciplinary teaching, which allows teachers to help students see the relationships between different concepts and disciplines.
  • Provide students with options regarding assignments, assessment, and projects. Actively involving students in this manner builds ownership of the learning process and removes it from being a collection of passive activities. When used in conjunction with allowing students to pursue their interests, this strategy can help educators create a student-centered approach to learning and instruction that accommodates the diversity of students' learning and assessment styles.

Simply pointing out that students are bored is of questionable value in the debate over how to improve American schools. While we can benefit from more research on student attitudes, available evidence suggests that boredom is a complex phenomenon regardless of whether it occurs at home, in school, or elsewhere. In most cases, boredom in school is a surrogate for lack of challenge and a perceived lack of relevance in what is being covered in the classroom.

Simple solutions for addressing school boredom are also of dubious educational value. By promoting active learning through the application of student-centered curricula and activities, capitalizing on student interests and learning styles, and believing that students can and should perform at higher levels, educators and parents may realize the day when "I'm bored" rarely emerges from a student's mouth.


Jonathan A. Plucker is an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Maine at Orono. Stuart N. Omdal is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

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