Don’t be boring

How often do you find yourself stuck listening to a boring presentation?

What do you do when that happens?

For a graduate class this fall, I had to watch a video of Drexel Prof. Gerry Stahl lecturing on his research into “Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning.” (You can watch it here.)  This was a keynote speech at a major conference and Prof. Stahl is highly regarded, so I knew it was important information. I tried to concentrate and absorb what he was saying.

And yet, I found myself unable to stay focused. His voice was monotone; he looked down at his notes through much of the talk; and the subject was so specific and tedious — analyzing the connotations of a very brief exchange in cyberspace — that I just couldn’t stay engaged.

Instead, I kept thinking: What if my students feel this way listening to me?

Student boredom is a huge problem in American schools. According to a survey by the late Grant Wiggins, fewer than 5 percent of students are “rarely bored” during a typical day in classes. More than twice as many are “very bored all day in most or all classes,” and the majority are “very bored” for part of each class every day.

Some teachers blame the students. When I brought up these survey results during a recent workshop, one teacher quickly responded, “Well they need to learn to pay attention anyway; they can’t expect to be entertained all the time.”

True, but there are many shades of gray between entertaining and dull. Try watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Do schools kill creativity? He’s not putting on a song and dance or wowing listeners with comedy or pyrotechnics. He’s just talking, but it’s interesting.

Or try Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on The danger of a single story — she’s engrossing.

Both Robinson and Adichie use compelling anecdotes, captivating voices and eye contact to engage their listeners, even in a video format. As a listener, you feel drawn into the story, rather than feeling like a distant observer. (When I think back on Adichie’s talk, I actually feel like I was there. Weird.)

It’s true that a presentation may be boring to some people and not others, based on the subject and the audience member’s background and interests. Maybe Prof. Stahl’s lecture is more interesting to experts in the field. Maybe Adichie’s talk would bore a high school student.

But some presentations are just plain boring — even on an interesting subject, even to an alert and mature audience.

I’m naturally interested in the subject of psychological disorders, so when I signed up for a professional development workshop on adolescent mental health several years, I expected the three hours would fly by. Instead, the minutes crept by as I watched two presenters plow their way through a lengthy powerpoint, barely ever pausing to share an anecdote, ask a question, or encourage discussion.

Instead of being engaged, I became the worst kind of student. I checked my email, made a grocery list, took several bathroom breaks, and nibbled on snacks. I did whatever I could to break up the monotony and keep myself from falling asleep.

Maybe I should be embarrassed about my behavior, but I don’t think I am unusual among teachers. We are often the worst audiences — disengaging at every staff meeting or workshop as we grade papers, plan lessons and check our phones in the back of the room.

Rather than complaining about the pointless nature of these meetings, we should use the experience to reflect on what it’s like to be bored — and put ourselves in our students’ shoes.

Next time you are stuck listening to a boring presentation, instead of distracting yourself with e-mail or text messages, distract yourself by listing the things you wish the presenter would do and not do.

Then, every time you start a new lesson with your students, check the list and make sure you are using the strategies that engage. You might not be able to avoid being bored sometimes, but you can do your best not to be boring.