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Ways to reverse school boredom

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.
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.

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.

“That was the flashpoint,” Flanagan told The Deseret News, adding that many parents express the belief that their child should never have to wait for others. She said that there are benefits to learning in a cooperative group, including the chance to learn acceptance and appreciation for the viewpoints and capabilities of others.

Possible solutions

Flanagan said solving boredom can mean taking deeper dives into subjects that seem too easy by doing related creative projects. It can mean learning to apply diligence and persistence to schoolwork that seems monotonous. And, it can mean asking for help when schoolwork is too hard, instead of tuning out.

To improve student engagement, Busteed argues that systemic changes to the U.S. education system are needed to improve student engagement. Schools should spend less time on standardized testing. Moreover, they should put more emphasis on providing programs for students who aren’t likely to finish college, he said.

The current push to make every high school graduate college-ready overlooks the fact that millions of students are more interested in learning skills for careers in technical fields.

“Think of all the jobs that are learned through hands-on experiences,” he said. “In our zeal to create college-ready kids, we’ve lost track of all the other pathways to good jobs. Some kids are not really being supported and embraced by the school system.”

The Gallup Student Poll found that teachers are the most important factor in student engagement. Busteed sees another clue into why engagement decreases as students get older. Elementary school students spend all day, all year, with the same teacher. They develop an important sense of connection. Middle school students are likely to spend significant time with a home room teacher, but move from class to class for part of the day. High school students, though, might change teachers every hour, and at semesters.

Can technology help?

Smart use of modern technology might also help keep students interested, too. The 2013 National Survey on Student Engagement given to college students, found that students who do a part of their learning online devote more time preparing for classes and doing assigned reading than students who learn in traditional formats.

“Online technology is one way to engage students that is certainly in the wheelhouse of how they like to be engaged,” said Jillian Kinzie, the National Survey on Student Engagement Institute’s associate director. “To address boredom, technology could be used more effectively.”

Dealing with boredom and disengagement is the shared responsibility of learning institutions, teachers and students, Kinzie said.

The power of success

Gallup’s Busteed and education consultant Flanagan agree on a particular point about increasing students’ interest and engagement at school: students are more likely to stay interested and engaged at school, if they enjoy frequent successes.

“We’ve discovered that one of the fundamental things is for a student to be able to they’ve had a chance to do what they are best at,” Busteed said. Yet efforts to increase test scores have caused many schools to reduce opportunities for students to connect with others, and possibly discover praiseworthy talents in music, art, drama and athletics classes: “You can cure a lot of boredom with a little success,” Flanagan said.

In academic classes, that process that reminds her of the principle that made 1970s-era video games like Pac-Man profitable.

“Every little bit of success caused the kid to put another quarter in," she said. "If they did it five times and didn’t get better at it, they stopped. It’s the success that keeps you going.”

Email: Twitter: @celiarbaker