Bored? Yes, it’s a problem

There’s a running joke in my family about a niece who, as a young child, complained that she was “bored” whenever she was tired, hungry, angry, or dissatisfied for any reason.

On one memorable car ride, when she forgot to wear her hat and wasn’t allowed to go back and get it, she whined loudly “but I’m too bored without my hat!”

It’s easy to laugh at young children claiming boredom — as if they have a fundamental right to be entertained at all times. Eating vegetables is boring. Getting dressed is boring. Writing thank you notes is boring. Too bad.

But what about high school students whose mantra, similarly, is “this is so boring.” Should we listen to them?

I think we have to, and I was glad to see last week that Education Week blogger James E. Ryan agrees with me. In his column last week, Ryan explain that he used to be blasé about boredom, but now he’s concerned, watching his own children’s curiosity wane as they move through school.

“… 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,” he writes, citing a Gates Foundation report.

I’ve been surveying hundreds of high school graduates this spring about student engagement and boredom, and I was surprised to find many young adults say they were bored in school not because they were asked to work, but because the work was too easy.

That result fits with many studies, including the massive Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study, which found that most of what students are asked to do in high school is sit and listen, then parrot back facts with no context or deep understanding.

Does that sound boring to you? It does to me.

Ask students what they find engaging in school, and they don’t say video games and movies. What they want is interesting problems to solve, issues to debate, something they can sink their teeth into and a chance to talk, rather than sit silently.

No one — not young children, not high school students and not adults — has a right to be entertained all the time. All of us will be bored now and then, whether it’s taking a test, practicing dribbling, or cleaning the bathroom. That’s life.

But our students do have a right to be engaged by class activities at least most of the time. They have a right to know why what they are learning is important and worth their time. They also have a right to be treated as thinking individuals — whose perspectives and insights matter — rather than empty vessels to be filled.

We do need to make fighting boredom a priority, and we can’t just blame it on the kids.