[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.

About Boredom

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 
heterogeneous classrooms.

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 
this study.


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
    everything out....

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
    talking--never interesting.

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 
(Kanevsky, 2002).

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, & 
Salvin, 1993).

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.

Appendix A

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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