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From “I’m Bored” to “Can We Do This Again?” Engaging Students through Electives and Engaging Content

As teachers, we’ve all been there. We’re excited about a lesson or an assignment, and we look out at a classroom (or Zoom screen) full of students only to see way too many of them fully disengaged in the content. The problem is that boredom and reduced engagement leads to a lack of learning, something none of our students can afford.

According to a study by Visible Learning, boredom has a measurable negative effect on student achievement and can legitimately decline student achievement, not just stall it. And worse, one German study found that boredom in teenagers leads to higher dropout rates and an increase in illegal activities, including the use of tobacco and recreational drugs. Boredom is not an option!


Being bored is not acceptable.


We all have felt the pain of “being bored” and many of us have experienced this in a day-long training or conference that left us disengaged and wondering why we were there. In those instances, we often leave with the nagging frustration of our time being wasted while having learned little. Yet when we attend a dynamic webinar on a topic we care about or a class driven by a personal or professional passion, we’re all in and ready to learn. Shouldn’t students learn like this too?


Boredom has become a norm in many schools, and is widely accepted as an inherent part of the “grammar of schooling,” or the traditional ways in which schools operate. In fact, “A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades 5-12 found that nearly 8 in 10 elementary students were ‘engaged’ with school…By high school, the number dropped to 4 in 10.” This statistic is alarming, not just in the fact that only 40% of high school students are engaged, but the sad reality that 20% of elementary students have already lost the passion and excitement for learning.


Harvard University Associate Professor Jal Mehta says, “We have to stop seeing boredom as a frilly side effect. It is a central issue. Engagement is a precondition for learning. No learning happens until students agree to become engaged with the material.”



How can teachers and school leaders move to learning that is driven by play, discovery, and engagement?


Elective courses are one model used to reinvigorate the passion for learning that many students lose as they progress in their schooling. Elective courses are usually chosen by students and it’s a way to learn about different topics and content without the fear of bad grades or negative impact on standardized tests. By removing the pressure for both the teacher and student, kids focus on exploring content in new ways.

Examples include career and technical education or CTE courses where students can explore topics from construction, to robotics, to coding, to food science and nutrition. Electives are often modeled by self-driven learning, creating students who can assess their own understanding of content and self-regulate their academic needs. Electives motivate students to learn new skills and content, often because they have more passion for the learning itself.


How do we combat boredom in all classrooms?


The good news is that all content teachers can model best practices derived from electives in traditional classrooms. For instance, giving students more agency or choice to what they learn and how they learn in will create learners who are more engaged and connected to the content. Implementing problem-based learning initiatives allow students to connect standards-based content with real-world problems and solutions in their own communities. These models also allow students to interact with community experts and build confidence and collaboration skills while engaging with content.


Just as boredom is unacceptable when it comes to your time and learning, it’s unacceptable when it comes to how kids learn too. School is not a factory where students come to learn content and the output is a test score. School is where we, as educators, prepare students for a future where their chosen job may not yet exist. School is where we teach ALL students how to employ critical thinking, collaboration, resiliency, creativity, and leadership—skills that are not fostered in a disengaged classroom.

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