[Paleopsych] Roeper Review: To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in underachievement. (On Gifted Students in School)
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To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honor in
(On Gifted Students in School)
Roeper Review, Fall 2003 v26 i1 p20(9)
by Lannie Kanevsky and Tacey Keighley
[This is the first of eight articles on boredom.]
The gifted students at the heart of this study are those who have chosen not to
produce schoolwork of the quality and quantity expected of them. Why not?
Because their schoolwork is "boring." But what does "boredom" mean to them?
Teachers and researchers (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Farrell, 1990) have
ascribed meanings to students' boredom yet scant research exists that has asked
students directly, particularly gifted students, to describe their boredom.
Delisle (1992) has distinguished gifted "nonproducers" from "underachievers."
Nonproducers are at-risk academically but not psychologically; that is, they
are self-assured, independent and have chosen not to attend classes or complete
school assignments because they are boring or irrelevant. Underachievers are
at-risk academically and psychologically; that is, they do not complete
assignments because they have low self-esteem and are dependent learners. This
distinction may exist in the literature but most practitioners consider both
"types" to be underachievers in the sense that they are not living up to their
potential. Although we did not initially intend to focus on the experiences of
nonproducers, the students involved were clearly confident in their abilities
and autonomous learners.
As will be shown, the literature has characterized boredom in relatively simple
terms. We felt the cumulative effects of boredom on classroom learning are
symptoms of a complex interaction of factors. The purpose of this qualitative
study was to give nonproducing gifted students an opportunity to describe the
nature of their boredom. As this study evolved, it became apparent that their
boredom , unlike that described in the literature, was more complex and had a
moral dimension. Their disengagement was an honorable resolution to the dilemma
of whether or not to engage in inappropriate curricula as they confronted it
each day in school. In one student's words:
I knew that I deserved education and deserved to say
what I wanted to say. I always knew those things
'cause I always had these opinions that I would totally
stick up for. And I knew we weren't doing the things
that we should be doing and so did everybody else....
I remember always thinking I want to learn something
and we're not learning anything and we did the same
things over and over again ... [Anita]
With nothing to learn, Anita chose not to produce the work expected of her.
According to the literature, boredom is an emotion (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986).
It is a global phenomenon and it happens in and out of school (Larson &
Richards, 1991). At various times, everybody is bored, however some people are
more prone to boredom than others (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). What little
research exists suggests some trends in the general population: more men than
women are boredom prone (Farmer & Sundberg); adolescents and seniors are more
boredom prone than children and adults (Sundberg & Bisno, 1983); and extroverts
are more easily bored than introverts (e.g., Eysenck & Zuckerman, 1978). These
findings suggest boredom is dispositional (related to the nature of the
individual), however others believe it is situational, attributing boredom to
the nature of the setting (e.g., the school system, classroom, or the teaching;
Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). It is likely that there are interdependent
characteristics of the individual and context that result in what we each call
Concerns about boredom emanate from the unpleasant feelings we associate with
it: frustration, anger, disengagement, and the like. It appears, however, that
there are additional causes for concern. Samuels and Samuels (1974) found
boredom and curiosity were the most common causes of drug use. It is also
associated with the eating behaviors of obese and nonobese individuals
(Abramson & Stinson, 1977). Not surprisingly, boredom is one of the most
frequently identified causes for students leaving school temporarily (e.g.,
skipping classes, feigning illness) or permanently (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986;
Karp & Goldfarb Consultants, 1988; Larson & Richards, 1991). In classrooms it
is associated with diminished attention and interferes with student performance
(Larson & Richards). Rothman (1990) reported that nearly half of the 25,000
eighth graders in the 1988 National Educational Longitudinal Study said they
were bored in school at least hall of the time. In and out of school boredom
demoralizes teachers and parents (Larson & Richards, 1991).
Farmer and Sundberg (1986) summarized the inconsistent findings of older
investigations addressing the relationship between boredom and intelligence
reporting, "Some studies are suggestive of a positive relationship (Drory,
1982), negative relationship (Robinson, 1975), curvilinear relationship
(Fogelman, 1976), or no relationship at all (Hill, 1975; Smith, 1955)" (p. 14).
These diverse findings were likely the result of differences in each study's
operational definitions of both boredom and intelligence, as well as
methodological differences (e.g., instrumentation, age and gender of the
participants). Differences in those characteristics as well as personality
variables interacting (e.g., thrill-seeking, introversion/extroversion,
loneliness, depression, hopelessness, perceived competence; Farmer & Sundberg)
and features of the context (e.g., peers, setting, materials) are all potential
factors. Any and all may have frustrated researchers' efforts to gain a clear
sense of any relationship between boredom and intelligence.
Research on Boredom Involving Gifted Students
Research findings suggest that a student does not have to be gifted to be bored
in school but it helps (Feldhusen & Kroll, 1991; Gallagher, Harradine &
Coleman, 1997; Larson & Richards, 1991). A lack of challenge is the most
commonly identified cause for classroom boredom. Many believe this leads to
underachievement (e.g., Gentry, Gable & Springer, 2000).
