Education Opinion

Still Bored! More Observations on Boredom in the Classroom

By Nancy Flanagan — November 15, 2013 4 min read
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So--my previous blog, on boredom, has drawn lots of traffic and commentary, with responses falling into three general camps:

A. Amen, sister! Boredom is as boredom does. B. Let's share useful ideas on preventing boredom through innovative instruction. C. Bored kids are powerless victims trapped in failing, factory-model classrooms.

Dear A and B Commenters: Thanks. I loved the camaraderie, and liked reading your ideas, although some of them are increasingly difficult to accomplish in No-Money, Huge-Class Accountability World.

Still, I welcome strategies for addressing boredom. In fact, there is no issue more practice-embedded and relevant than mitigating tedium in the classroom.

Which is why I think that--just as kids need to be pushed to find the root causes of their own disengagement--teachers are the best people to continuously analyze and tweak their own instruction, curriculum and assessment. It’s our core work. If teachers are paying attention, they can motivate students with custom-tailored instructional tools, differentiated assignments, layered curriculum or even counseling, when appropriate and affordable.

Even so, there will occasionally be days when schoolwork feels monotonous and dull.

Here’s where I get off the train: blame and accusations. Feeling that C must be true, in order to open a conversation around B. I was flabbergasted to exchange tweets with prominent educators who referred to bored students as victims, powerless in the face of endemic deadly teaching.

When I think of victims, I think of kids in Haiti, spending their days with 100 other children under a tent, sharing hand-held chalkboards and considering themselves lucky to be getting an education. When I think of powerless children, I reflect on students in Detroit, packed 40 at a time into tiny under-resourced classrooms, the outcome of decades of bad adult decision-making. Or parents who bought into the idea that a basketball star is the right person to open a charter school and find their kids stuck in a completely dysfunctional environment. That’s powerless.

Those who claim that all kids are routinely damaged by boring, dreary instruction usually have something to sell--professional development models, expensive keynotes or technological coaching/tools. I see The Shift coming, too--not only as liberation from the tiresome “batch” instruction that built the economic strength of the nation, but also as glorious marketing opportunity for those whose ideas and products can be packaged and sold more easily online. In the parlance, a “disruption.” Often burnished by reformy language: “the instruction kids deserve.” The Next Big (edu-entrepreneurial) Thing.

The mantra: If kids are bored, it’s the fault of adults. Or maybe the lack of 21st century screen-based connectivity. Solution: jazz things up.

I wrote the blog to say that what students describe or interpret as “boredom” is often something else entirely, with the pointed finger used to paper over another problem. Positioning oneself as too smart/sophisticated to be engaged by what other children in the classroom are doing is convenient--"I already know this, so I’m bored"-- but at some level, it’s an excuse.

First, what students think they “know” and can apply is often very different from what their actual mastery/facility levels are. Second, kids do need to own their own boredom, because it’s an individualized, internal response to outside stimuli (or lack thereof). What’s mind-numbing to one child may be inspiring to another, so teaching children to dissect their own boredom--and, yes, deal with it--is an essential life skill.

Younger kids may need assistance in figuring out what they’re really feeling, and suggestions for staying engaged. Older kids need additional challenges, too--but they also may need to consider their beliefs about why they’re in school, the definition of being well-educated: Is it to be the smartest kid in the class--to get ahead, to win? Is it to learn about the real world, where teamwork and cooperation are highly prized by employers? Or is it to become a self-directed learner?

We’re talking about two different things here: #1) finding an instructional sweet spot for every kid, a goal worth pursuing even if we’ll never get it precisely right-- and #2) determining who “deserves” special allocation of attention and resources.

My long experience in special programs for gifted kids tells me that those who wind up in pull-out models, summer camps and magnet schools are not always the highly gifted--or even the kids who could most benefit from special programming. Giftedness is a pretty broad construction; there are lots of very bright kids who never get considered for special instruction, because they have no vocal advocates or because their talents are yet to be uncovered and appreciated. And boredom occurs across the spectrum of ability.

A smart teacher would listen to parental suggestions about making the class more engaging for a bright, curious child. But a smart parent would also listen to a teacher’s perspective on just why kids’ claims of boredom may not ring true to her--or her reports on the curriculum/assessment constraints all teachers now face as they try to individualize instruction. Parents who provide additional challenges and support for their capable children are welcome. A parent whose life goal is “proving” that the school is not doing enough for her bored child isn’t going to get very far.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.