Let them be bored! For real?

Joanne Jacobs recently posted some data about boredom levels among high school students. She closed the post with a quote from a principal in Hawaii who, when confronted with the stats that 50% of the students in his school liked school, asked the questions – “What about the rest of the kids? What are those kids doing?” (data from Teaching Now – News Flash: High School Students Are Bored.)

Those are the kinds of questions that help to create challenging, engaging schools. I was a bit … displaced … to read some of the comments to her post. For me they represent a huge disconnect between adults (some) and students (most), steeped in a bitter brew. Or maybe those who feel that way are bored in their own lives (not challenged) and don’t feel that anyone deserves a non-boring life. Or maybe… I don’t know. But they certainly don’t represent the ‘it takes a village’ attitude we need for raising good kids. I don’t see caring. I don’t see hope.

My query is, just how well do the comments represent what the majority of people think about learning in high school?

  • Do most adults in a given school community (parents, in particular) think that we should just make the kids sit and listen because that’s the best way to learn?
  • Do people really think that high school is a place where we should be learning how to sit still for long periods of time?
  • Can it be true that people think boredom is necessary?
  • Are educators working against the grain of community ideals?

Yay for Topher who took the time to point out the details of the issue, as presented in the article upon which the post was based. I love how he concludes his comment:

…it’s also important to note that students in middle and high schools, while far from being mature adults, are not dullards or wild animals who need to be tamed and broken in. It’s disheartening to see how quickly people tend to forget what it’s like to be in a lecture-only classroom and to actually perpetuate the cycle of (usually – some lecture-only teachers are great) bad teaching.

I strive to make my classroom an active place of learning, one in which the students enjoy being. I know that it doesn’t always happen, especially when juggling a number of different courses a term. The thing is, I talk to my students and am always working towards engagement. I can not imagine teaching any other way. I can not imagine cultivating a sense of boredom as a life lesson in how to learn. I just can’t.

***The image was taken from a strange little blog post about observational data re: the stereotypes of asian and white students collected while the author was bored in class:

I’m in class for four hours a day, which means I am bored to the brink of insanity 20 hours a week. I’m amazed I’m not bald from pulling my hair out from the roots. There’s nothing else to do but to analyze the people in my classes.


  • It seems that what is often required – and lacking – are the resources required to facilitate an environment for students and teachers to genuinely engage with one another. This is coming from operating a post-secondary level now (and having done so for quite some time), and having suffered through a secondary education.

    By resources, I mean reasonable periods of time to prepare for classes, time for reflection of the day/week/month/year that has gone by and preparation for the following day, and oftentimes a reasonable teaching load. I’ve seen frustration over lack of perceived adequate resources significantly damage classes, from teacher withdrawal (because they don’t have what they perceive they need) to students (who come to believe that their needs aren’t important enough to warrant appropriate resource allocation). These challenges are enhanced by the often draconian rules set down on students and teachers alike that are out of alignment with how either group leads their lives; rules that are seen as unfair or unwarranted can be enforced, but often at the cost of promoting disengagement (the ‘this is the place I spend 6-8 hours a day at and live elsewhere’ syndrome). Disengagement is a great starting place (end point?) on the road to classroom boredom.

    Boredom is often an indication of a set of issues – issues that can range from student morale, teacher engagement, institutional resourcing, to it just being nice outside – and a concerted effort needs to be made to offset it as needed. The effort can happen at any and all level, but key is that it starts somewhere. Unfortunately, when an environment suffers from chronic boredom caused by poor resourcing finding that party to launch the ‘anti-boredom’ campaign is even more challenging than nipping it in the bud before it becomes recognized as a chronic problem.

  • While I am not a teacher I do think alot about how we educate our youth. With so much to be excited about, to be amazed about, so much to discover about our world and our relationship to it I can’t imagine being bored. Yet somehow we do that to our kids making the process of discovery boring.

    Engaging students in learning is critical. I am happy to hear you talk on the subject, because the voice of passion in the classroom IS engaging.


    • Tracy says:

      @Nick Grimshawe, Thank you for your comment, Nick and welcome! ‘Engaging students in learning is critical’. Yes. How we engage them is the critical element. That is what I am always trying to improve.

  • Topher says:

    I’m glad you left that link on my blog!

    “What about the rest of the kids? What are those kids doing?” – that is an excellent point that you highlighted, and it’s a shame that more people didn’t focus on that.

    As you talk about, it really doesn’t seem that the choice is between being bored and learning or being engaged and not learning – certainly some students can be engaged AND be learning at the same time. And I don’t know how many people really believe that boredom is necessary, but I really hope it’s only a small portion of people. Glad to see this conversation happen – will think about it in the coming days! Also glad you’re committed to engaging students.

    • Tracy says:

      @Topher, it seemed that some of the comments on the original blog post did focus on their belief that engaging students meant allowing them to have open-ended mindless conversation. It is so much more than that! I agree with some of what was said. Learning IS hard work but it certainly doesn’t have to be boring. Hard work that is challenging and triggers extension of learning doesn’t feel like ‘work’ but exploration, ie – real life.

      • Topher says:

        @Tracy, What’s most interesting about surveys and studies is that students tend to remember and actually enjoy the *hardest* things they do in school. Students are lazy – it’s weird how people think boredom = lazy. Enjoy your Monday!

        • Tracy says:

          @Topher, I’m noticing another trend. The conversation is still going strong over at the original post. The trend I’m noticing is the confusion over what student engagement means – it seems to be attached to the notion of discussion or doing what the kids want to keep them happy. Engagement for me is connecting students to curriculum. What about you?

          • Topher says:

            @Tracy, Yes, I agree with you. Engagement isn’t simply being happy or entertained – it’s understanding what’s being taught – content or skills, of any kind – in the context of, well, life. It’s a good question to think about, and as soon as anyone ever mentions “engagement” in any of my classes, the first thing that’s asked is , “what do you mean by engagement?” I’ll hop on over to the original post. :)

  • teachermrw says:

    Tracy, your second paragraph sums up, and quite eloquently, I might add, what I often read on blog posts on education re: students and teachers. There are a lot of angry, bitter adults out there, it seems, for whom life hasn’t gone very well, and they want to project their negative garbage on one of American society’s favorite whipping boys – education, and all of those associated with it, but especially students and teachers.

    Furthermore, you ask very important questions re: teaching and learning, which can serve as a guide for all of us who teach and strive to make learning an engaging process.

    Last, I read somewhere that as long as kids are engaged, there is no need to “manage” them. I agree with that statement for the most part.

    • Tracy says:

      @teachermrw, I also agree with that statement. Whenever kids ‘check out’, either physically (by not showing up) or mentally (by being disruptive or falling asleep), I remember a phrase a principal of mine told me many years ago – Occupy them or they will occupy you.

      Though I am not a huge fan of Harry Wong there is one thing he talks about that I also remember. He talks about the end of the school day – kids bounce down the hallway while teachers drag their tired selves out of the building. By occupying the kids we engage them in the lesson (getting rid of the boredom factor) AND are less tired teachers. Win-win.

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