Plucker and McIntire (1996) examined the behavior of 12 gifted, underchallenged
5th to 9th graders and their teachers' responses to them. Their findings will
resonate with the experiences of many parents and educators. The bored students
responded easily and correctly to teachers' questions although they appeared
inattentive. These students also raised the level of discussion by posing
abstract questions; they disrupted the class with humor; they read their choice
of material (e.g., magazines) or slept during class time. Some teachers noticed
their student's efforts to create challenge or survive the lack of it; others
did not. The classroom dynamics these researchers observed led them to
conclude, "Boredom, treated as both a cause and effect, may be more complex
than previously believed" (p. 13). We agree; boredom is chaotic and dynamic.
The simplistic definitions of boredom that have driven prior research have
provided few insights into this pervasive feature of gifted students' school
Gallagher, Harradine, and Coleman (1997) equated the lack of challenge with
boredom when they surveyed 871 gifted students' opinions of their schooling.
Across grade levels and subject areas, students associated boredom with
copying, memorizing, regurgitating, repetition, waiting and so on. Some of the
student participants and the authors felt these experiences were related to
schools' and teachers' inability to appropriately challenge students due to the
diverse levels of prior knowledge, aptitude and motivation common in today's
Surprisingly, Feldhusen and Kroll (1991) found no statistically significant
differences in the levels of boredom reported by 227 gifted and 227 nongifted
4th through 6th graders. They also found that the gifted students found school
easier and more repetitive but still liked school more. How can this be?
Perhaps a sampling bias is at work. The gifted students in this study were
participating in a Saturday Enrichment Program. It is likely that children
willing to attend an educational program over the weekend were achieving rather
than underachieving students in regular school programs. As a result, it is
unlikely their feelings would be shared by students who chose not to
participate in school lessons much less a Saturday program.
Larson and Richards (1991) tracked the boredom of 392 fifth- to ninth-graders
in and out of school. They asked participants to wear an electronic "beeper"
and to record their activity and feelings in a journal each time it sounded.
This would happen once "at a random point within every two hour block of time
between 7:30 AM and 9:30 PM" (Larson, 1989). Results based on the whole sample
indicated differences in the nature of boredom in and out of school, but
indicated boredom had more to do with the individual than the setting (i.e.,
some students become bored more easily). A closer examination of the data
provided by high ability and high achieving students revealed a different
We did find boredom to be more frequent during
schoolwork for high ability and high achieving students.
These students, however, were not more bored
outside school, suggesting their boredom is not dispositional
but rather related to a lack of stimulation and
challenge in their classes. (p. 438)
So, no matter how easily they get bored outside of school, high potential
students were more frequently bored in school.
The richest methodology and findings can be found in another more comprehensive
"beeper study." Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde and Whalen (1993) tracked
motivational and emotional factors contributing to the talent development of
208 talented teens through four years of high school. Their methods also
included extensive interviews, questionnaires, and tests involving students,
parents, and teachers. The complexity of the data collected was essential "for
making sense of the multitude of factors affecting the development of talent"
(p. 242). As a result, their findings defy summarization. They will be woven
into our results and discussion to highlight consistencies and inconsistencies
in our findings and theirs.
No distinctions were made between the achievement levels and psychological risk
status of participants in any of these studies, making it impossible to
determine potential differences in the nature of the boredom experienced by
achieving, nonproducing, and underachieving students. Many gifted students
attributed their disengagement to boredom by the time they reached high school.
To date, the explanation of that process provided by the literature is
superficial to say the least. We sought a rich understanding of its meaning and
its power as a prelude to designing interventions to address it.
Students. Teachers and school counselors in a suburban Canadian school district
were asked to recommend 15- to 18-year-old students who satisfied three
criteria: (1) they had been identified as gifted in elementary school, (2) they
were now academically underachieving, and (3) they had dropped out of or been
suspended from school on at least one occasion. Seven girls and three boys were
contacted at home by phone and agreed to participate. The results reported here
are based on all ten, however we have included comments from only three. We
limited ourselves in hopes of providing readers a rich, clear sense of three
unique individuals rather than superficial glimpses of all ten. The names used
here are pseudonyms chosen by each student.
Jill. Jill (age 17) was a strong leader who had earned straight A's until grade
10. She had a particular affinity for math and problem solving. In 4th grade
she scored at the 96th percentile on the Test of Cognitive Skills. Although her
assignments were seldom neat, she was described as a "positive and productive
young lady." She was in a "Challenge" program through grade 7 and then her
school performance began to unravel.
Galfunkel. Garfunkel's (age 15) gifts were most evident in music, drama,
dancing and math. He was confident--the outspoken class clown. He called the
principal's office his second home in grade 7 due to his disruptive humor. In
that same year he had scored at the 98th and 99th percentiles on the Test of
Cognitive Skills in sequencing, verbal reasoning and analogies, but only at the
74th percentile in memory.
