Originally Published in Education Week May 9, 2016 | Updated May 25, 2016
Anecdotal evidence suggests, and surveys strongly confirm, that most high school kids, in most schools, spend a great deal of their time in school feeling bored. The potential causes of in-school boredom are legion and intertwined: adolescence, and the real and feigned ennui that attends this developmental stage; mobile phones and the infinite competing distractions they contain; some topics that are hard to make interesting; pressure to cover material quickly; and some teachers who are a bit on the dry side. There are also, importantly, exceptions as well as variations. As I remember well, some classes and teachers capture the attention and passion of students. And what some students find interesting, others find boring.
For a long time I was blasé about boredom. Like most parents, I regularly ask my kids about their days in school. When they responded that it was boring, which happened with increased frequency as they aged, I poked around for some brighter news but mostly shrugged my shoulders. I knew that they generally liked school, and I expected that high school would be at least somewhat boring. So I routinely told my older boys to do their work, that work was not always interesting, and that what seemed boring at first might eventually become interesting. They rolled their eyes, as if to say: you don’t get it. They also regularly told their 9-year old sister, who still thoroughly enjoyed school: “Just wait.”
Something about the contrast among my kids, and the fatalism with which the older ones predicted the academic future of their younger sister, finally snapped me out of my complacency about boredom. I have come to be much more curious about boredom in school, for a number of reasons. First, it simply seems a shame that most kids seem to become less curious, rather than more, as they move through school (and through their young lives). There is a lot of talk in education circles about the need to create “lifelong learners” who can adapt to an ever-changing world over the course of their lives. I don’t see how we create lifelong learners if curiosity wanes rather than grows over time in school. Second, boredom is not uniform in school, which suggests it may not be as inevitable as we might think. Third, boredom is not always a code word for hard work, so it is not the case that the cure for boredom — sacrificing rigor and hard work — will necessarily be worse than the disease. I have seen my own kids, as well as others, work quite hard on projects in which they are interested, whether school related or of their own initiative. Finally, while worrying about boredom might seem like a luxury, or even an elitist concern, boredom is frequently cited as a major reason for why kids drop out of school — even more so than academic failure.
Given all of this, it seems to me that boredom ought to be considered much more seriously when thinking about ways to improve student outcomes. I do not have an easy solution and am sure a silver bullet does not exist. I do, however, have some questions. To begin: Is boredom an inevitable byproduct of school or is it a genuine problem that we — parents, students, and educators alike — should be discussing more than we are? Shouldn’t we at least talk more about when and why students are bored, and when and why they are not? What are the characteristics of the teachers, classes, topics, or projects that spark real interest in middle and high school students? What makes these exceptions so interesting? To be sure, the many causes of boredom clearly don’t lie at the feet of teachers alone, but neither are parents or students entirely to blame. We all, it seems to me, play our part in the production and proliferation of boredom. I would think it is in all of our interests at least to confront this stubborn fact of school rather than simply to accept boredom as inextricably linked to learning.