Boredom Is A Symptom

Some people believe that school–by its very design–is boring.  Alan Caruba, calls schools “the original boring institute” and says that they are “the place where we train young people to be bored and to bore others.”

We find many images of this theme played out over and over in popular media. And there are many movies where the heroic savior teacher comes to throw off the chains of tradition and inject much need relevance into the learning environment.  Think Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.

It’s easy to be caught up in this narrative.  After all, the evidence that school is frequently perceived as boring is pretty strong.  Studies by Gallup have documented that a large percentage of teenagers find school boring.  And, honestly, in my work in and out of classrooms as a consultant and a guest teacher, I still see a lot of evidence of teaching practices and learning environments that are not designed to engage learners.

Amanda Ripley, in her article, “Bored to Death”, says this about boredom:

As a parent, I used to wonder if boredom might be good for kids—might give them space to be creative or help them learn to entertain themselves, an antidote to the modern childhood. But it turns out there’s not much evidence for this narrative. “Being at loose ends, being unfocused—that can be a state that leads to creativity and ingenuity,” says Annie Murphy Paul, a journalist and the author of the forthcoming 2014 book, Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter. “But being bored is different, and it’s always a bad thing. It’s an aversive, unpleasant state that motivates us to escape from what’s boring us. It’s the opposite of engagement.”

So it’s easy to get excited by initiatives designed to increase the level of student engagement. I am a full-hearted believer in the movement to put students at the center and design learning around their needs and interests.

I do believe that we need to take a good hard look at what we are doing in our own practice that is not supporting student engagement and ownership over their own learning.  And we need to shift such practices and move ourselves up the learning curve towards being more effective teachers and systems.

And yet, what happens when you are doing everything you know to do in your own classroom, and you still hear, “But, this is so boring?”

Pernille Ripp discussed this in a thoughtful blog post and ended by asking,

“So I ask, at what point can we stop feeling that it is all our fault?  At what point can we realize not just as a society, but as human beings,  that it is not just teachers that create the school experience, but all of the players; including students.  That perhaps it is not just our fault when school is boring, although we seem to think it is.  I know I take personal responsibility for when my students are not engaged, but perhaps I need to stop.  Is there blame to spread?  Or must we continue to carry this burden alone?

Perhaps, my question is irrelevant; who cares about blame when students are disengaged, but carrying all this guilt and responsibility is sometimes exhausting.  I know I blame just myself when a lesson goes wrong,  because to think it would be anything else seems sacrilegious.   Still, though, it cannot just be the fault of the teacher, can it?”

I don’t think Pernille’s question is irrelevant; but I do think it may be the wrong question.

I think asking, ”Who is to blame?,” frames the discussion in the world of good and bad.  It carries a strong implication that somebody is doing something wrong.

And–when it comes to boredom–I’m sure there are many people who do believe that someone is at fault when a student is bored.  A lot of people blame our schools and many others blame our kids.

But, I don’t think about boredom that way anymore.

This quote, from Carrie Hall, (responding to this blog post  When Students Say They’re Bored by John Warner) puts my current perspective about boredom into eloquent words:

“I study boredom and I can tell you it’s not simple. It’s not always “within the individual” any more than it’s always external. Nobody even knows what boredom really IS. Ask Heidegger or Benjamin, or any neuroscientist. Boredom is a complex system that nobody has been able to pin down that has been causing students, dandies, prisoners and factory workers anguish for centuries. Part of the problem is that we all act like we know what it is and that WE are somehow above it while “kids these days” haven’t learned how to deal with it yet. What if we were to acknowledge that boredom, like pain, is a symptom, different in every circumstance, and not try and simplify it with truisms? I think Warner is arguing that we listen to students when they say they’re bored. And I think that’s a start.”

When I heard the words, “This is so boring!” when I was first teaching, I hated them.  And–part of me–even hated the kid who spoke them a little bit.  How dare he think that this thing that I’d worked so hard on and that I loved so much was boring!