Karen. Karen (age 17) is a strong, ideal-driven young woman and a gifted
writer. She scored between the 95th and 99th percentile on subscales of the
Canadian Cognitive Abilities Test in elementary school. She wrote
professionally throughout high school. She had her first child before marrying
at 16 and by 19 (2 years after this study was conducted) was a mother of three.
She dropped out of high school in grade 11 and enrolled in an alternative
program for teen parents in January of the following year.
The second author (Ms. Keighley) interviewed all of the students. At the time
of the study she had 15 years of teaching experience in drama, physical
education, and special education, including six years in gifted education. She
had a post-baccalaureate diploma in counseling and was completing a Master's
degree on giftedness. Her coursework included courses in qualitative research
methods. She had no knowledge of any of the participants prior to initiating
The students participated in two or three semistructured interviews lasting
approximately an hour each. Their purpose was to probe and explore students'
perceptions of their boredom in any context, not only school. While
establishing rapport, students were asked to recount their school history and
participation in gifted programs. The initial set of probes asked:
* Where are you bored?
* When are you bored?
* How do you feel when you are bored?
* What do you do to overcome being bored?
* What is the opposite of being bored?
The first four questions were then repeated, but this time addressed
experiences that students felt were the opposite of boring as described in
their responses to the fifth question above. The interviews were audiotaped and
Immediately following each interview, the interviewer made fieldnotes to record
additional impressions of the student, connections with other students'
comments and potential follow-up questions for clarification. She also listened
to the audiotapes within 24 hours of the interview to make further notes.
Throughout the interview phase she kept a reflective journal to track her
evolving notions of themes in the students' responses.
After transcribing the audiotapes, all texts (notes, journal entries, and
transcripts) were submitted to a content analysis. Spradley's (as cited in
Lincoln & Guba, 1985) notion of "semantic domains" was used to create
categories based on common meanings, phrases, and themes. This method was
chosen because we sought the meaning of boredom, not just descriptors or
Lincoln and Guba's (1985) criteria for trustworthiness were used to ensure the
credibility of our interpretations. First, multiple sources were consulted to
triangulate the results. For example, school records were consulted to verify
student's reports of their grades and behaviors throughout their schooling.
Second, member checks were undertaken in the second interview. Students
validated, clarified and expanded upon the authors' interpretations of the
responses they had provided in the first interview. Finally, Ms. Keighley's
teaching colleagues acted as peer debriefers. After the member checks, the peer
debriefers read and re-read drafts of themes emerging within and across
students' responses, identifying inconsistencies and confusing passages as well
as insights and relationships among the themes.
The three students who best represent the 10 in this study--Jill, Garfunkel,
and Karen--were unique individuals, yet common themes emerged from accounts of
their boredom. They disengaged from school as it evolved and increased over
time. Their reports of their academic performance were consistent with school
records and the literature. Like Cordova and Lepper (1996) we saw a
deterioration of school productivity, achievement, and motivation from
elementary to middle or junior high school, accelerating in high school.
The 10 students in this study equated "'schooling" with boredom . Schooling was
teacher-directed, textbook-based, and addressed content students already knew.
This was a clear contrast to "learning." The learning they sought had five
interdependent features, five C's: control, choice, challenge, complexity and
caring. As will become apparent, the extent to which the five C's were
available in an activity determined whether these students learned or were
bored. Each C will be described and the students' words will bring them to
These students spoke clearly about their need for control of self-determination
in their learning experiences. Because she felt a sense of control, Jill
thrived in her elementary school Challenge program:
It wasn't the teacher telling us what to do. It was more
like things that we discovered on our own that the
teacher didn't even know about and that's a good feeling.
It was really fun that we could do that, to know
that we figured it out on our own, like sort of a teamwork
thing. That was really interesting.
By grade 10, her school experiences had become "mundane," filled with
experiences like those reported by the students in Gallagher, Harradine, and
Coleman (1997): copying, repetition, and passive listening to teachers
"droning." She attempted to regain some of the control she had enjoyed in the
Challenge program by writing to her school counselor and the District
Consultant for Gifted Programs. Appendix A provides the body of her letter
which suggests ways her courses might be modified to make them more valuable
and challenging. With her sense of humor intact, she signed her letter
"Chairman of the Bored." The letter's content makes it clear Jill sought
challenge and choices as well as control. She was eager to learn and willing to
work; she was not lazy. The school's response was not sufficient to get Jill to
attend her classes. Eventually, in grade 12, Jill was asked to leave school.
She had missed (skipped) too many classes to graduate.
Garfunkel was always confronting his teachers and the school system in general.
He had this to say about his grades and his need to control his education:
Why are they [his grades] so poor if I'm so smart? ...
Because in high school, it's not like it's your opinion,
you have to write what the teachers tell you to write
and I really don't want to.... I've been told to pass
through High School you have to jump through hoops
and I don't want to. I want to make my own hoops.
Like Jill, Garfunkel wanted power. Kohn (1993) also considers grades to be a
means of controlling students. Garfunkel did not comply and he did not
graduate; he felt the grades were not worth it. These students sought a sense
of self-determination, the power to change the situation and the authority to
implement their choices.
