Bored Out of Their Minds
For two weeks in third grade, I preached the gospel of the wild boar. My teacher, the sprightly Mrs. DeWilde, assigned my class an open-ended research project: Create a five-minute presentation about any exotic animal. I devoted my free time before bedtime to capturing the wonders of the Sus scrofa in a 20-minute sermon. I filled a poster as big as my 9-year-old self with photographs, facts, and charts, complete with a fold-out diagram of the snout. During my presentation, I shared my five-stanza rhyming poem about the swine’s life cycle, painted the species’ desert and taiga habitats in florid detail, and made uncanny snorting impressions. I attacked each new project that year — a sketch of the water cycle, a history of the Powhatan — with the same evangelism.
Flash forward to the fall of my senior year in high school, and my near-daily lunchtime routine: hunched over at a booth in Wendy’s, chocolate Frosty in my right hand, copying calculus worksheets from Jimmy and Spanish homework from Chris with my left while they copied my notes on Medea or Jane Eyre. Come class, I spent more time playing Snake on my graphing calculator than reviewing integrals, more time daydreaming than conjugating verbs.
A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students were “engaged” with school, that is, attentive, inquisitive, and generally optimistic. By high school, the number dropped to four in 10. A 2015 follow-up study found that less than a third of 11th-graders felt engaged. When Gallup asked teens in 2004 to select the top three words that describe how they feel in school from a list of 14 adjectives, “bored” was chosen most often, by half the students. “Tired” was second, at 42 percent. Only 2 percent said they were never bored. The evidence suggests that, on a daily basis, the vast majority of teenagers seriously contemplate banging their heads against their desks.
- An escalating emphasis on standardized tests. Fifth-grade teacher Jill Goldberg, Ed.M.’93, told me, “My freedom as a teacher continues to be curtailed with every passing year. I am not able to teach for the sake of teaching.” With lack of teacher freedom comes lack of student freedom, and disengagement and tuning out.
- The novelty of school itself fades with each grade. Here I am for another year in the same blue plastic chair, same graffitied fake wooden desk, surrounded by the same faces. Repetition begets boredom (e.g., I haven’t had a Frosty in a decade).
- Lack of motivation. Associate Professor Jal Mehta says, “There’s no big external motivating force in American education except for the small fraction of kids who want to go to the most selective colleges.”
- The transition from the tactile and creative to the cerebral and regimented. Mehta calls it the switch from “child-centered learning to subject-centered learning.” In third grade I cut with scissors, smeared glue sticks, and doodled with scented magic markers. By 12th grade I was plugging in formulas on a TI-83 and writing the answers on fill-in-the-blank worksheets. And research papers stimulate and beget rewards at a thousandth the speed of Snapchat and Instagram.
But who cares? Isn’t boredom just a natural side effect of daily life’s tedium? Until very recently, that’s how educators, academics, and neuroscientists alike have treated it. In fact, in the preface to Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey presents the possibility that boredom might not even exist. What we call “boredom” might be just a “grab bag of a term” that covers “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy.” Todd Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, a lecturer at the Ed School and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, says the American education system treats boredom as a “character flaw. We say, ‘If you’re bored in school, there’s something wrong with you.’”
Every year for 14 years, Victor Pereira Jr. (pictured, right), heard this from a handful of his students during the first week of his ninth- and 10th-grade science classes. After falling behind in specific subjects throughout elementary and middle school, students “were full of preconceived notions” of their capabilities, says Pereira, who taught at South Boston’s Excel High School before becoming a lecturer at the Ed School and master teacher in the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. Engaging the students who are already discouraged was an uphill battle.
Does School Have to Be so Boring?
Walk down a hallway in any American high school, and you can hear the sound of pens doodling on notebook paper and students sighing. As a new school year gets underway, let’s face it: Too many students are bored out of their minds.
A 2015 Gallup poll found that while 80 percent of elementary students they sampled were engaged in their studies, with each passing year, fewer kids felt this way. By junior year, only a third of students were optimistic about school.
