Education: Teacher, I'm bored...

and several academics agree - school is too often tedious. So what's to be done? By Celia Dodd
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The Independent Online
Ask any child whether school is boring and the answer is likely to be yes - delivered with the kind of withering look that says: aren't you sad for even asking. Probe more deeply and he or she may concede that OK, some bits are all right - mates, gossiping about the weekend, the breaks, even the odd lesson. But the sad truth is that for many children, school is a mind-numbing rather than a mind-expanding experience.

That is the concern of a number of academics who recently gave evidence to the education select committee. "Some lessons are so boring that I do not know why all the children are not rioting," says Professor Diane Montgomery of Middlesex University. "Children should want to learn what they learn rather than being made to."

A study for the National Foundation for Educational Research found that more than half of Year 9 pupils said they were bored in some lessons. Tom Wiley, chief executive of the National Youth Agency and a former Assistant Director of Inspection under Chris Woodhead, reckons that towards the end of secondary school about 20 per cent of pupils have totally lost interest in education through boredom while another 20 per cent are well on the way - the only thing that might save them is if they discover a great interest or a great teacher.

Boredom can debilitate children of all abilities. Bright children get bored when they're not sufficiently challenged. Diane Montgomery is horrified at the thought of five year olds who arrive at school reading fluently being made to sit through the literacy hour.

Slower learners switch off when they don't fully understand, which in turn makes lessons even more boring for them. But the majority of children just put up with boredom, either because they don't want to get into trouble, or because they've got their sights set on some long-term goal like passing their GCSEs.

So what's the difference between a boring lesson and a stimulating one? Most children would say it's down to the teacher; they also tend to prefer lessons where they're actively involved. Professor Peter Mortimore of the Institute of Education identifies a mixture of factors: "Sometimes the pupil has not engaged with the topic, sometimes the curriculum is not very stimulating, sometimes the teacher is not very stimulating. Having sat through whole weeks of lessons with secondary classes, I've seen how boring school can be - and how exciting."

It's probably too much to expect all teachers to be naturally inspiring so they employ a range of imaginative methods, as well as the formal chalk and talk approach currently encouraged in schools. In her analysis of over 1,000 lessons, Diane Montgomery found that 70 per cent of periods where pupils and teachers were interacting was taken up by the teacher talking, while only 1 per cent involved cognitive challenges where pupils worked things out for themselves rather than being fed facts. She believes that this is partly the fault of an overloaded curriculum which leaves little time for creative thought.

Yet it's these cognitive challenges - good old-fashioned thinking, basically - which make children love learning because the process is exciting and gets their brains buzzing. Diane Montgomery argues that what's needed is more pupil talk - getting them to work things out in pairs or small groups. "Pupils want to be more active," she says, "and get beyond the superficial to a deeper level of understanding.

"Relevance is a hugely important issue. If you ask a 13 year old what they're interested in, it will probably be pop music or computer games. That isn't what we're about in school. We've got to make them understand that the curriculum is relevant to the world out there, and you can only do that if you're developing lifelong learning skills. Even 12th-century history can seem relevant if the way you learn about it develops skills you need all your life - problem-solving, decision-making, teamworking, communication skills. And then children become motivated because they can see a purpose behind learning about subjects that may at first seem irrelevant."

But can learning be exciting all the time? Professor Mortimore doubts it: "Any serious learning will involve periods where the learner feels bored. You just have to get your head down and put up with it. As educators, we are trying to find the balance by accepting that not all learning will be fun but that it can and should be sometimes."

There are many moves in the right direction. It is hoped that the Government's pounds 200 million investment in out of school learning and support will stop some pupils at least from getting bored because they're falling behind. Tom Wiley says: "There will be more time to admit you don't understand something in a context where you're not being shown up in front of your peers, or in a big class where the teacher has to move on."

Professor Montgomery would also like to see more flexibility, so that particularly able pupils in one area can jump ahead in that subject. She also wants to see more interest in learning from the child's viewpoint.

Tom Wiley agrees: "The focus now is entirely on what the teacher does - that's important, but not nearly as important as whether anybody is learning anything. The continual focus on the teacher suggests that good teachers ought to be good performers. Anybody can perform - the question is, can they connect with Kevin in the back row?"