Concerns related to control were intricately intertwined with choice. In
practice and research, they are difficult to distinguish because making a
choice is only significant if you have sufficient power or control to act on
it. Studies of intrinsically motivated learning (learning voluntarily for the
sheer joy of learning) have treated the two as one, calling it
self-determination (e.g., Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith & Deci, 1978). No
matter the term, the findings have been consistent:
choice/control/self-determination enhances motivation to learn.
We distinguished control from choice. Control issues were evident in comments
related to the implicit distribution of power while choice issues focused on
explicit opportunities to act on one's preferences. These students felt their
ability to make choices, to make decisions, was not honored in schooling, and
it should be. They expected their opinions and interests to be reflected in
their education. They made it clear that disrespect for their ability to make
powerful decisions fueled their sense of injustice and resentment toward
schools. Ultimately, they realized they held the "trump card" in school--they
could choose not to produce the work expected of them.
Karen was by choice a teen mother of three children. She wanted to be a mother.
Just before the birth of her second child she chose to marry the father of all
three. In her words:
I am not a drug addict. I do not smoke. I don't even
drink. I've never run away. I've never spent a night on
the street or been picked up by the police. I've never
been abused by my parents and my dad was not an
alcoholic.... So why did I get pregnant for the first
time at fifteen? Because I WANTED to.
Whether or not one agrees with Karen's choices, it was apparent in the
interviews that she had given them a great deal of thought. After choosing not
to attend her "regular" high school program, Karen enrolled in an alternative
program where she found support for her writing passion. In the traditional
high school, she felt "They're supposed to be educating you, but they only want
to be teaching what they want to teach you, not what you want to learn." She
wanted to work at her own pace, moving ahead instead of waiting when she had
"nothing else to do."
Gifted students resented two choices often offered to them: opportunities to
fill time with more of the same work and to tutor struggling classmates. The
students questioned the educational value of both. They wanted and felt they
deserved other options that offered them developmentally appropriate, powerful
learning experiences. "Why should I have to wait if I got it the first time?"
The types of choices the students wanted to make in their education included:
* Content: The courses that were required; the topics, the content of any
course, and the course materials (e.g., selecting the novels and poems to be
studied). They wanted to be able to enhance the relevance of the content and
connections between the curriculum, their interests, and real world
* Process: How they learn (e.g., teaching methods requiring higher levels of
thinking, hands-on activities with authentic materials), and the pace of
learning (e.g., quick or individually determined pace with minimal repetition).
* Environment: When they learn (time of day, flexible timetabling, optional
class attendance), with whom they learn (alone or in small groups, with peers
who share their interests, with peers of their choice) and attendance (required
only when unfamiliar knowledge and skills are introduced).
A lack of challenge in curriculum is the most frequently mentioned cause of
boredom for gifted students in schools (Delisle, 1992; Gallagher, Harradine, &
Coleman 1997; Plucker & McIntire, 1996, Whitmore, 1980). The term "challenge"
has multiple meanings in the literature and among the students in this study.
It meant accelerated pacing for Garfunkel and Jill, and deeper, more complex
thinking for Karen. As Plucker and McIntire (1996) found, these students felt
textbook-based instruction was a barrier to any type of challenge.
Jill expressed a common concern--easy tasks may be fun for others but she
preferred activities that offered something new, something hard: "Some easy
things are fun, but if it's easy why bother 'cause you know you can do it? Why
take the time? Why waste the time?" For these students, a "fun" class provided
intellectual challenge, fast pace, and greater complexity.
Each student found challenge in different types of activities. Garfunkel spoke
fondly of opportunities to work independently with "freedom from incompetent
teachers" and peers. Jill found the challenge and control she enjoyed in the
responsibility of group leadership:
I'm good with being an authority. If I'm in charge of
something, I'll do a good job if I know I'm important
.... I know who is good at what in cooking
class.... And they listen because they know I give
them the best job that they like to do. I'm good at that.
People always ask me what they should do.
The students often created their own challenges when they were not challenged
by classroom activities. In some cases, they would add a creative dimension to
an assignment of elaborate on core content to make it more abstract. They would
engage in the self-modified activity rather than the task assigned by the
teacher. Jill's "Chairman of the Bored" letter provides clear evidence of her
efforts to find challenge in her schoolwork. Her suggestion for math class
highlights her willingness to do harder-than-grade-level work instead of easy,
grade appropriate problems once she has demonstrated her proficiency on the
In other situations these students created options that were often
unappreciated by their teachers and school. Garfunkel, the renegade, took joy
in finding small ways to outwit his teachers.
Boredom in school is just sitting there when the
teacher is babbling, listening to lectures.... I'm being
bored sitting there twiddling my thumbs, being class
clown, figuring out ways to stump the teacher.... It's
agitating; it's frustrating to be bored....
He enjoyed intellectual sparring matches and debating with the teacher. Some
teachers planned for these and others found themselves unexpectedly engaged.
