National Edition

Ways to reverse school boredom

Published: Monday, Dec. 2 2013 7:10 p.m. MST

A new Gallup Student Poll shows that most students start elementary school with enthusiasm, but become less and less engaged throughout junior high and high school.

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Only four in 10 U.S. high school students feel connected and engaged at school, according to the 2012 Gallup Student Poll. By the time students reach high school, the majority of them — the other six out of 10 — have disengaged from school.

In the academic vernacular of educators, being engaged means to be involved in the learning process and to feel positive connections to teachers and the school. Therefore, it is the disengaged students who report that their teachers don’t make them feel their schoolwork is important. They say they don’t receive much praise or recognition and that school doesn’t give them the chance to do the things they are best at doing, according to the Gallup poll.

The poll, which surveyed 500,000 fifth- through 12th-graders in 37 states, found that school engagement declines steadily as students get older. Nearly eight in 10 elementary students say they are engaged with school. By middle school, that figure falls to about six in 10 students. By high school, only four in 10 students feel engaged with learning at school.

Disengagement hinders degrees

Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, said the high percentage of disengaged high school students correlates with lower educational attainment in the United States. He doesn’t think that’s a coincidence. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. students finish college, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics — the same proportion as high school students who say they are engaged when attending school.

Busteed said he worries that the other 60 percent — the majority who are disengaged in high school – is probably the same group that don’t finish college. These are the students most likely to question the relevance of their schoolwork. He said that these students may stand to benefit through more job-specific education.

Is boredom bad?

Boredom is a common first step in the classroom disengagement felt by many in high school, and it’s probable that anyone who ever entered a schoolroom has spent some time gazing out a window in boredom. The good news is that students might be able to control their boredom before it turns into something more serious.

A study from Germany's University of Konstanz found that students can come up with their own strategies to deal with school boredom. In the study, students who did this had better academic outcomes than those who simply gave in to boredom.

Strategies for combatting boredom identified in the study included maintaining interest in lesson material by concentrating on its future value; consciously working to improve negative attitudes; and taking responsibility for academic failures.

Still, when Nancy Flanagan wrote an Education Week blog saying many kids who are bored at school can solve the problem themselves, she unleashed a Twitter-storm of controversy with reactions from parents and other education experts, however.

Flanagan, an education writer and consultant, taught music in K-12 classrooms for 30 years and was named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year. She argued that boredom should not excuse bad behavior and should not be immediately equated with a problematic “dumbed-down” curriculum or with poor teaching.

Even the best teachers can’t make every lesson novel and entertaining, she said. Sometimes students need repetition and review of old material to fully internalize learning, whether it seems dull or not.

Just because a student claims to be bored in class doesn’t mean he or she is smarter than the other students, even if doting parents would like to believe otherwise: “Boredom should not be used as reason to assert that kids should never have to wait for other children to catch up,” Flanagan said.

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