Why we're so turned off

LUCY, 11, started at a London comprehensive this term.

"I used to think primary school was boring, but now I realise how boring this school is. School is such a waste of time.

"There's a group of us who are really bored. We try and get on with our work because we want to learn new stuff - but not if it's hard work. In so many lessons we have to copy the whole question out, which takes ages. If we didn't have to do that we'd get through much more work. In history the teacher even writes the answers on the board. Sometimes he asks the class a question, but he chooses the same boy every week. Maths is good because you just fill in the answers on a card. It's challenging but not hard work.

"My last primary teacher really made the lessons fun. One of the things I liked best about her was that she used loads of jokes to teach with. I'd rather do more games to learn. Every Friday, in geography, we stand on chairs and the teacher asks us to name a country, or whatever, beginning with a certain letter, and the first person to put their hand up sits down. I think that's a good way of learning."

EMILY, 15, is so bored at her independent girls' school that she is leaving after taking her GCSEs in the summer.

"As soon as I get out of the exams I'm going to forget it all, because there's nothing I want to carry on with that I'm studying now. That's the main reason I want to leave.

"What's boring is the repetition of having to do the same things, day after day, and sit through classes that you don't really enjoy. Bits of subjects have to be boring, but most things can be made interesting, I think. But generally we're taught in a very traditional way, with the teacher talking or reading out of a textbook for the whole lesson. That gets unbelievably boring; some people even go to sleep. You can't get away with messing about, so we write pages and pages of highly decorated letters to each other. Occasionally we watch a video and that's when you start listening. Then you realise you haven't listened all term and it's like, `Oh, are we doing the Cold War?'

"The best teachers are just more lively - they throw their arms about and make funny noises and look a bit mad. And they're always asking you questions, and work on what you say - so you have to keep lively too. Our chemistry teacher jumps about, and compares things in chemistry to real life - like she said bonding is a bit like what happens between a boyfriend and girlfriend. That makes it a lot easier to listen to.

"Obviously, when you understand things, it's a lot more interesting. In a lot of subjects, I was told things but I didn't take them in, and I didn't make the effort to go up and ask. My geography teacher has really helped me to catch up - she even gave me her phone number in case I got stuck."

CAITLIN, 17, is studying history, maths and economics A-level at an independent sixth form which she joined after leaving the local comprehensive.

"To some extent, school gets more interesting at A-level because you're doing the subjects you like; but in some ways you get bored of doing the same thing. I think it would be much more interesting if you could at least start off doing a wider range of subjects.

"Some lessons are very boring, but that's just me. In history, the discussions are always being dominated by two or three people. So I just sit there.

"I take part if we're discussing something that's not about history - like human nature, for example, which I feel I can say something about.

"When people get bored at this school, they just switch off, whereas at my previous school people used to mess about and throw things - there was even the odd fight. There, the teachers had to make the lessons interesting for us rather than just tell the kids what to do - which is all that they do here."

CHRISTOPHER, 15, is at a comprehensive.

"The teachers make a big difference. I used to enjoy chemistry, but now I've got this really old man who just goes on, and if you don't understand something he gets angry. We don't do many experiments; it's mainly just copying things off the board. But with history, it's the opposite. I used to hate it, but now we've got a really interesting teacher. He's strict, but he captivates you.

"Most lessons are teachers telling us facts, which gets so boring that you lose concentration. And sometimes they go so fast that you can't keep up. When you're taking notes, you never look at what you've written, never mind think about it."

FREDDIE, 12, is attending a small rural comprehensive in the Welsh borders.

"The boring teachers are the ones who never make you do any work. It may sound fun at first, but it's not. It's pointless.

"I like science because of the teachers. They're both really good because they shout a lot and motivate you more. They're strict and it works.

"In some lessons the teacher just talks, and that gets very boring so we just mess about. But in the more arty subjects we tend to work in groups. That's better, because at least you can talk with your friends, and you learn things better that way.

"At primary school, everything was completely boring because everything was too easy. This is more challenging."