Boredom Dampens U.S. Achievement

Did I get dressed this morning for this? School should be more engaging.

DELHI.  I’m visiting schools in India this week, and from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, I see more attentive students than I do on US high school visits.  As a broad generalization, the cultural press for academic success appears to be more universal in India and China than in the US.  In most US schools, there are AP students killing themselves for top grades and a chance to attend a selective college, but broadly Indian and Chinese kids work harder.  True, it may be based in fear and compliance, and specific economic and job market pressures that are on-the-ground realities for those countries, but they do work hard under what we would consider terrible conditions.
Which brings me to boredom. Robert Samuelson writes about economics for Newsweek. In his September 13 column, Samuelson nails one of the reasons that we’ve seen so little improvement in high school score—boredom.  When you visit a typical high school, the hallways are lively, but boredom is the pervasive mood of kids in class.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.  The unstated assumption of much of the school ‘reform’ movement is that if student aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, which helps to explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Rallying the American spirit and making education a higher community priority has to be part of the solution, but that has proven difficult.  We are easily distracted and less socially cohesive than we used to be.  So, until we figure out how to fix American society, we need to make learning more motivating.
The science of motivation is underdeveloped despite how important it is to this very subject. In the nascent field of cognitive sciences, there has been a 15-year diversionary focus on learning styles, which has been partially discredited (in part because we’re not very smart about identifying learning styles or personalizing learning based on observed preferences).  More fundamental than learning style is a personal motivational profile—the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that cause focused and persistent behavior. Because we need kids to work hard, we need a much more sophisticated and individualized sense of what will cause them to persist through discomfort. But that’s precisely where we find ourselves lacking.
But look at what has been learned in the casual game space. Different games attract different players. Some prefer combat over collaboration, some role play, some alternative realities. Most games offer the benefit of public victories and private defeats–and most students appreciate one or both features.
We can also point to some anecdotal conclusions about finding the ‘hook’—the interest or passion that unleashes the energy to learn.  Thousands of theme-based schools depend on some level of motivation caused by integration and application opportunities around a theme of interest.
The first conclusion is that we need more applied research in motivational sciences.  Beyond that I think we can conclude that we need:

    *more pedagogical choices more intelligently managed

    *more links to relevance and application opportunities

    *smarter analysis of keystroke data from games, sims, virtual environments, and quizzes to determine best learning modality

    *a social wrapper with motivational system

Organizing and empowering parents is clearly part of the solution, but we need to learn as much as we can about motivation and try to put it to work in schools, asap.  Game developers seem to have learned more than researchers over the last decade, so let’s start there.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment


boredom, edreform, innovation, learning games, student motivation....Art Education.
I know, as an art educator and art advocate, I am a little biased toward the subject. However, the arts tie subjects together. Education in the arts naturally incorporates diverse learning methods, taking into account diverse learning styles through hands on learning and exploration, reading, writing, listening, and viewing information.
Some schools have cut out art programs, or never had them to begin with. Education in the arts is a solid avenue to add value, motivation, and interest in the curriculum.

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