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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

Boredom and Its Opposite

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An understanding of natural human interests gives teachers tools for overcoming students' reluctance to learn.

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  • A form of depression—a kind of anger turned inward; and
  • A longing for that which will transform the self, making life and learning meaningful.
This double aspect of boredom—its negative brooding and its positive yearning—makes it difficult to deal with in the life of classrooms. Its dark, depressive side tends to provoke our anger and defensiveness (I am not boring!), even as its searching quality stirs up fears of our own insufficiency (Am I providing students with interesting and meaningful learning experiences?).
We can jump off this pendulum of worries by changing the nature of the question. Instead of asking, Am I boring?, we can ask, When are students most likely to be interested enough to overcome the boredom that occasionally haunts almost any sustained act of learning? In other words, When and under what conditions do students care enough to work hard? This question shifts attention away from an obsession with boredom and toward a more productive fascination with ordinary human interest.
During the past three years, we have learned much about boredom and motivation by working with reluctant learners. In several school districts, we have had the privilege of meeting with small groups of students and conducting interviews, administering surveys, and holding good, old-fashioned discussions about motivation and boredom. These sessions have taught us that a teacher's personality, voice, or style of instruction are not key factors in producing boredom. Instead, boredom is primarily an effect of curriculum. Curriculum design based on four natural human interests—the drive toward mastery, the drive to understand, the drive toward self-expression, and the need to relate—will not only reduce student boredom, but will yield boredom's opposite: abiding interest in the content that students need to learn.

The Drive Toward Mastery

As humans, we all strive to increase our sense of mastery. We take delight in developing new competencies, and we have a stake in mastering those skills that will earn the respect of others.
When students say that they are bored, what they frequently mean is, I don't see where this is going, or, I don't think that I can do this well. In our discussions with reluctant learners, almost 30 percent admitted that lack of clear direction or anxiety about their own competence played a significant part in their feelings of boredom. They did not think that they could succeed, so they shut their minds down.

Why Some Students Love Shop

A group of 7th graders are making small wooden hangings in the shape of teapots to hold potholders or coffee cups. The teacher begins by showing students three samples of completed products, each displaying a different level of proficiency. Students study the samples and identify their strengths and weaknesses, thus becoming aware of the competencies needed to produce the desired product.
The teacher spaces a variety of mini-lessons throughout the course of the students' activity, modeling how to perform the various skills involved. He also circulates the classroom, commenting on the quality of students' work and demonstrating on-the-spot techniques to improve their performance. Meanwhile, other students compare their work with the samples, trying to determine what qualities they need to improve.

Tools for Increasing Mastery

  • Have we clearly defined the goal of the lesson or unit in terms of a performance or product?
  • Have students had opportunities to examine the competencies required to produce that performance or product?
  • What skills have we modeled clearly? What skills have we undertaught?
  • Have we built on-the-spot feedback and revision into the instructional design?
The more advanced forms of state testing have made many of these tools (modeling, rubrics, mini-lessons, and feedback systems) more common practice in a wide variety of classrooms. Yet students and teachers still continue to complain about oppressive feelings of boredom. Perhaps both students and teachers have other, equally pressing interests that the curriculum needs to address.

The Drive to Understand

Even in a classroom organized around mastery, some students might still be bored because the curriculum fails to spark a sense of wonder. As human beings, we all share a drive to make sense of the world around us. This drive to understand appears in our compulsion to question; our delight in puzzles; our excitement about new ideas; and our sensitivity to flaws, gaps, and contradictions. Students express this drive when they raise questions, point out errors, insist on explanations, and share their opinions. Conversely, the absence of these behaviors gives us a primary clue that our students are bored.

Helping Students Think Deeply About War

  • Were the causes just?
  • Was the conduct of the war just?
  • Were the consequences of the war just?
During their research, students read arguments for and against the war from both sides of the conflict; descriptions of battles and casualties; newspaper reports and critiques; the treaties that brought the wars to a close; and arguments for and against those treaties. To help with their investigations, their teacher has taught them specific learning strategies, such as The Other Point of View Box and The Consequence Box (De Bono, 1990).
Following their inquiries, the students participate in a discussion in which they rank the five wars according to how “just” they were. In addition, students write an essay on the topic, “The Next War: How Will I Decide to Oppose or Support It?”

