Bored in class? Deal with it

Nancy Flanagan writes about bored students and boring teachers at Teacher in a Strange Land.

Boredom isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, she starts.

If you’re bored, see it as an opportunity to figure out why. In addition, bear in mind that many excellent life habits are established through repetition and plodding along.

Boredom isn’t a sign the curriculum or teaching has been “dumbed-down,” Flanagan adds. “Practicing almost anything can feel boring, at times.”

Buying into kids’ boredom as valid reason for disconnecting or misbehaving corresponds to another fallacy: the idea that “good” teachers should make every lesson novel and entertaining to kids. True, there is a strong acting/entertainment factor in dynamic teaching. Great teaching should inspire learning through more than attention-grabbing, however.  Reminder: the person who does the–hard, and occasionally monotonous–work of learning is the student. It doesn’t matter how many white-lab-coat chemical explosions they witness, or if their fifth grade teacher dresses up like Amelia Earhart–there is no learning without diligent effort on the part of the child.

Boredom is not a sign of giftedness, Flanagan writes.

Students who “own their boredom” can find ways to deal with it, she advises.

I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education.

About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    The problem is that ‘boredom’ often comes from a mismatch between the level of the material and the level of the student. Kids who are in classes that are too advanced for them are ‘bored’ because they’re confused and they can’t get a toehold on the material. Kids in classes that are too slow are bored because you’re wasting their time on stuff they’ve already mastered.

    The problem is that many teachers who proclaim that the problem with ‘boring’ is the students is that they actively BAN advanced kids from making good use of the wasted time. (For instance, punishing kids who quietly deal with boredom by reading, drawing, writing, or working on assignments for other subjects.)

    From the excerpts, it seems like Flanagan may be one of those ‘problem teachers’ who doesn’t realize that the smart kids are legitimately bored in her classes.

    My homeschooled kids don’t even know what boredom is– because when they’ve finished their work and understood what they’re supposed to learn for the day, they have the freedom to work on whatever interests them.

    Boredom is caused by a LACK of freedom.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Now that I’ve read the article– why is waiting for the rest of the class to catch up a good thing? And again, what about teachers who won’t LET advanced students work on other things while they wait for the rest of the class to catch up?

      She seems to unquestionably embrace the idea of mixed ability classes….

  2. Crimson Wife says:

    Boredom is not necessarily a sign of giftedness, but gifted kids will typically be bored in school because the material is too easy and the pace of the class too slow.

    Some topics that are important to learn are, in fact, boring. My son is learning long division at the moment and I sympathize with his complaints that it is boring. But at least in our homeschool, I can move on to the next chapter as soon as he has mastered the concept.

  3. In elementary school, I had oodles of extra time. In first grade, our teacher had a ‘kit’ of extra things to read. I finished the kit, and also spent a lot of time helping other students. In second grade, I organized the book closets (where classroom sets of books where kept). In third grade, I came home crying every day because I had finished reading every book that I had (the science and social studies texts). My parents made arrangements for me to go to the school library fist thing, and I’d check out that day’s book. By 4th grade, we had enough ability grouping that I usually had something to do, and had teachers who would ignore it if the already-finished students read or talked quietly. I have also sat through many scientific seminars that were ‘boring’ because I had no idea what they were talking about.

    I don’t think that some people understand how horrible it is to sit and do nothing, especially for kids. Learning patience while they wait in the lunch line is one thing, but some years in school I’d spend more than an hour/day reading. People get agitated about kids ‘wasting’ 5 hours/week on TV or video games, so why is wasting 5 hours a week doing nothing in school a good idea? I have no problem with expecting them to be quiet, but reading, drawing, working on other classes, creative writing, puzzle or maze books, and enrichment work should all be OK. I might see it differently if I thought that it was very short amounts of time, but I know that for many kids, it adds up to wasted days each year.

  4. OK, having read the full article…there’s a difference between ‘bored’ and ‘doesn’t enjoy it’. There’s nothing wrong with being bored in the ‘I don’t enjoy handwriting/times tables’ sense, but there is plenty of problem with being bored because you’re stuck doing stuff that you already know. I agree that boredom isn’t an excuse for misbehavior, and if all teachers were OK with students doing enrichment, that would be fine. I also agree that ‘boredom’ may not equal ‘gifted’, but it often indicates either mastery or complete lack of a clue about where to start. Both indicate that the teacher needs to do something – either offer enrichment/allow reading, or do supplemental teaching.

  5. There’s a difference between boring as in repetitive exercises leading to mastery and/or muscle memory, and boring as in “too easy.” One is repetitive work, and the other is boredom.