But, I don’t think that way now.  Now,  when I hear the words, “This is so boring!”  they are an invitation into dialogue.

They are an invitation for me to engage with the learner into what isn’t working and why it isn’t working for them..

Because the roots of boredom are varied.

So the solutions to solving the problems of boredom need to be just as varied.

So let’s think about what some of the things that “This is so boring!” could mean.


This is outside my zone of development.

Most of us find learning that is either too hard or too easy to be frustrating and …well, “boring”.  True engagement occurs when the learning is challenging, but the learner can experience success on a regular basis.

Education that puts students into age-based groups and expects them to be starting at the same place and to learn at the same rate can cause a lot of kids to be outside their engagement zones.  This problem gets compounded as students get older and the difference in their learning rates get compounded.  (Also, research indicates that students who experience this kind of boredom often get further behind and further disengaged in a sort of vicious cycle.)  The best solution to this is to create more fluidity within the system and to meet students where they are, not where they’re “supposed” to be.

Zachary Jason writes about this in his article in the Harvard Ed Magazine.

“Rose has proposed a solution. In his book The End of Average, he illustrates that classrooms are falsely designed to cater to the “average learner.” Fourth-graders take tests and read texts written at a “fourth-grade reading level” that assume an “average” fourth-grader’s knowledge of rock formations and the Civil War and the “average” fourth-grader’s cognitive development. In reality, Rose says, “that average fourth-grader doesn’t exist.” Each student is much more “jagged” in his or her skill-set — advanced in memory, underdeveloped in organization, say, or vice versa. By designing for the average of everyone, the classroom is ideal to no one. And in this design, boredom runs rampant, and there’s no room for a cure

“If you see human potential as a bell curve and there are only some kids who are going to be great and most kids are mediocre, then engagement really wouldn’t matter,” Rose says. “But if you really believe that all kids are capable, then you would build environments that really worked hard to sustain engagement and nurture potential.”


We have got to keep inventing systems that truly allow students to be working in their learning “sweet spots”.  Our learning environments need to be more fluid so that students are able to progress at their own rate and can always be working in material that is challenging, but not so challenging that they give up and get frustrated.


This doesn’t have meaning to me.

When a student says, “Why do I have to study this?,” it is a clue that there is a lack of meaning for them.  Sometimes teachers are tempted to just say, “Because you’ll need it later.” and there can even a degree of truth to that statement.

I want my students to be prepared for the next step, and if algebra is being used as a gatekeeper to future opportunities, then I want them to be successful at algebra.

But, we do our students a grave disservice if the only relevance we help them create is to satisfy the demands of our education system.

David A. Sousa makes clear, in How the Brain Learns, that information has to make sense and have meaning in order to engage our attention enough to learn.  That meaning is a personal phenomena.  What is meaningful to me, may be completely unknown to you.

My eyes glaze over when someone starts talking sports, my sister’s head swivels in their direction.  Part of the reason for my lack of interest is my lack of background knowledge.  I just don’t know enough about sports to find any interest in it.

This has been my challenge with traditional educational models for a long time.  Separating learning from doing real things makes it very easy to produce a lack of relevance.  While for some of us, the desire to please others and make good grades was enough meaning (sort of) to motivate us to engage in lessons that were far removed from our real lives and the real world, for many students this is simply not enough meaning.

We have to do better.

Project-based learning, place-based learning, culturally relevant pedagogy, and teaching mathematics for social justice are some of the ways educators have been working to increase the amount of meaning in school.  These are things to explore if a learner is experiencing a lack of meaning.


This doesn’t relate to me.

This is closely related to “This doesn’t have meaning”.  Many learners find themselves in educational situations where the curriculum does not reflect their identities and they simply cannot relate.  Often the stories we read, the histories we study, and the examples we use are extremely biased and limited in scope to a particular perspective–the white experience.  If the answer to the question, “What does this have to do with me?” is not much, the learner is likely to experience a lack of interest or resentment.  Increasing the cultural diversity of our materials to match the cultural diversity of our students can be powerfully engaging.