Skipping classes was a common strategy for creating challenge. Jill's strategy
was to avoid classes altogether because it was more challenging and more
efficient to teach herself at her own pace.
I can jump in and do the hard ones right away. I have
to sit and wait for everyone else to practice and practice
through ... watch the clock. You just don't want to
be there. You don't want to listen. You want to tune
Sometimes anticipating boring schoolwork made it difficult for her to get out
of bed: "[I] wake up in the morning and it's raining and you know you're just
going to do another worksheet. What's the point? I'll just make it up
The students played the attendance game by monitoring their absenteeism and
attendance. They seldom completed daily assignments and homework when they
found they could meet the school's requirements and pass a course based on test
scores. Jill spoke for herself and others in the study:
I set up little challenges for myself taking the risk of
getting into trouble by doing that [skipping class]. I
liked doing things like that, daily challenges. I don't
skip everyday. It's not a big problem because I get the
work done ... I beat the system.
The 10 students in this study joined the chorus of support for differentiated
curricula that let them take greater leaps in difficulty through more complex
content, more at a faster pace, reduce repetitions of tasks ("drill and kill"),
and let them move ahead without waiting for the rest of the class. These
curricula were free of rote memorization tasks, textbook-bound
question-and-answer assignments, and copying from books, the blackboard or
overhead transparencies. These students enjoyed their struggles with new
material. Their need for challenge was woven into their need for complexity and
a supportive teacher as will be seen in the next two sections.
Mikulas and Vodanovich (1993) define complexity as a function of unfamiliarity
and these students craved the unfamiliar. "The complexity of a situation
relative to an individual is a function of that person's experiences with
similar situations" (p. 4). Thus, the perceived complexity of a task will vary
from student to student based on their previous and current experiences. As a
result, Karen disdained her math class, "It's just really bland and
systematic.... You're going. You do the worksheet. You leave. You know it ...
does not stimulate the mind." Garfunkel was grim, "Most of the things I get
told once then I get told over and over again cause they figure the repetition
method works. But most kids get bored and just sit there."
All of the students in the study mentioned the need for complexity in their
learning experiences. They sought novel, authentic, abstract, open-ended
experiences and felt the familiar, artificial, concrete, decontextualized,
simplistic nature of most assigned work contributed to their boredom.
The only thing you do at school is memorize. That's
all they expect you to do. They don't expect you to
understand. They just want you to remember that 2 +
2 = 4 and not tell you why. We're never asked, we
were never questioned, never inspired to ask why
does this work? It was just, you know, do the work,
hand it in, I'll mark it. You'll get a grade. That was it.
Jill created ah interesting contrast between her feelings about math and
science. She was fascinated with mathematics and never found it boring because
"You apply those math facts.... All the numbers you see how they work.... you
figure it out." Jill was looking for the whys of mathematics, not the rote
number-crunching. "... Math isn't something the teachers really talked about.
They just gave you an assignment and let you do it. I always liked math. That
was never really boring." In science class, on the other hand,
... you had to write out labs and stuff and it was
mostly copying out of textbooks. Lots of mundane
questions over and over again, same questions just
reworking the answers, stuff like that. Things over
and over again.... Too much writing, copying, teacher
Complex learning experiences took a number of forms. Students mentioned
preferences for rich, messy content. processes that involved high level
thinking and questioning, their emotions and interests, opportunities to
develop sophisticated products using the resources of a professional and
opportunities to work in professional contexts.
Other students in the study suggested complexity might arise when they were
allowed to stick with a topic longer than their classmates do (i.e., slowing
down to dig deeper). They "hated bells" that signaled they must disengage from
their learning to go to their next class. Complex learning activities often
require more time and flexibility than the timetable allowed. Although this
comment appears to contradict their desire to move more quickly, the point was
that they want a self-determined pace. Thus, the desire for complexity was
influenced by their needs for other types of challenge as well as control.
The final and perhaps most powerful theme focused on characteristics of
teachers and their teaching. A caring teacher could enhance or overcome the
other four C's. Teachers who cared about their teaching and their students were
admired and valued for their professional integrity and commitment.
Caring teachers were described as nonjudgmental, fair, flexible (also see
Emerick, 1992) and humorous. They honored students' need to talk, to question,
to challenge and be challenged, to dig deeper, and they respected their
students' wishes to be respected. Caring teachers were prepared to teach when
they carne to class. They use discovery, inquiry-based and hands-on methods,
varying their techniques and media. They gave these students control over some
aspects of their learning relevant to student's skills, abilities, and
interests, allowing individual explorations and group work with substantial
in-class interaction. They show a concern for all individual's well-being and
returned assignments promptly. Caring teachers were enthusiastic about the
content of lessons as well as their teaching. Essentially, they made it clear
they want to be teachers. Uncaring teachers left the class while it was in
session without explanation. They seemed to dislike their role and the
students. Some teachers were referred to as "control freaks" and "dictators."
Karen felt her most boring teachers did not really want to be teachers.
