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Is It Me?

In previous posts, I have been examining a common and critical dilemma facing the effectiveness of instruction in American classrooms. (See No Way! and Cornflakes) The data is clear. It suggests that many, many students are frequently bored in school. Their experience with this reality causes them to experience a lack of engagement, may lead to disruptive coping behaviors and sadly causes many kids to simply throw in the towel: to take their chances in the world without an educational credential, and quit. "This isn't working for me. I'm done."

As sad and confounding as this circumstance may be, I am not interested in over analyzing the psychological definitions of boredom. I'm not inclined to admire the problem. To me, it is sufficient to trust the data and acknowledge that boredom in school exists and that it is a problem that requires our intentional intervention. Neither am I preoccupied on placing blame for this obstacle to learning. It may be the fault of educational systems, classroom practices, curricular design or the learners themselves. It probably is a combination of many potential factors: psychological and emotional predispositions, social and economic factors, personal disruptors and distractions, interests and motivation, and the degree to which the learner finds the process either an exercise in compliance or one that is truly meaningful, resonate and relevant.

Also, there's plenty of blame to go around. In the final analysis, at least from my humble, though accurate, perspective, blame doesn't really matter. What's important is finding solutions that will positively and incrementally chip away at the problem. In truth, everyone involved in the enterprise of teaching and learning owns a partial share of the collective blame. "Is It Me?" Regardless of your role in this complicated process, the answer is "yes." You are partially to blame and, therefore, partially responsible to turn things around.

I am a learner. I learn by reading the findings and conclusions of professionals with expertise that is greater than mine. And, I learn from listening to the experiences of others. One of my greatest and most informative listening sources is kids, the voices of the learners. So, based on these indisputable resources, I offer some things that teachers do that contribute to the boredom of their students. Teachers are on the front line. Of all of the stakeholders, their behaviors hold the greatest influence and potential power for impactful change. (I'll address the behaviors and roles of other key players in future posts.)

Four things that teachers do that cause students to say "I'm bored."

1) Talking too much. If teachers approach their instruction in a manner that reflects their experiences as students, they are probably guilty of talking too much. "Stand and deliver" has been a fallback methodology for decades. And, it probably worked much of the time for most students. However, it failed to work all of the time for every learner. That's a problem, both then and now. The attention span of students today is different than in previous generations. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. Kids have told me that when their teachers drone on and on, they quickly lose their ability to focus and what they hear eventually resembles the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher. The situation easily goes from bad to worse if the delivery is monotone.

I firmly believe that the person talking is the one who's learning. It is entirely possible that excessive "teacher talk" is standing in the way of effective learning. Teachers should ask themselves, and each other, what percentage of the time am I the one who is talking? The answer may be astounding.

2) Routines that are too routine. Routines provide an element of safety for children. They benefit from being able to anticipate what is expected and what is likely to occur in any setting. But, it is possible to experience too much of a good thing. If classroom routines are so predictable and they never vary, the potential benefits can easily become eroded and quickly resemble a bowl of corn flakes. (See my July 29th post, Corn Flakes.) Teachers need to mix things up and keep things fresh, even within a climate of routines. Everyone benefits from some variety. It will keep kids on their toes and may stifle some of the boredom derived from absolute predictability.

3) Assigning tasks that lack quality. No one likes busy work. Adults are quickly offended when they are expected to execute a task that they deem to be of low value, one that feels like its purpose is the fulfillment of some perceived requirement. Kids are no different! I wish I had a dollar for every time a student told me that they abhor worksheets. It’s not that they dislike demonstrating their understanding of a concept or what they know. It’s that worksheets, as they are traditionally designed and used, represent a task more aligned to compliance than to something they find interesting and engaging. Kids are smart. They see right through the convenience and ease of worksheets as a vehicle to collect some recordable data for a grade book. I know I would be incredibly bored if my day was spent going from subject to subject, class to class, completing menial clerical tasks, with the promise of more to take home. Why should we expect anything different from students? When designing a task or assignment for their students, teachers should ask themselves whether they would find the activity meaningful or even enjoyable. If their answer is not affirmative, they should pass on it and design something that meets that criteria. Kids deserve better.

4) Failing to define “why." Teachers are champions at determining, and communicating, what needs to be done and how it will be accomplished. However, they frequently overlook, and fail to communicate to their students, why what they about to undertake is important. Hopefully, teachers will have a broader understanding of “why” other than it is contained in the course standards of the mandated curriculum. They must help students recognize, and understand, the purpose of the activity, the importance it represents and how it fits into the web of learning expected of all students. Many kids are not able to connect the dots on their own. If they do not get help with this, if they are not guided toward an understanding and appreciation of why something is worthy of their time and best effort, engagement will go by the wayside and boredom will become the convenient rest stop of their learning.

There are other things teachers can do to curb the easy tendency toward boredom. Things like: laugh, show your human side, let students see you as a curious learner along side your role of the content expert.

Here’s the thing. Student boredom in, and with, school is real. It requires the attention of all educators. There is no better place to start than with the sensitivity and expertise of classroom teachers. I trust teachers to move the dial on this issue. Students should not be bored. That’s not the education kids deserve.

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