10/16/2012 11:05 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

Why School Is So Boring

A first rule of education should be, "Listen to the students and they will teach you how to teach them." It can be a frightening policy. Few things are more painful to teachers than the words, "I'm bored!"

The statement that "this class is boring" often means that "this class is boring." The teacher must then take a doubly hard look in the mirror. But Education Week's Sarah Sparks, in "Researchers Argue Boredom May Be a 'Flavor of Stress,'" explains why professions of boredom often are poignant protests that are born of complex sets of in-school and out-of-school factors.

Sparks starts with psychology professor John Eastman, who defines boredom as an inability to focus attention. It may be due to a dry lecture style or an uninteresting topic, or to outside factors that interfere with the students' attention or cognitive processes. Perhaps factors at home create a negative emotional state or, perhaps, they are "tackling material that is too difficult for them -- and thus taking up too much working memory."

Cognitive science explains, "Like any type of stress, boredom hampers the prefrontal cortex." When stress disrupts the brain's executive functions, the amygdala takes over, and the result, says neurologist Judy Willis, can be "acting out or zoning out."

This contributes to the well-known dilemma that can easily spin out of control in schools with extreme concentrations of generational poverty. Students who are stressed out due to trauma "are more likely to disengage and feel bored, which adds to their stress." Noisy classrooms also generate stress, sapping students' attention and contributing to boredom.

School "reform" can compound the cycle by adding stressful high stakes tests, forcing teachers to rush through material that is far above the students' skill levels, and guilt-tripping teachers in believing that they alone can solve the problem by being more entertaining. Paradoxically, gimmicks to liven up class can backfire. Eastman thinks, "if someone is bored, the worst thing you can do is overstimulating. It's like quicksand; if you just thrash around, you're even more stuck."

Fortunately, cognitive research suggests a solution and it is consistent with the call to communicate with students. German research has shown that students can be taught to move beyond blaming the material or others for their lack of focus. They can be taught to reappraise the situation and learn, "when I feel bored, that is an opportunity to become aware of my disengagement and address it."

Listening to students has taught me that expressions of boredom, or any other complaints, may or may not be complex statements about the ways my kids feel. Sparks' article now helps me better understand a pattern that has held true over 19 years in the urban high school classroom. The majority of my bad days have not been on Fridays or times when the students' exhaustion was palpable. No matter how invested a teacher is in a thoroughly practiced lesson, there are days where it is impossible to ignore that the students are overwhelmed, and that the great activities that were planned must wait for another day. My failed classes came on Monday's when I was too excited about a great lesson to take a hint. After being psyched all weekend about sharing a lesson, it is easier to miss feedback indicating that the couple of days outside of school can do something far different to my teenagers' psyche.

None of the above should be used as an excuse, even though it helps explain why the accountability movement has failed. For instance, Houston Superintendent Terry Grier bragged to PBS's Frontline about making a snap decision, which included the mass dismissal of teachers, after attending some focus groups with students who complained about boredom.

The key to school improvement is deep listening to students and the hard work of communicating about complex feelings. This complicated give and take is tougher than discussions over Calculus or Physics. If we educators only feel relieved that we don't bear all the blame for failing to make all academic standards come alive, then we have missed the point. Conversations over the "flavor of stress" known as boredom are an entree into the relationship-building that is classroom instruction.

Listen to kids and sometimes we will learn clearcut facts about simple realities. But, that is rare. Besides, if students and teachers weren't continually trying to find words to describe the entirety of the human condition, class would be so boooooring.