More striking, when a 2004 Gallup asked teens to choose the top three of 14 words that captured their feelings about school, “bored” was the most frequent answer (selected by 50 percent of the students). “Tired” was a close second.
Since this problem has many causes, there is no simple fix. However, one thing that parents and teachers can easily do is provide a rationale for why students have to learn what they do. I doubt that Plato asked Socrates why he had to learn philosophy, but I hear it all the time: “Why do I have to study math that I will never need?” or, “Why does Shakespeare have anything to do with me?”
This blog is not a bash on teachers. In fact, I figured teachers had the best ideas about making school relevant, so I interviewed some of my favorite educators in the country: Jon Downs, acting Head of School at The Millbrook School, a boarding school in Connecticut; Tom Ashburn, middle school principal at Newark Academy, an independent school in New Jersey; Debra Tavares, science teacher also at Newark Academy; and Chai Ready, Director of the International Center at The Punahou School in Hawaii
Chai Ready feels that making the curriculum relevant to students is extremely important because many jobs that students will have 10 years down the line have not even been invented yet.
Chai told me, “We don’t know the worlds we are preparing our students for.” He also believes that because students have so much information at their fingertips, schools should focus on teaching values and thinking skills.
If you don’t believe me, ask the teenage girl I recently sat next to on a plane. She was flipping through her Instagram feed, saying, “I don’t look like that girl,” and “I’ll never be that thin.” Seizing the opportunity to do some field research, I introduced myself as a psychologist who writes and speaks about teenagers.
Among other questions that I posed to her and her friend was this one: “Why study math?” She told me that “it teaches you how to think logically.” Jon Downs agrees. He joked that even though no kid goes off to school excited that “today I will become a better thinker,” making a logical argument comes in handy when convincing their parents they need a new cell phone.
When my son recently called in a panic, because his car stuck just as he was about to drive onto a ferry, I asked a series of questions using inductive reasoning: What are all the individual factors (the parts) that can lead a car not to start (the whole)? I immediately thought of the battery, but my wife figured out in the nick of time that the car was stuck in drive. Thank you, geometry, for the gift of inductive and deductive reasoning.
The truth is, you never know when you will need to use math. Well, actually, you do know: all the time. I was not the strongest math student, and I knew I’d never enter a math-heavy field, such as engineering or computer science. Boy, was I wrong to think that psychologists do not need math. Aside from having to learn statistics to complete my dissertation, in various jobs I held managing psychiatric programs, I had to create budgets and ensure they were adhered to.
Debra Tavares reminds us that if necessity is the mother of invention, science is its backbone. Science involves problem-solving, creativity, and experimentation. Without science, there would be no innovation, not to mention no cell phones, computers, or microwave ovens.
Ever lost your keys? It’s a chronic problem for me. So if the necessity of being able to start my car or open my office door has given birth to a tracking device that can fit on my key chain, science made it happen.
Ms. Tavares feels that students who think poorly of science don’t understand that it touches every aspect of their lives. She told me, “Smart backpacks and smart clothing contain solar fibers so you can charge your devices without having to leave them behind. Even better skateboard wheels evolve to offer better performance using science.” She encourages her students to look deeper at the things they have, the things they want, and see how they can solve problems using science. You can encourage your kids to do the same.
I wish I had Tom Ashburn as a teacher when I was in the 8th grade. English would have been a lot more interesting. Tom explains that when he teaches English, he asks kids, “What does it mean to be human in this book?” or “What is it like to have a conflict in your life like the one the character is struggling with?”
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It’s no fun to be bored at school, but if you find something interesting to focus on, the day will fly by! To make the time go faster, try doodling while taking notes since it’s easy to do without getting too distracted. If you already know the material, you might work on some homework from another class or read in the textbook to get ahead. Alternatively, you could challenge yourself in class to get more out of it. For instance, try participating more in class discussions and you’ll find the day goes by much quicker. Not too mention, you’ll probably learn more too! You could also talk to your teacher after class to let them know you already understand the material. They might be able to give you extra reading material or additional projects to work on during class. To learn how to distract yourself in class to keep you from getting bored, read on!