It's almost like they think it's a one-way deal because
we're supposed to do everything that they say and be
wonderful for them. But when they're not going to
give as well.... So a good teacher is one who is not
afraid to get in there and help out ... doesn't sit
behind a desk all the time like a barrier between him
and the kids. Yeah, someone who gets right in the dirt
and helps you dig out the little pieces of clay pots or
whatever ... [referring to a favorite social studies
fieldtrip] ... really wanting to be with the kids, not
just getting paid; goes past what the job requires.... If
I could give one message to teachers I'd say don't
take the job unless you're really going to go out of
your way to do it.
Karen's account of a caring teacher included the teacher's willingness to
listen and to pursue students' questions:
If I have a question, we'll think it out together. Even
if she doesn't have the answer, she helps with it.
She's a wonderful woman because she's understanding.
Whenever you need to say something she's right
there to listen. Even if she doesn't have the time, she
makes time later. She doesn't brush you off and say,
"Go read a book about it."
Flexibility was ah essential characteristic of the teachers that enabled
Garfunkel to learn:
... good teachers, they have that new teacher's kind of
innocence.... They let you do stuff. They don't stick
with routine that works. They try new things and if it
works, it works, if it doesn't, it doesn't.
The 10 students in this study did not generalize their frustration with
uncaring teachers to all teachers. All had at least one caring teacher at all
times throughout their school years. Mutual respect and reciprocity were
fundamental manifestations of caring. These students were prepared to respect
their teachers and schools, and felt they deserved respect in return.
Ultimately, one student wondered why he and his peers should be expected to
respect the mandatory attendance requirement while, at the same time, the
system was not required to educate him.
The theme underlying students' accounts of their classroom experiences was that
boredom and learning were mutually exclusive: they were never bored when they
were learning and they were never learning when they were bored. Apparently,
the antidote to boredom was learning that involved one or more of the five C's,
and the more the better.
Each of the C's has been associated with learning or boredom in the literature
but in isolation. For example, in the early 1950's, Fenickel (as cited in
Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993) noted the relationship between control and boredom.
He felt boredom "arises when we must not do what we want or we must do what we
don't want to do" (p. 359). Ames's (1992) work is representative of the
orientation in the 90's. She demonstrated that student control of learning
enhanced engagement and the quality of learning. Both were consistent with our
findings and those of Larson and Richards (1991) indicating boredom was
greatest in teacher-directed activities.
The "ideology of control" (Noddings, 1992) that organizes schools was anathema
to gifted students in our study. Noddings feels schools are generally
unsupportive of students with genuine intellectual of intrinsic interests.
Sarason (1990) and Csikszentmihalyi (1975) concur, suggesting that the present
organization of schools is so bureaucratic that they cannot address the
interests nor satisfy the curiosity of children.
Kohn (1993) examined the "powerlessness" many students experience in their
education. The effects of keeping students powerless include diminished
physical health, depression, difficulty making decisions, and reduced
motivation to achieve in school assignments. In support of this claim he cites
the work of Taylor (1989) who found "few things lead more reliably to
depression and other forms of psychological distress than a feeling of
helplessness" (p. 11). Kohn argued,
... if we want children to take responsibility for their
own behavior, we must first give them responsibility
... The way a child learns how to make decisions is
by making decisions, not by following directions ...
students should not only be trained to live in a
democracy when they grow up; they should have the
chance to live in one today. (p. 11)
The types of decisions or choices of content, process and environment mentioned
by participants in this study have arisen in other research. In ah
investigation comparing gifted and nongifted students' learning preferences,
Kanevsky and Kay (1998) found differences in the nature and strength of their
preferences. Among these differences were choices. Like the participants in
this study and more intensely than their nongifted peers, gifted students
wanted opportunities to choose topics of study, the format of the products of
their learning, the way a product was graded and the members of learning
The effect of student choice was also investigated by Cordova and Lepper
(1996). They found offering 4th and 5th grade students choice enhanced
engagement, the amount learned, perceived competence and levels of aspiration.
Jill, Garfunkel, and Karen would agree, but found their strengths and learning
needs inconvenient for the system. As students move into adolescence, their
increasing need for independence and autonomy becomes more evident in school
(Turner & Meyer, 1995). A tension is growing between this phenomenon and
political pressures as curricula become increasingly test-bound and
"standardized," many educators feel opportunities to respond to students' needs
and preferences have diminished, however, this need not be true. Classroom
activities and projects can be designed that offer students choices and control
The hunger for challenge is shared by "producing" gifted students (Plucker &
McIntire, 1996) as well as these nonproducers. It is also consistent across age
levels as it has been observed in highly creative high school (Hilliard, 1993),
middle school (Plucker & McIntire,1996) and preschool (Kanevsky, 1992) gifted
students. Observational studies of classroom practices have validated students'
reports of repetitive, low level classroom activities filling the majority of
their school day (Archambault et al., 1993; Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, &
As Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen (1993) reported, "... boredom occurs
when teachers expect too little" (p. 10). In contrast, Karen, Jill, and
Garfunkel wanted new ideas and skills introduced quickly and continuously to
honor their capacity and desire to learn rather than "a re-run" of the past.
