A UGA professor of education asks: Why is school so boring?

A UGA professor asks why school is so boring and suggests it’s because we’ view engaging students emotionally as frivolous.

Peter Smagorinsky teaches in the University of Georgia’s College of Education and is the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Service Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. He is a frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

In this essay, he addresses a question asked by students for generations: Why does school have to be so boring?

By Peter Smagorinsky

I’m writing from Guadalajara, Mexico, where I work with the Universidad de Guadalajara developing and teaching a graduate program in literacy education. Yesterday’s reading and discussion focused on the experience of being an adolescent, especially in school. The authors of the reading, Sam Intrator and Robert Kunzman, pose a question that is agonizing for educators to answer: “What do youth have to say about their curricular experiences? Boring, Boring, Boring.”

I have long defended public education in this space, but must acknowledge this criticism has too much merit to ignore. As an educator, I must ask, “Why is school, which is designed to advance kids toward citizenship and prosperity, so tedious to the point of undermining its own goals?”

This observation has characterized the classroom experience for many generations. When I asked the teachers here in Guadalajara if the same is true of kids’ experiences in Mexico, they unanimously said “yes.”

Mexican schools are underfunded to shocking degrees. Mexico is a nation of very low taxes, and consequentially minimal public services. Teachers have class sizes of up to 60, with total student loads for individual teachers approaching 400 students in some cases. Teachers are not allowed to give grades below a B-, which means kids who don’t work at all get essentially the same grades as kids who work hard, making school work optional. School buildings run on several shifts because there are too many students and too few school buildings. And when earthquakes affect 25 percent of the population, as has happened this month, there is little to rebuild with. Teachers in Mexico face greater challenges than their U.S. counterparts.

So why is school almost universally experienced as not simply a snooze, but a nightmare of tedium? Boredom is a function of disengagement and lack of interest. Often, kids are blamed for being unmotivated. That’s just not good enough, since that means all of the problems with schools can be blamed on kids. In my view, the problems are systemic and highly resistant to change.

I would trace many of the causes of boredom in school to the curricular suppression of emotions that drive the thinking and actions of both students and teachers.  American schools are founded on principles of European Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Scientific Revolution. These values are most evident in claims made on behalf of STEM fields as the only legitimate academic work that matters. President Trump has just validated this perspective with the dedication of $200 million to STEM fields, particularly computer education.

This value appears in daily comments from Get Schooled readers, from politicians, from philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, and from many others. There is no correlative call to arms for the arts, the humanities, and other fields oriented to people’s emotional engagement with the world. Indeed, these areas are often considered “frills” ripe for cutting to save money better invested in turning everyone into an engineer, scientist, computer operator, accountant, etc., whether they are so inclined or not.

I am not demeaning STEM fields. I like sturdy bridges, balanced budgets, and a functional computer. I just don’t think everyone needs to be trained exclusively to specialize in these areas.

Enlightenment rationalism is at work across the curriculum to stifle any feelings teachers and students have about their schoolwork. In English, my subject, it means instead of reading literature that engages the heart, soul, and mind, stories are read to be “dissected,” taken apart analytically to bare their technical infrastructure. This value is central to the Common Core State Standards for literary study, themselves a relic of a critical approach known as New Criticism (which was new in the 1930s when it came into being). In this approach, students read like detectives within the four corners of the text, not allowing their emotions to cloud their analysis of authorial technique.

In history, Enlightenment values are at work when history is reduced to facts and figures, and not the fascinating reasons for why people come into conflict — reasons, I believe, that are highly emotional in origin. Feelings of disgrace and inferiority following World War I are often credited for the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, yet students tend to be tested as follows:

What was the treaty that ended WWI that laid some of the unrest that would later explode into WWII?

  1. Geneva Conference
  2. Treaty of Versailles
  3. Paris Peace Accords
  4. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

The consequence of this value across the curriculum is that students tend to be put in relentlessly receptive roles, being lectured and tested on the facts of the discipline. Engaging emotionally is considered not only frivolous, it is believed to undermine clear thinking. Along with people like Jonathan Haidt, however, I would argue emotions not only do not undermine thinking, they are the drivers of how people think. Yet, the way schools are conducted, emotions are what gets driven out of the cognitive equation. I find that to be very anti-intellectual.

