I have been pretty straight forward in raising the tent flap on a well known secret - kids, lots of them, find school boring. The research has been done, and it is consistently conclusive. Nearly half of American children in our secondary schools report that what they experience in school is not relevant and that they find it difficult to engage with the curriculum and the preferred delivery models. For a startling number of these students, the degree of their disenfranchisement leads them to drop out all together. (In case you’ve missed them, see No Way!, Corn Flakes and Is it Me? on my website: theeducationkidsdeserve.com)
In putting a spotlight on the problem, I have refused to place blame for this instructional dilemma. The reason for this strategy is two-fold. First, we could get so caught up in the “blame game” that we could easily lose track of the issue at hand. Second, there’s plenty of blame to go around. So, it’s best if we avoid the smug tendency to point the finger away from ourselves and focus, instead, on the issue. Many kids find school boring.
Last week, in Is it Me?, I focused the conversation on teachers. Based on the reported research and what students have told me over the years of my career, there are behaviors and practices that teachers employ that contribute to student boredom. I even offered four key suggestions that are worthy of teacher consideration: not solely to minimize boredom (though they certainly would help), but also to enhance their instructional effectiveness. These were:
1) Avoid the tendency to talk too much.
2) Avoid classroom routines that become regimented, predictable, rote and . . . well, boring.
3) Design tasks that are interesting and engaging; tasks that are truly worthy of attention and effort.
4) Make sure to understand and articulate the “why” of the work at hand.
Teachers are well-intentioned folks. They never set out to make their classes boring, even though that may be the eventual outcome. Sometimes, the way teachers behave, the way they construct their lessons and the instructional strategies they employ are the result of what they perceive to be expected of them. Let me repeat that. Sometimes, the way teachers behave, the way they construct their lessons and the instructional strategies they employ are the result of what they perceive to be expected of them. Sad to say, but the truth to be told is that these perceived expectations may be the direct result of the behaviors and attitudes of those who supervise and influence them.
Head Master. Academic Dean. Principal. . . pick the title. They’re at the top. They define, or at a minimum influence, the culture of the school by the agendas they promote. Consequently, if boredom is a student experience under their watch, they may need to de-fog the mirror of reflection and determine their role and how they contribute to this culture - a culture of boredom.
Now, before any of my building administrator friends get too insulted by this suggestion, I need to remind them that I walked in their shoes for eighteen years as a building principal, preceded by three years in an assistant role. I confidently draw on my experience, some of it embarrassing, but most of it reassuring and informative. Again, I am not blaming anyone for this instructional dilemma. It’s way too complex and complicated for such a simplistic approach. But, what would I suggest to my colleagues who find themselves in these enviable roles of leadership? Please consider these four things:
1) Everybody is watching, and they are taking their cues from you. If you act like the sky is falling, they will mirror that fear in their actions. Be the solution you expect and act accordingly.
2) Encourage risk-taking. Innovation assumes risk. Embracing challenge assumes risk. Trying anything new assumes risk. Encourage your staff to assume some risks in their work by being willing to take risks of your own. (Remember, they’re watching.) Communicate loudly, and broadly, that while we must have standards, we must not expect, or accept, standardization.
3) Guarantee a safety net from failure. If the assumption of risk is to be encouraged, any disappointments or short-coming of that risk must be shielded from undue criticism or ramification. This is where the effective leader puts his or her “money where their mouth is.” No one will go out on a limb of innovation unless they know, without question, that it will not be cut off beneath them.
4) Laugh. Let them see you, let them hear you, laugh.
If we’re innovating and taking risks, if we’re laughing, if we’re designing thoughtful and engaging instructional activities, if we’re letting the learners do the bulk of the talking, and if we’re putting “why” in front of “what” and “how” . . . might the experience of students in American classrooms be a little less boring?