They craved opportunities to develop new skills and understandings. They sought
experiences in what Vygotsky (1978) characterized as the "zone of proximal
development." This zone is created when a student and teacher attempt to solve
a problem for which the learner has no immediate solution but can learn to
solve it with the teacher's support. The breadth of the zone of proximal
development results from the dynamic interaction between the task, the student,
and the teacher. Teachers who offer and support tasks that include choice,
control, complexity and challenge will expand the zone of proximal development
and result in relatively greater learning benefits for students. Clearly, Jill
did not feel much of her education created a zone of proximal development. Easy
tasks simply required her to use previously acquired skills and knowledge
without assistance. In contrast, her letter described activities involving
knowledge and skills beyond those she already knew.
An appreciation for the richness and complexity of phenomena in natural and
professional settings was evident in the project and problem-based learning
experiences all three students recounted fondly. As Jill indicated in the Bus
Ed (Business Education) and Socials (Social Studies) sections of her letter,
she wanted to probe deeper, beyond the standard fare. Cordova and Lepper (1996)
found that contextualizing lessons in the ways Jill suggests increased
learning, task engagement, and intrinsic motivation. They state, "By removing
learning from the contexts in which both its practical utility and its links to
everyday interests and activities would be obvious to children, teachers risk
undermining children's intrinsic motivation for learning" (p. 715).
The significance of experiences with caring teachers cannot be underestimated.
Csikszentmihalyi and McCormack (1986) reported, "Most students who become
interested in an academic subject do so because they have met a teacher who is
able to pique their interest" (p. 7). Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen
(1993) described very similar student responses to teachers in their study of
talented teens. Enthusiastic teachers inspire
... students to reconsider the intrinsic rewards of
exploring a domain of knowledge. Talented teenagers
experience apathetic of lackluster instruction with an
especially acute sense of disappointment. More than
most teens, they reach high school already interested
in a particular domain and its subjective rewards. This
awareness makes them ... particularly intolerant of
teachers who go through the motions. (p. 185)
The feelings of the participants in this study resonated with these findings.
They respected teachers whose actions reflected a sincere curiosity and passion
for their subject. It comes as no surprise that those teachers were most likely
to weave the other four C's into their instruction.
The 10 nonproducers in our study had used some of the time they spent waiting
to learn to question their position in the school system. It appears academic
production and achievement posed a moral dilemma. It was resolved by a choice
over which they had control: to produce or not to produce the results schools
expect of them.
One of the rights these students held sacred regarding their education was the
equal opportunity to learn. Why wasn't there as much learning for them in
school as there was for other students? Their sense of justice was further
offended by the time wasted waiting for classmates to learn what they already
knew, or finish work they had already completed. Participants in our study felt
attendance should be optional if they already knew the material or if their
assignments were complete, If class attendance was mandatory, learning should
be too. Isn't that fair? Like the gifted students Silverman (1989) described,
the students in this study recognized and resented the "double standards" and
inconsistencies evident in their schooling.
A growing sense of frustration, disappointment and injustice regarding their
schooling emerged from these students' stories. They made a clear distinction
between their "learning" and their "schooling." Boredom appeared only in their
schooling, not learning experiences. The students perceived learning as an
essential force in their lives; one from which they derived a sense of their
identity. Their learning was often self-directed and facilitated by caring
teachers. Schooling, on the other hand, was generally a tiring, frustrating
experience. The students' resentment and boredom evolved and escalated as they
consistently experienced a lack of control, choice and challenge, complexity
and support within the classroom setting. They gradually disengaged from
classroom tasks and their productivity and grades decline as their boredom
intensified in middle and high school.
In spite of their levels of frustration, students' attitudes were amazingly
positive and their intrinsic motivation to learn burned bright. They were
articulate and optimistic. None used a complaining tone or whined, but some
were clearly frustrated, angry, and demoralized. This "passionate idealism"
(Piechowski, 1991) indicates their sensitivity to the conflict between the real
and ideal world. Like the students in the study by Gallagher, Harradine, and
Coleman (1997), ours were acutely aware of the many difficulties teachers face
while attempting to meet the needs of all students. Still, they had developed
an intense resentment toward schooling resulting from the injustices and
unfairness they perceived. Their empathy for the difficulties teachers face
while attempting to manage and meet all students' needs could not overcome
their indignation, so they quit producing school assignments. These gifted
students felt this was the most honorable response to the activities they had
been offered in the guise of education.