My example of the Common Core’s emphasis on dispassionate analysis is only part of the problem. By embedding the assumption emotions are deleterious to clear thinking in educational standards, policymakers are not simply wrong. They make school crushingly boring for students. When you can’t emote, you are disengaged. When you are disengaged, it doesn’t matter much if you can remember which treaty ended which war. You won’t care why you even know it, and the odds you’ll remember it are very slim — a research finding that goes back to the 1920s.

Consider, then, what can’t be talked about in school: how kids feel about their worlds. If Haidt is right, and if religion and politics are fundamentally driven by emotion, then they become too contentious and passionate for school exploration and inquiry. Literature replete with potentially meaningful themes get reduced to analysis of literary form, avoiding what makes it compelling to readers and stifling students with questions like whether metonymy or synecdoche is at work in an instance of figurative language.

My first wife, who died young, was the product of a Catholic school education. She always said the best classes she took in school were the theology classes, because that’s where they talked about the meaning of life. The care and emotional investment in these discussions made them more lively, captivating, and memorable than the dry analytic content of the rest of school.

My answer to the  question — Why is school so boring? —  has a fundamental answer: School is designed to focus on rationalism, even with literary texts that are open-ended and laden with meaning driven by emotion. I am not calling out teachers here for their complicity in this system, because they are entering a prefabricated environment that has amplified the importance of dispassionate reason (which is a mirage) and suppressed the emergence of feelings in classrooms.

I am saying the assumptions built into policy, curriculum, and instruction are both wrong in conception —thinking and feeling cannot, in fact, be separated — and disastrous for the goal of school engagement. Until the people making policy understand these facts, school will be conducted into perpetuity as an exercise in extreme tedium, to the detriment of kids everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

53 comments
Veronica Lias Johnson
Veronica Lias Johnson

This is not news. When gov't steps too far into education, this is what we end up with. Gov't can't measure emotional engagement and so teachers end up penalized teaching in such a framework. But we continue to allow nonsense like Milestones, more and more unnecessary standardized testing and Common Core take over our schools. As the article stated, school has been boring for students for generations. I think teachers who know how to ignite fire and passion in their students are gems. Tough job for any educator.

Gatrbarb
Gatrbarb

I've given this blog post a great deal of thought.  School doesn't have to be "boring," but nor should it be all fun and games.  Learning is hard work, but in my experience, hard work can be interesting.  Thus, I think that school should be interesting to students, which will engage students.  Additionally, students should be stretched to think in more critically.  Again, that's hard work, and for some students, more frustrating.  However, students must learn to think their way out of a paper bag! :)

Ge-Anne Bowdoin Bolhuis
Ge-Anne Bowdoin Bolhuis

Wonderful article. People are afraid of emotional endearment, I think. Few reflect or question. It feels safer to speak in absolutes...

Ge-Anne Bowdoin Bolhuis
Ge-Anne Bowdoin Bolhuis

It isn't in counties where the politicians respect the teachers' professionalism and allow educators to govern the schools. Teachers feel an enormous pressure to cram in every nugget of knowledge because of testing. Young children, who learn by social interaction, discovery, and play don't even have proper recess breaks and become overwhelmed. Discipline issues abound because these children are forced to sit far too long to "master standards".

Scott Thompson
Scott Thompson

I've taught for 30 years. School is not meant to be entertaining.

Saul King
Saul King

I bet your students just love you.

Leatha Gross
Leatha Gross

Maybe the professor needs to look at himself to answer that. There are good teachers who can keep students attention, then bad teachers who can't.

atlmom
atlmom

except teachers these days aren't really allowed to be creative and teach.

Dwight Elzy
Dwight Elzy

It doesn't have to b....educators could find ways to liven things up a bit...u have to want to do it though.

atlmom
atlmom

but then they aren't teaching to the 'curriculum' -- creativity is no longer rewarded in the classroom.

Michael Hopson
Michael Hopson

You have to learn some things your not interested in to pursue things you are. Just the way it is simple answer.

Michael Hopson
Michael Hopson

John Smith and I expect the community college on demand would be more of the same.

John Smith
John Smith

Unfortunately we force morons to stay in school nowadays. I have seen 18 year old middle school students. They cannot legally kick you out until you are 21. Thus most modern schools have evolved into babysitting.

