Her math problem? Chronic boredom

Here is how Clara, a 7th grader in Rhode Island, says she spends each day in math class:

50% Doodling, working ahead, doing homework for my other classes, or reading

25% Doing pointless work (that’s the “math”)

15% Spacing out

5% Talking

5% Listening

“Sometimes I just watch the clock or think about the book I’m writing,” she added.

Clara hasn’t earned less than an A in math during the past year, and she’s bored pretty much all the time. She either already knows the material, or she learns it quickly and then is expected to “do things” on a classroom iPad.

Her mother, my cousin Erika, is desperate to get someone to notice and do something.

“I really don’t care what level math she’s at,” she said. “I want her to be engaged, somewhat fulfilled, challenged and not creating Powerpoints on why she should be homeschooled.”

The school, reputed to be one of the highest-performing public middle schools in the state, isn’t helping much. Erika has emailed the teacher and is meeting with administrators, but the school doesn’t support tracking, won’t let Clara skip a grade in math and claims the teacher is differentiating instruction, when clearly she is not.

I don’t mean to denigrate this teacher. I don’t know this individual, and my guess is that she has 25 students at 25 different math ability levels, and she feels pressured to make sure the struggling students can pass the Common Core standards.

I doubt that she – or anyone at the school – intentionally made a policy decision to ignore disengaged bright kids. They’ve been told that “it’s better for all kids to be in mixed-level classrooms,” and they assume the smart kids “will be all right.”

The teacher sent Erika an email suggesting online resources for Clara, if she wants to challenge herself in higher level math or coding.

“Yeah, right,” was Erika’s response. Clara is not going to seek more math on her own. What 12 year old girl would? She’s just going to focus on the classes and activities that do engage her and lose interest in math, which is a pretty disappointing outcome. Aren’t we trying to direct girls toward STEM careers?

Teachers and administrators don’t realize how damaging this kind of chronic disengagement is. It doesn’t just turn students off to the subject. When bright kids float through classes without ever encountering challenge – let alone failure – they never have to engage their brains or learn resilience.

In the worst cases, boredom leads to anger and disruptive behavior. This happened to my older brother, who acted up out of boredom in elementary school and was consequently referred for “behavior disorder” evaluation. My mom wouldn’t let the school send him to a special setting, and thanks to her and a few special teachers, he somehow he made it through those years. (He later was a National Merit Scholar and National Science Foundation fellow, and he earned a PhD in molecular biology.)

According to Gary Davis, Sylvia Rimm and Del Siegle, national experts in gifted education: Out of the top 5% of high school graduates, 40% never finish college. Their theory: They don’t know how to deal with it when things finally do get hard.

That’s not just true of “gifted” learners. Stanford Prof. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, explains that challenge and failure are necessary ingredients to every child’s success. Her advice to parents: “I’d say make sure they are challenged all the time, and that they love challenge, they see challenge as fun, something they’ll learn from.”

That’s exactly what Erika is asking the school to do for Clara — and other students like her. So how can the school provide this challenge?

One option is to use tracking, creating different classes for students at different ability levels. It is what my school district does, and some research supports it. (See UC-Irvine’s Towering Pines study) But Clara’s school has said they don’t believe in tracking.

In that case, they need to get serious about differentiation and other engagement strategies. Provide the students who quickly achieve mastery with more engaging problems. If they’ve learned “inequalities on a number line,” let them try to solve more complex problems – like compound inequalities – on their own or in small groups.

Make videos to teach these students more advanced concepts. Mix up the class, so some days the struggling learners work on iPad activities, while the teacher engages the high achievers in more theoretical problems.

The bottom line is: Do not sweep this problem under the rug. Teachers and schools need to recognize student boredom as a very real issue and address it.

Fortunately, Clara isn’t bored in all of her classes. “I actually have to try in science; social studies is interesting; and I love my ELA (language arts) teacher,” she said.

Clara has a strong work ethic, involved parents and many talents. No doubt, she will “be fine.’ But it would be a waste to let this one class turn a talented girl — who wants to be a scientist or doctor — off to math.