The Small World of Classroom Boredom

Learning About Ourselves, on the Other Side of the World

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Instead of responding to students as individuals with their own interests and knowledge, the school curriculum is, by and large, remote, providing little connection between the classroom and students’ lives.

I recently had the opportunity to visit schools in Sri Lanka with a team from the University of Pennsylvania. In a country filled with contradictions and surprises—modern buildings and machinery, alongside open-air schools and elephants transporting people—I found remarkable similarities to the issues faced by urban and rural schools in the United States. I also found a bracing reminder of the deeply flawed road to improvement that American education policy is having us follow.

The Sri Lankan school year had started in late January, less than a month before our arrival. All over the country, students worked in classrooms with open windows and walls that did not reach up to the ceiling. The sounds of children playing outside, teachers lecturing in other classes, and even the loud cawing of crows permeated the classrooms. Amid the bustle, teachers and students were engaged in traditional, didactic teaching composed mainly of questions and their predictable responses.

A national curriculum and system of exams guide both the teaching and the education of teachers in Sri Lanka. All over the country, we saw the youngest children working on the same concepts: large and small. As often as not, teachers taught these concepts by drawing pictures and words on the board and having the children, even those just 6 years old, copy them into notebooks. In response to a recent initiative to introduce English into the schools, teachers with little knowledge of the language themselves read sentences from textbooks that students then repeated. Observing these classes, we were uncertain whether anyone actually understood the language.

In our tour of Sri Lankan schools—a fact-finding trip to explore how our university might help rebuild the education system after the December 2004 tsunami—we visited many schools, most of them in two of the most damaged areas. Wherever we went, we asked educators the same question: What are the major issues you face in your classrooms? After first complaining about scarce resources, nearly everyone gave the same answer: that students were bored and disengaged from school. Teacher-trainers, principals, and teachers themselves all wondered how they could reach students with a curriculum that offered so little flexibility.

Less than 48 hours after I returned to the United States, I found myself listening to a conversation that was startlingly similar to what I had heard on the other side of the globe. New teachers at Penn, talking about their comprehensive high school in Philadelphia, were describing the major problems they had encountered and trying to devise possible solutions. At the top of their list was the lack of student engagement—exactly the same issue that had topped the lists of the teachers in Sri Lanka.

The American teachers talked about a scarcity of materials, the tyranny of the tests, and the limitations of the mandated curriculum materials. They complained about absenteeism and the terrible conditions of their school. They asked themselves how they could reach everyone in a classroom to which students brought such a wide range of knowledge and ability. But mostly, they wondered how their students could truly learn when they were subject to a mandated curriculum aimed largely at test preparation. They worried that their students were disengaged from learning—and, frankly, bored.

After traveling halfway around the world, I had returned to hear American teachers describe the same problem as their Sri Lankan colleagues: Our students are bored. Indeed, a recent report from Peter D. Hart Research Associates and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggests that high school dropouts cite boredom as the major reason they leave school early. ("H.S. Dropouts Say Lack of Motivation Top Reason to Quit," March 8, 2006.)

In the name of accountability and standardization, U.S. schools are now mimicking the kind of traditional education system that Sri Lanka inherited from its colonial past. We have introduced strictly mandated curricula that prepare students for tests tightly monitored by state and national guidelines. We have replaced rich, complex experiences with those that teach students to learn through rote memorization.

Instead of responding to our students as individuals with their own interests and knowledge, the school curriculum is, by and large, remote, providing little connection between the classroom and students’ lives. This is a far cry from what the American education system, at its best, has promised: schools that foster deep student engagement, spark intellectual curiosity, and inspire independent thinking.

Vol. 25, Issue 41, Page 43

Published in Print: June 21, 2006, as The Small World Of Classroom Boredom
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