Dwight Elzy
Dwight Elzy

Sounds rational but these days I'm not so sure that's absolute.

Michael Hopson
Michael Hopson

Dwight Elzy something needs to be done about the costs for sure, not sure what myself. I'm just not to crazy about what seems to be extended high school, I prefer a more productive outcome. Still the costs to graduates is outrageous, and a drag on our economy I'm sure.

atlmom
atlmom

but you won't actually learn anything except how to take a test and pass.  that's not really learning the material.  it's learning to take a test.


you will learn what you need when you need to ...

bruga
bruga

There is strong relevence here even in those dastardly STEM fields.


In grad school I taught an undergraduate finance class or two, and found that breaking students of the formula-memorization routine was far and away the most difficult part. Want them to plug numbers? Sure. Can they explain why? Ehh....


Successful finance practitioners augment modeled results with emotional instinct and business acumen every day. Starting with Calculus I in high school, however, students are taught that regurgitation is the pathway to an A in math. This unfortunately becomes the default approach taken through applied studies in engineering, physics, or business, and as a result colleges spit out one myopic human calculator after another.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@bruga I have a degree in math.  Yes, I regurgitated a lot.  It wasn't until a few semester later that I understood the math I was previously regurgitating.  It's important to be able to do it, if the understanding comes later.  You have to get the basics, before you can deal with the exceptions. 

atlmom
atlmom

@bruga interestingly enough, one of the best classes I took was 'history of television.'

One of the things we watched was a documentary that had been on PBS about messages and what we were being told and how it shaped how people thought, etc.  This was well before 10000 channels on cable, but after the beginning of cable.  It was so interesting and the prof was trying to show us information about media images and how it can manipulate us, etc etc...


And so many kids were like:  okay, will this be on the test?  It was so sad.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

On this issue, I have to share an observation on how we teach writing. In judging student essay contests, I often find structurally sound essays that don't say anything. 

I agree students need to know punctuation and sequence, but I wish they had more chances to take off the restraints and write with some passion and some authority. I have volunteered to read student college application essays and see the same issues there -- pieces that don't say anything. 

Clarity in writing is important, but it's also important to make a point  and develop that point, and that is often missing in student essays.


vcch
vcch

@MaureenDowney Spot on.  My daughter's AP Language & Composition teacher specifically instructed her students not to use adjectives in their essays - they were "superfluous". I proof-read a few of her assignments and couldn't believe how dry they were, and yet she scored very high on them.  Her teacher is also an standardized test writing grader.

redweather
redweather

@MaureenDowney The are higher order concerns and lower order concerns when it comes to writing.  Although when I taught I was a stickler for correct grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation, an essay that didn't say anything did not get a passing grade.  Indeed, I was more likely to overlook some lower order concerns if the content was strong, and I was not alone in this. 


Moreofthesame
Moreofthesame

My high school Senior is very motivated to learn and HATES school.  She doesn't feel like she learns much of anything at school, and she takes multiple AP classes, has good grades and tests well.  She is a humanities kid but was researching fusion in the sun over the summer because she wanted to.  I don't know the answer, but I do know that I loved school and now the fun and joy of learning has been sucked out of schools.


gapeach101
gapeach101

@Moreofthesame My answer was to put my kids into GA State their senior year.  You might want to consider that for second semester.  It may not be too late.

atlmom
atlmom

exactly why I pulled my kids from school years ago.  Why were they going?  no one knew and it was a waste of time.  My older is back in school in a high school HE chose and HE chooses to go to every day.  If he didn't want to continue, he wouldn't...he really is enjoying it, though.

Moreofthesame
Moreofthesame

@gapeach101 @Moreofthesame Unfortunately my daughter's school is on an alternating block schedule and it is almost impossible to make Move on When Ready work.  Is there another option for GA State other than MOWR?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"There is no correlative call to arms for the arts, the humanities, and other fields oriented to people’s emotional engagement with the world."

----------------

As a result, we lose the opportunity for stretching the consciousness of our young.

atlmom
atlmom

no one is stopping anyone from setting up those scholarships.

redweather
redweather

Although I can't speak for what goes on in our high schools, or for what Common Core recommends, I know no one teaching English who reduces literature to "whether metonymy or synecdoche is at work in an instance of figurative language." Perhaps Mr. Smagorinsky is engaging in hyperbole? 