Tools for Increasing Student Interest in Understanding

  • Organize units of study around questions designed to provoke students' thoughts and concerns.
  • Provide students with rigorous and challenging texts, rich not only in information but also in ideas, controversy, and different points of view.
  • Teach students how to collect, organize, and weigh the value of ideas.
  • Provide opportunities for students to challenge and correct others and to be challenged and corrected in turn.
We might notice that several elements of mastery have come along for the ride, including teacher modeling (of research techniques) and a focus on performance and product (the ranking of the wars and the essay). Obviously, this unit addresses both students' human need for mastery and their drive for understanding. It demonstrates the point made by Wiggins and McTighe (1998): Teaching for understanding need not entail any loss of concern for student mastery.
At the same time, however, consider this question: Can you imagine students who might be bored by the work in this unit? What might such students be looking for? What interests does such a unit fail to engage?

The Drive Toward Self-Expression

The drive toward self-expression, like all the human interests, is stronger in some people than in others. But all of us have some longing to be unique, to have our differences acknowledged and nourished, to find and express those kernels within us that belong to ourselves alone, and to use those kernels to grow a life that belongs to us and no other.

Stimulating Creativity in a Math Lab

In an unusual math classroom filled with paints and easels, clay and board games, the 5th graders gather at tables to work on stacks of problems with titles like Topology Tremors, The Game of Life, and The End of Logic. Four days a week, in their regular math classes, they take speed tests, do mental math, and practice, practice, practice the operations in which they must become fluent to thrive as young mathematicians. On the fifth day, they come here to pursue their own interests. Two students investigate the nature of Egyptian fractions; four others use probability to create a new board game, half luck and half strategy; still others write a how-to book of logic puzzles for 3rd graders.
Around the edges of the room are the “stealing piles”—stacks of work from previous years' students from which these students will take ideas for problems or learn new ways to present their own discoveries. Class usually begins with a mini-lesson, in which the teacher models and the students discuss strategies for mathematical investigation or presentation. After the mini-lesson, students proceed to their own work. Near the end of the period, students gather in an Authors Group to discuss what they did and what problems they confronted that day.

Tools for Increasing Student Interest in Self-Expression

  • What role does choice play in my classroom?
  • Do I regularly model the strategies that students need to shape their projects to their own interests and concerns?
  • Do I make a rich set of samples available for students to study?
  • How much time and guidance do students have to explore their work and their problems with it?
Mastery. Understanding. Self-expression. Three natural human interests. Three ways to motivate students and overcome boredom. Why in the world might some students still be bored?

The Need to Relate

As humans, we all share a need to interact with others. We all hope that our work is not just an intellectual exercise or an expression of our own point of view, but also of value and interest to others.

Working Together for a Cause

A number of years ago, a young boy in Texas was hit by a car while riding his bike. He was not wearing a bike helmet at the time, and he suffered serious damage to his brain.
A teacher in a neighboring elementary school asked her students a simple question: What should we do about this? Working with the teacher, the students decided to launch a campaign to pass a city ordinance requiring bicycle riders to wear helmets. During the next few months, the students corresponded with several city officials about the ordinance-passing process. They collected existing city ordinances and analyzed them in terms of both language and form, and then used their analysis to produce their own bike helmet ordinance. They interviewed city officials and conducted a survey to collect evidence to be used in arguing for their ordinance and then used the interviews and survey data to construct a rubric to evaluate their proposed presentation to the City Council. Following their presentation, the City Council passed the law.

Tools for Increasing Interpersonal Interest

  • Teaching students investigative strategies for collecting and organizing information about that world (for example, the bike survey and interviews).
  • Providing samples of adult products from which students can draw the inspiration and ideas that they need to create products and performances that work in the world.
  • Developing criteria and rubrics with which to reflect on and improve performance.
  • Identifying audiences, clients, and customers who need or appreciate the work and provide feedback for improvement.