I just don’t want to get good at this.

I talk to many students who really don’t want to get better at reading.

Or writing.

Or math.

They really don’t.  They really don’t want to get better at these things.

Not even when we tell them that they will need these skills in their future.


I don’t have any answers on this one yet.

Traditional education has not yet handed over the reigns of learning to the learner.  Many of us preach agency, choice, and voice, but in most schools there is still a curriculum that has been defined by the state and mandated.  The teachers and administrators don’t really have a choice, so they can’t offer it to the learners.

There are Carnegie units and graduation requirements and state standards and standardized tests to consider.

We have to give our schools more freedom from these requirements so that they can craft schools that truly give power to the learners.

I’d love to see us create educational systems that are more student driven like the vision of David Price in his book, Open:  How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn In The Future.  The Jefferson County Open School is one such example that is offering truly open and flexible pathways that allow students to pursue their own learning objectives.  I believe that this is a viable model that can be emulated in other more traditional public schools.

We can put more power into the hands of our students and allow them to engage in learning about the things they really want to learn about and to get better at the things that really matter to them.

Yet, at the same time, I really believe that there is value in pushing learners to pursue things that they can’t (yet) see the value of.

Sometimes a little push is a good thing.

Currently, when I encounter this as the reason for a learner’s boredom, I coach them to exercise whatever agency their current school will allow.  Can they learn something else?  Can they learn it a different way?  And I also encourage them to question their assumptions about the usefulness of the skill in question.

Mostly, I encounter this with reading.  I work with a lot of learners who have not had good reading experiences in their past and have become convinced that reading is not for them.  They do not want to get better at reading.  They don’t see a purpose in becoming a better reader.

I use every tool I have in my toolbox to “sell” them on the concept of reading.  I try to help them see and experience the value in reading.

And, mostly, I succeed.  Many students who started out hating reading learn to value it, if not even love it.

But, not always.  I’ve encountered those students who could not hear what I was trying to say and experienced pretty much every moment that we asked them to work on getting better at reading as torture and enduring boredom.

I always advise the leaders in those schools to let those kids out of that class!  Don’t force them! Let them out and invite them back in at some future date.  I don’t believe anyone HAS to learn anything.

Yes, reading is powerful!  Reading is a huge key to learning.  But no one has to be good at it and forcing students to engage in work that they have no intention of getting better at, does not serve them.

I have other, more compelling interests (obsessions).

I tend to operate toward the obsessive end of the spectrum.  I get my interest piqued by something and then that is pretty much all I want to focus on for a while.  Mostly, this has served me well in life as learning and academics were things that I easily became obsessed with.

But not always.  Some of my obsessions sucked up too much of my time and distracted me from things that were more important.  Computer games and Netflix and Facebook and Twitter, for example.

Our students today encounter many things that were specifically designed to engage and hook their attention.  Is it really surprising that so many of them find school less engaging than their devices or other interests?

We can use information about our students other compelling interests in several ways.  Temple Grandin, in her book, The Way I See It, explains how her high school teacher helped her use her obsession with animals to develop an interest in science.

Allowing students to incorporate their already existing interests and passions into learning is a great way to increase engagement in school.

But I also think we can coach our students to develop more balance and control with interests that are satisfying in-the-moment but can have costs when over indulged.  Asking them to engage in self-reflection about their usage and the possible impacts it is having on their lives and then engage in habit changing practices can also increase engagement in school.


This is not what the cool kids are into

Jason Reynolds, author of Long Way Down, was recently on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah.  They had a fascinating discussion of reading and boredom.  Trevor shared a conversation he’d had with a young black man who said, “As black boys we don’t (deleted) read books and I don’t want to tell my friends I read.”

Jason agreed and said that he didn’t really read in high school.  He said, “We only like things that are cool.” and “Young people are allergic to boredom.”