    Musicians must work with each other when they play together. Musical rehearsals can be boring, because the conductor often works with separate sections with the whole group present. It is not appropriate for a drummer to start painting her nails while waiting for the trumpets to figure out their section.

    However, I would have grave doubts about placing any really smart child in a classroom in which the teacher holds such beliefs. Many modern classrooms do not offer chances for independent work, and many teachers do not permit students to seek out more interesting work while the lesson is being taught.

    One of my children had a habit of falling asleep when bored. He hasn’t done that for years–the solution was to change schools. With instruction on his level, he hasn’t been bored for years.

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      I hear you. The problem is that even when there is tracking, there is still a too-wide range of abilities in the room. In one room in a standard (i.e., college track, not honors) Algebra I class, I have students who grasp things immediately all the way down to those who, well, you know. I don’t think many school districts can afford to break down the classes any further into smaller yet more homogeneous units. Differentiation? Well, yes, I suppose, but that is a very inefficient use of a teacher’s time.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        I used to teach four sections of Honors Physics, which were taken by about the top third of the junior class. Just like you, I found there to be a pretty wide range of ability, preparation, and motivation. I was constantly having to decide, “have enough people ‘gotten it’ enough to move on?”

        I always wished I could run an experiment: average each incoming student’s 9th grade biology and 10th grade chemistry grade and put the top quarter in one class, the next quarter in a second, and so on. Then teach each class “to mastery” and see how much each class could cover.

        But that sort of thing is an administrative nightmare, and the people who run the system really aren’t interested in finding out such answers.

  6. I’ve been reading transcripts of interviews with Dr. Richard Feynman. ( By the time he reached science classes in high school, he had figured most of it out. And yet, many adults in the schools and community noticed and encouraged his interests. He notes that he was far enough ahead that schoolwork in math and science was trivial. He was likely to have been disruptive, given his recollection of a math teacher telling him, “you talk too much. Read this book, and then you can talk again.” (I believe that’s the teacher he nominated for an award later in life.)

    There’s no indication his parents had to meet with school officials. The school advanced him a year in math, once it was clear he was ahead in math.

    Reading the interview, I am not certain that a child like Feynman in his youth would be treated as well as he was. He did not show across-the-board brilliance, by his own admission. His father encouraged his education, and bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, but did not press the school for more advanced classes. Richard Feynman did not participate in science fairs.

    He did participate in the science clubs at his school (how many schools nowadays have a chemistry club, math club and physics club?) He cobbled together his own lab at home, and borrowed equipment from a college professor’s lab. (Home chemistry sets have fewer chemicals these days.) At times his teachers would explain advanced concepts to students who were interested in the topic–how many teachers have time to tutor advanced students?

    You may say, well, but he was a genius. Fine–except in a population of some 3 million students in each grade, there are some 300 students who are “1 in 10,000.” Some of these students will have parents who are willing and able to find appropriate schools. Other will not; for many students, the public system is their only place to access teachers.

    That’s why it matters. It should cost a teacher very little to allow a student who understands a lesson to read independently during class. Boredom can be an impetus to further learning, but many classrooms restrict students to progressing at the same pace as their age-mates. We all lose when a modern-day Feynman turns to XBox games rather than chemistry sets.

    • palisadesk says:

      “You may say, well, but he was a genius. Fine–except in a population of some 3 million students in each grade, there are some 300 students who are “1 in 10,000 ”

      The joke, if it is one, is that while no one disputes Feynman was a genius, he would not have qualified for the “gifted” program in many districts (including mine) as his IQ was only 125. His SAT scores were good but not outstanding. He was an incredibly original thinker with a wide range of interests and talents. If there’s a Feynman in our schools today (and chances are there are several) s/he runs the real risk of never being noticed, let alone served appropriately. Feynman acknowledged his father’s interest, encouragement and constant challenge was a major formative influence.

      • FYI on Feynman:


        “Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability. Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton. It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided-his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities.”

  7. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    “Only boring people get bored”.

  8. I enjoyed Mark’s intelligent comment on Dr. Feynman. I reminds me that Feynman was terribly bored in high school physics, and so his teacher took him aside and gave him a graduate level book on advanced calculus. Feynman would ignore the class and sit off to the side working through the extremely difficult problem sets.

    He fondly remembered that teacher as being a major benefactor in his intellectual life, and the techniques he learned from that book he credited as being a major part of his legendary problem-solving abilities(Google “Differentiation under the integral sign” + Feynman” if you’re interested in the anecdote).

    Boredom stupifies and exhausts students. The only people who benefit from sitting around doing nothing and “dealing with their boredom” are meditation monks. Everyone else is having their time wasted for them. I know learning and working isn’t always fun, but too much slog is a sign that something is wrong.