Human Interest and Differentiation

Although all of us share the four human interests described here, the drives for mastery, understanding, self-expression, and interpersonal relationships exist in varying degrees in different people. Some students' interests are more likely to be aroused and sustained by mastery-oriented curriculum designs, whereas other students respond to a more interpersonal orientation.
Even more important for educators, research suggests that students' performance in school depends significantly on their style of interest. For example, Superintendent Maria Ehresman and her staff at Williamson Central High School in New York State recently administered the Learning Preference Inventory (Hanson & Silver, 2000) to identify the learning style profiles and dominant patterns of interest of its 9th grade population. When Maria and her staff correlated these results with failure rates and performance on state tests, the results were striking: students with a strong interpersonal style of interest (43 percent of the student population) and students with a strong self-expressive style of interest (20 percent of the student population) had the highest failure rates and lowest test scores across the board (Williamson Central School District, 2001). A large-scale study conducted by Hanson and Dewing (1990) found a similar pattern: Students with self-expressive and interpersonal interests had the greatest difficulty in school. Little wonder, Hanson and Dewing concluded, because these two styles of interest are among the least addressed in the upper grades.
  • Identify the dominant interests of reluctant learners. Write down the names of four learners whose apathy or neglect of their studies raises some concern. Then, try to determine which of the human interests is most likely to lead to even a small increase in their motivation. Make individual adjustments in the appropriate direction. Even better, develop classroom and schoolwide interest profiles using a validated instrument (Silver & Strong, 2003; Silver, Strong, & Perini, 2003).
  • Teach students about the four human interests. Set aside time to discuss with students how their interests fit within the bounds of this model. You might even revise the language of the Student Interest Rubric to permit them to assess a unit that you have studied together.

Figure 1. Student Interest Rubric for Curriculum Design

Think of a unit you teach. Place a number between 1 and 4 in each box to indicate your unit's strengths or weaknesses in each area (4 for strong, 1 for weak). What do you notice?

Boredom and Its Opposite - table



Is the goal of the unit defined in terms of a product or performance?How closely connected to the real world are the content and products of the unit?
Have students been involved in analyzing the competencies and qualities of the product or performance?How well designed is the use of audiences, clients, and customers as ways to stimulate reflection and improvement?
Have the constituent skills been clearly modeled?How carefully modeled are strategies for collecting real-world information and communicating with authentic audiences?
How well has on-the-spot feedback and refinement been built into the work?How vital a role do real-world samples of products and performances play in the unit?
Is the unit organized around provocative questions?How strong a role does choice play in the unit?
Are the sources used in the unit sufficiently challenging and based on powerful ideas?How regularly are strategies for creative thinking modeled?
Does the unit teach students strategies for evaluating ideas and evidence?How rich a set of samples are available for student study?
Are students able to critique and correct their own and others' products and ideas?How well are discussions of student work used to drive student progress?
If, as research indicates and many teachers suspect, student achievement is more highly correlated with student interests than with cognitive ability, then we should make curriculum design based on human interests a primary focus for professional development during the next decade. It's time to make students and their natural human interests as important as the standards and tests that our states now mandate.

De Bono, E. (1990). Think, note, write: Thinking tools reproducibles. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: MICA Management Resources.

Hanson, J. R., & Dewing, T. (1990). Research on the profiles of at-risk learners: Research monograph series. Moorestown, NJ: Institute for Studies in Analytic Psychology.

Hanson, J. R., & Silver, H. F. (2000). Learning preference inventory. Woodbridge, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Phillips, A. (1993). On kissing, tickling, and being bored: Psychoanalytic essays on the unexamined life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Silver, H. F., & Strong, R. W. (2003). Learning style inventory for secondary students. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Silver, H. F., Strong, R. W., & Perini, M. J. (2003). Learning style inventory for elementary students. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Thoughtful Education Press.

Walzer, M. (2000). Just and unjust wars: A moral argument with historical illustrations. New York: BasicBooks.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Williamson Central School District. (2001). Research on high school students' learning styles and academic achievement. Williamson, NY: Author.

Harvey Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. An experienced educator, presenter, and coach, Silver has conducted thousands of workshops for schools, districts, and state education organizations throughout the United States.

Silver is the author of several articles and books on instructional tools and strategies, including some ASCD bestsellers: The Core SixThe Strategic Teacher,  So Each May Learn, and Teaching What Matters Most.

With the late Richard Strong, Silver developed The Thoughtful Classroom—a renowned professional development initiative dedicated to "making students as important as standards” and collaborated with Matthew J. Perini to develop the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework.

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