Boring but Important

Some words in education can spark off a shooting match. I offer two such words: ‘boring‘ and ‘engagement‘. Should teaching and learning be boring? Is it is sign of failure? Should engagement rule? Both words get characterised as extremes (social media has a way of doing that), but it is important to face up to our assumptions and preconceptions of boredom and engagement in relation to learning.

A quote by comedian and columnist, David Mitchell, back in 2009, but recast on my Twitter timeline recently, captures nicely the absurdity of trying to rid the classroom of boredom:

“But I imagine the plan is even more hopeless than that – they’re going to try and make boring lessons more interesting. Any scheme to do this at a national level is likely to be as effective as attempting to thread 20,000 needles by chucking the cotton at them from 100 yards away. It ignores the fact that some of the things that children really ought to learn are boring. Information is not interesting in direct proportion to how important it is.” (Guardian, Jan 2009)

We were all students once. I bet most of us can remember some cringe-inducing attempts to make learning relevant with an ill-conceived pop-culture reference or similar. We instinctively know that the fun ‘cool‘ teacher doesn’t equate with the ‘good’ teacher. Research has shown that student judgments of teachers proves the reverse of the assumption that the ‘engaging’ teacher is the most effective in the classroom: teachers who are associated with better subsequent performance receive worst evaluations from their students (try this research on college professors in the US HERE, as well as universities in Italy HERE).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating intentionally being more boring that we otherwise may be, but we should be wary of the notion that engagement should be the daily pursuit of teachers. We should think a little differently. Instead of trying to eliminate boredom – pretty much an impossibility in the real world – we should consider how we help our students manage it (I have written about this at length before in: ‘Mastering Boredom: the Secret to Success’).

As the sage comedian and writer, David Foster Wallace, said:

“If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

Seeing the big picture of why what is boring is important

Students who can better manage their boredom are more likely to succeed as they can sustain their practice, whereas an appeal to endless engagement can see students succumb to distraction and ultimately suffer. In research by Yeager et al., they looked at the age-old problem of conveying what is boring but important (see here: ‘Boring but important: A self-transcendant purpose for learning fosters academic self-regulation’). Their argument put simply: when teens have a personally important and self-transcendent “why” for learning, they were able to bear even a tedious and unpleasant “how”.

So having a sense of the bigger picture for your sometimes boring learning – how doing your science homework could lead to you becoming a doctor and helping others – benefits our students. We can help send psychological nudges each week about why some learning is boring but important.

Strategies to fend off boredom

We can go one better by giving our students strategies that encourage self-control and fending off the distractions that call the bored teen. In their research on ‘Situational Strategies for Self Control, Angela Duckworth et al., they recommend simple, useful strategies to persevere through boring tasks, like maths homework, or drafting an English essay.

Simple practical strategies abound: If you struggle getting up in the morning, place the alarm clock the other side of the bedroom. If you are a 6th former struggling to do your homework, get a picture of your dream job or your desired university to remind you of the bigger picture. If you WhatsApp group is ruining your revision, then go to the library without your phone and force yourself away from your tech distraction demons.

I would hope that the students I teach would not label all of my lessons deathly dull, but when they have to finish drafting an essay, rather than going on Call of Duty or surfing Youtube channels for funny cat videos, I hope they recognise why they are doing it and what is boring but important.


Blog image: ‘No Boredom’ by Simon Hucko:

3 thoughts on “Boring but Important”

  1. It’s a good point, but like anything it depends on how it’s done. Obviously teachers shouldn’t go out of their way to tell kids today’s lesson will be “boring but important” – I think mostly kids already understand that school is a grind but it’s all kind of heading somewhere vaguely useful. But it’s definitely a good idea to have a powerful response up your sleeve when a student says “this is boring” – eg to quote Sully, the pilot who landed in the Hudson river and saved 200 peoples lives coz he’d studied boring stuff for 40 years. He gave an awesome quote: “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

    The problem that isn’t addressed here is that all too often, school work is both boring and unimportant. Kids know that as well. The only answer to that is to change the system

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