The intensity of these students' need for learning experiences that involve the
five C's (control, choice, challenge, complexity, caring) suggests that
although they under-achieve in school, they have retained the higher levels of
intrinsic motivation and perceived competence found in samples of gifted
students achieving academic success (Gottfried & Gottfried, 1996; Valerand,
Gagne, Senecal, & Pelletier, 1994). Our gifted students cherished their moments
of learning within classroom settings. They clearly indicated how essential
learning was to them and how their disappointment and frustration grew over
time. They felt they had a right to learn, as well as a strong desire to learn,
but these needs were not met in most of their classes. Observational studies
(e.g., Archambault, et al., 1993) and self-report survey data (e.g., Gentry,
Gable, & Springer, 2000) make it clear the education system has not come close
to meeting the needs of gifted students, particularly in middle and high
These students are not lazy learners. Our findings are consistent with those
reported by Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen (1993):
Adults, after all, commonly fault adolescents for what
they perceive as laziness, lack of discipline and a
counterproductive defiance of authority. But what
came through clearly in our study was an avid willingness
to accept challenges and overcome obstacles
when the problems were interesting and the necessary
skills were within the individual's reach. (p. 186)
Tentative implications for practice will be suggested; however, the qualitative
nature of this study precludes generalizing these findings. Three linked
recommendations emerged from our methodology as much as our findings. The deep
interviewing techniques used in this study offered an opportunity to hear the
students in a new way. The member checks that are a part of such a qualitative
study convinced the students that they were truly being listened to; eliciting
a desire to clearly articulate their feelings and creating a rich experience
that their educators could not take time for. From this experience we learned
that educators need to: (1) ask students about their boredom, (2) listen and
probe until their understanding is deep and accurate, and then (3) act on what
they hear. These students had a great deal to say, but they had never been
asked. We have focused on the commonalities in their descriptions of boredom
and learning, however, individual differences were also evident. As a result,
we feel interventions must be sensitive to the most powerful aspects of each
student's boredom and learning.
Other implications include the obvious: weave opportunities for personal
control, choice, challenge and complexity into classroom activities. Clearly,
further empirical study will be necessary before solid guidelines for
interventions can be proposed.
Evidence of the impact of each of the five C's on learning is not new. The
dynamic relationships among these factors are far more idiosyncratic and
complex than earlier literature has suggested. We have shown that their roles
in learning, boredom, and academic productivity are not discrete; they are
interdependent. The boredom of these students was not dispositional of
situational--it was both. Perhaps these gifted students arrived at school more
prone to boredom than their productive and achieving gifted peers. Perhaps
characteristics of their personality of temperament made them more sensitive to
a lack of the five C's so their response was more intense and driven by moral,
as well as cognitive and emotional concerns.
Like their learning, each student's boredom was unique, complex, dynamic, and
progressive. It evolved and increased throughout their school years. Perhaps
gifted students' boredom (as well as their learning) is qualitatively different
from that of their nongifted peers. The moral impact of ah inappropriate
education on the classroom learning and achievement of gifted students has been
relatively ignored and must be explored more fully. These are exciting and
essential topics for research in the future. The findings will provide us with
the ability to prevent and alleviate classroom boredom. It is somewhat
surprising that so many gifted students have managed to "grin and bear it" for
so many years. Ultimately, an appropriate education for gifted students must
honor their right to learn in school or we should not be surprised when they
choose not to honor it with a commitment to engaging in activities from which
they learn little or nothing.
Excerpt from Jill's Letter to her School Counselor and the District Consultant
for Gifted Programs
Science: In my Science 10 class I would like to learn more about the subject
areas we are studying by researching more. Maybe I could get different books
related to the topic area and write a short report or conclusion about my
findings. It would also be better in science if we were able to do more "hands
on" assignments rather than just copying question answers out of a book.
Math: In my Math 10 class I would like to do the thing we discussed where I
would do tire or so questions that were the hardest of the assignment. If I go
those questions right, that would be my work for the day or I could get a
harder question to work out. If I was confused or got them wrong, I would have
to do the whole assignment.
Bus Ed: My Business Education class is going fine right now just a little slow.
If there were anyway of speeding up the rate we are going at that would be
fine. One thing, I don't know if it is possible, but it would be neat if I
could do a business project such as, how much would it cost to start my own
company and what would I need to know about costs, advertising and just
basically staying in a good profitable business with a promising future.
Socials: I would like to study a more wider [sic] topics in socials than just
certain events in Canadian history. I would like to know what was going on in
other countries of the world at that time. Another thing would be to tie the
socials and science together and see how they fit such as at what times were
people inventing and making scientific discoveries and how they affected the
people and the economy. In this class it would also be better if we had more
then and now discussions on maybe government or taxes and what they did about
it then and try to come to a conclusion of what we can do about it now.
Sincerely, Chairman of the Bored
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Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4(3), 443-446.
Lannie Kanevsky is an associate professor of education at Simon Fraser
University (Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada) and a member of the editorial
advisory board for the Roeper Review. Her teaching and research focus on
individual differences in learning, particularly gifted students' learning. She
is the author of the Tool Kit for Curriculum Differentiation. E-mail:
kanevsky at sfu.ca
Tacey Keighley is a resource room teacher at Terry Fox Senior Secondary School
(Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada) working with gifted, special needs and at-risk
students. She also teaches adult learners who are completing requirements for a
high school diploma at the Coquitlam Learning Opportunity Center. E-mail:
tkeighley at sd43.bc
Manuscript submitted January 14, 2003. Revision accepted February 14, 2003.
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