Robert Muzzillo
Robert Muzzillo

People not reading what on first glance looks to be just another "lets bash these unimaginative and lazy teachers" story again? Can't seem to blame them. I am sure there will be plenty that hurt their neck from the eye rolls after reading the title.

atlmom
atlmom

they aren't to blame.  the standards suck and any time someone says:  let's try something new and different they are mocked and told it would never work.

Robert Muzzillo
Robert Muzzillo

It is the same old case again. Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic motivation. Very difficult to drum up enthusiasm in if intrinsic motivation is lacking.

atlmom
atlmom

and the schools only teach extrinsic motivation, starting in kindergarten with the idiotic traffic light clips.

Starik
Starik

Tracking students should be universal. Lessons repeated over and over until the bottom half of the class "gets it" is boring for the upper half. 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

"Why is school so boring?" asks the author.  And then, about halfway through the article, my eyes begin to glaze over.........

bu22
bu22

@Lee_CPA2  LOL.  True.  But there were some interesting questions asked in the essay.  I don't know that the German example was correct.  It wasn't just humiliation.  It was starvation.  But then I think more rationally than emotionally!

bu22
bu22

@Lee_CPA2  Now most people who oppose the Enlightenment tend to dwell on class struggle and racial politics and post-modernism where there is no right and wrong.  That emphasis is part of where higher education is failing students these days.  I hope it doesn't dominate K-12 as well.

alt2AJC
alt2AJC

Mexico's teachers' unions are infamous for preventing any education reform south of the border. And for keeping the leading Mexican political party of the left, the PRI, on a very short leash. 

Much as our anti-accountability, anti-choice teachers' unions try to here.


BRV
BRV

Morning vodka is always a bad idea especially when one has access to a keyboard.

Re Marzullo
Re Marzullo

I agree with the statement "When you can't emote, you disengage." Kids need to feel and care about things to help them learn.

atlmom
atlmom

they need to learn about things that are important to them.  otherwise they are only learning to pass tests.

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

Folks, you need to read this piece before commenting. There is a lot here to consider.

Erika Harris
Erika Harris

I read it. The focus seemed to be on HS, international similarities in "boredom", impact of approach towards "thinking and exploration" of knowledge and nature over the centuries, and more. It's a complex piece. And wonderfully written.... I just wonder if included in the breakdown for discovery and analysis, if we might also consider the impact of something no other generation has seen - constant screen engagement.

Kelli Sinclair
Kelli Sinclair

I think so! I saw a mother give her baby an iPhone to watch a video while she changed the diaper in a public park. And, honest to God, I thought "that child will be in my class in 11 years. I need to get out of the classroom before then."

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

nah, it's always been boring. i just think it's getting more so.

Stephanie Rosenberg Lindgren
Stephanie Rosenberg Lindgren

Wondering if people are reading the article...I was ready to get offended, but since I was lucky enough to learn from Smagorinsky at UGA, I actually read what he had to say. He says, “Literature replete with potentially meaningful themes get reduced to analysis of literary form, avoiding what makes it compelling to readers and stifling students with questions like whether metonymy or synecdoche is at work in an instance of figurative language.” I became an English teacher to explore these meaningful themes. The new curriculum stifles the students AND the teachers.

Beth King Kidd
Beth King Kidd

Amen. I've also heard someone say "only boring people are bored." Newsflash kids: work isn't always a dog and pony show.

Moreofthesame
Moreofthesame

Correct, sometimes learning isn't fun, but that implies it is fun some of the time.  That is no longer the case.  Strict curriculums, testing and taken the fun out of learning.  I have a high school Senior that loves the learn.  Finds textbooks online and reads them on her own.  She HATES school.   She would love to take a personal finance class, learn about mortgages and taxes, but no she is required to take PreCalc (she is not a math kid).  Loves Art, but even that has requirements and removes all creativity from the assignments.  Loves reading, but AP Lit is having them read and analyze books she read in 10th grade, which she considers a waste of time, since they did it 2 years ago.  My kid wants to learn, she wants to be engaged, she generally gets 1 or 2 classes a year that accomplishes that.

atlmom
atlmom

then it's not really learning is it? if people aren't engaged they really don't learn much.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

then the kids (or anyone) aren't learning.