I have seen this at play in the schools where I work.  When I was an ESL teacher, I used to counsel my students that it was okay to pretend not to like school out in the halls with their friends, but that in our class we would celebrate learning.

As educators, we can combat this cause of boredom in several ways.  First, we can make sure we are bring in more “cool” resources.  Learning needn’t only occur with textbooks and these days it is possible to find many, many books that even the cool kids would find relevant to their lives.

One way that educator Cornelius Minor does this is by bringing in things that his students are already interested in like books about Minecraft.  He accomplishes this by interviewing his students and finding out what is currently cool.

But, I also think we can work to change the cultures of our schools.  We do this by listening to kids and by giving them more opportunities to share about what they love and why they love it.  I have been stalking several educators on Twitter that are excellent at this and also get some great ideas from the Book Love podcast.

In Oregon, we have OBOB–Oregon Battle of the Books.  I know they have these in other states as well.  Battle of the Books is quite literally competitive reading.  The kids that I’ve seen participate in this, are helping to make reading cool in their schools.


I’m just not used to working this hard (at this).

Shari Daniels responded to my last post on boredom by sharing that she had interviewed her third grade students when they told her math was sometimes boring and the outcome was that they communicated that didn’t want it to be too hard.  They wanted it to be easy.

I too, have heard this from students.  Students have been quite frank with me that they just didn’t want to have to work too hard.

But, I think not wanting to work too hard is a symptom too.

Those same kids, who say they want it easy, will work hard in other areas of their lives.  They will work hard when they have something that they are really interested in.  They will work hard when they know that their work will be valued and contribute to something that matters to them.

Sometimes, students learn inadvertently not to put in too much effort.  When our learning environments are not matched with what our brains need, we learn that we are good, or we don’t like it, or even that we’re lazy.

We can help students move beyond their stories of themselves as people who don’t like to work at learning.  We can help them rediscover the joy in working hard at something that is meaningful and gives them that experience of progress.


Can We Go Too Far?

Is it possible that we will go too far, as Mark Bauerlein, says in trying to prevent student boredom?  He is concerned that students will not learn to work through boredom on their own.

Another soft skill becomes crucial: working through boredom on your own. It’s a disposition that has little to do with intelligence or knowledge, more a matter of stamina than intellect. If the U.S. history textbook bores you to death, it says, you still must get through 20 pages in the next hour. Biology 101 may have no relevance to your career plans or personal tastes, but you still have to complete it to fulfill a General Education requirement. Many first-year students don’t easily absorb such blank and impersonal facts of college—especially when their home and high school environments catered more to their personal interests than their actual needs—but they are binding and they call for a different attitude. The more you can ignore your ennui, the easier it will be to pass the course. The less you judge the course on personal grounds, the less likely will you recoil from it and consider dropping out of college. (You might even learn something that sparks genuine curiosity.)


Perhaps we should add “coping-with-boredom” to the list of college-readiness indicators, and K – 12 pedagogy should temper the quick and easy tactic of relevance. Yes, teachers should select materials true to the learning goals of the subject and also likely to interest the students. But they should also recognize that some materials that students must learn can’t be avoided or compromised, even though students will find them oh-so-dull. Boredom is bound to happen, and instead of trying to escape it by changing course contents, teachers should try to neutralize it by changing student expectations. It is possible that teachers may go too far in presenting an exciting, relevant curriculum, unintentionally giving students the message that their boredom is a justifiable condition that somebody else must remedy. Better for them to absorb a different lesson: boredom, in itself, is no reason to stop working.



I don’t think so.  I just think we have to take a nuanced approach.  We have to recognize that boredom is a symptom that something isn’t working in the learning environment.  We need to stop blaming teachers and stop blaming students when something isn’t working and just create the conditions that allow students and teachers to be empowered to work together to develop solutions.



One thought on “Boredom Is A Symptom

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  1. Children are to be motivated for their learning activities. For every learning activity a student must be awarded with some credits that can be used to buy things they want. One day they will learn even the most boring learning activity.


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