Bryan Caplan  

Water Runs Downhill, and School Is Boring

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What's a Doctor to Do?... I've Changed My Mind, Part 2...
Lately I've been reading everything I can on how people feel when they're in school.  The evidence is thin, but confirms the obvious: Most people find school super-boring.  The High School Survey of Student Engagement is probably the single best source. 
HSSSE asks two direct questions about boredom: "Have you ever been bored in class in high school?" and "If you have been bored in class, why?"

Two out of three respondents (66%) in 2009 are bored at least every day in class in high school; nearly half of the students (49%) are bored every day and approximately one out of every six students (17%) are bored in every class. Only 2% report never being bored, and 4% report being bored "once or twice."

Responses to the second question provide insight into the sources of students' frequent boredom; students could mark as many reasons for their boredom as were applicable. Of those students who claimed they were ever bored (98%), the material being taught was an issue: more than four out of five noted a reason for their boredom as "Material wasn't interesting" (81%) and about two out of five students claimed that the lack of relevance of the material (42%) caused their boredom. The level of difficulty of the work was a source of boredom for a number of students: about one third of the students (33%) were bored because the "Work wasn't challenging enough" while just over one-fourth of the respondents were bored because the "Work was too difficult" (26%). Instructional interaction played a role in students' boredom as well: more than one third of respondents (35%) were bored due to "No interaction with teacher."
These results barely change from year to year:
Over four years of HSSSE survey administrations, student responses have been very consistent regarding boredom. In a pool of 275,925 students who responded to this question from 2006 to 2009, 65% reported being bored at least every day in class in high school; 49% are bored every day and 16% are bored every class. Only 2% reported never being bored.

Students' reasons for their boredom are similarly consistent in the four-year aggregate as well. "Material wasn't interesting" was cited by 82% of respondents and "Material wasn't relevant to me" by 41% of respondents. Thirty-four percent of students said that a primary source of their boredom was "No interaction with teacher."
This is all very consistent with the Gates Foundation finding that boredom is the single most important reason why kids drop out of high school.  And on reflection, the boredom is probably even worse than it looks.  School is a sacred institution; you're not "supposed to" talk bad about it.  As a result, many students probably succumb to Social Desirability Bias by downplaying their malcontent.

Doesn't fit your first-hand experience?  Remember: If you're reading this blog, you're probably part of the small minority that actually enjoys academics.  When you were bored in school, you were probably bored because the schoolwork was too easy.  For most students, however, the problem is fundamental.  Schoolwork bores them because they don't like the content.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
ChrisA writes:

Yes I was bored at school, even though I managed to get good marks and go onto university (where I was often also bored). Now I am employed, and yes, often find work boring and tiresome. But isn't this to be expected? Work and school are not supposed to fun (or at least that is not the point of them). They are not structured for fun for a reason, their primary objective is elsewhere (either learning in the case of school or production in the case of work). Now you might say that they could be made more fun without sacrificing their primary objectives. But at least for work, we know that if that were true people would have tried it since you can very likely pay people significantly less if they enjoyed their job more (sort of how economics professors earn less than similarly qualified people in investment banks). So, from a market efficiency point of view, likely the tradeoff for work between productivity and fun is at a optimum. Given that education is not controlled worldwide and there is some experimentation in the way it is delivered and education has been around a very long time, probably that is near the optimum as well. In other words, learning is often mostly boring, even to very highly intelligent people.

David Friedman writes:

I was bored in a very good private school. My wife was bored in a pretty good suburban public school. Those were among the reasons why our children were home unschooled.

And not bored.

Jameson writes:

Agree with everything except the second to last paragraph on social desirability bias. It's possible your readers are out of touch in the way you mention in the last paragraph, but you are clearly out of touch if you think the average student thinks of school as in any way "sacred." Many students (most, I guess) *love* to complain about school. A lot of students actively discourage academic success in their peers, because it's nerdy or whatever.

In the political debate over education, schools are sacred institutions, teachers are wonderful people, and students are our most precious resource. As usual, the political debate has very little basis in reality.

John S writes:

No surprise that factory school coercion leads to near-universal boredom. What little "learning" that occurs as a by-product of the grade grubbing drudgery of the "good" students is largely motivated by fear. Where is learning for the sake of its own enjoyment?

“The idea of painless, nonthreatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want.

You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.”

― John Holt, How Children Fail

The solution is simple: let children learn what they want, when they want, and how they want. Is that too much to ask of schools in our supposedly "free" society? Or does the freedom of choosing how to occupy one's mind not apply to those under age 18?

Bill Poster writes:

What's your point?

I. Learning often is boring. It involves repetition and the assembling of individual pieces of knowledge that are not compelling in themselves, but are the prerequisites of deeper, and more interesting, thought. There are surely actions that could be taken to reduce boredom without harming learning. But I would say that the vast majority of the boredom created by schools is intrinsically necessary to the knowledge being created.

II Learning to overcome short term pain, like boredom, for long term reward, like education or a salary, is one of the most important things imparted to children. The majority of jobs remain, in large part, boring and tedious. We do children no service by leaving them unprepared for this fact.

Scott Harmon writes:

I agree with David Friedman's comment. Do a Youtube search on John Gatto, a past New York state teacher of the year. He also has a couple of books out that will open your eyes to Government run schools.

Handle writes:

David Friedman is right. If education is desocialized and depoliticized, de-coupled as much as possible from signalling efforts, and one is able to tailor the experience in a highly individualized manner according to the students particular talents and interests, then the potential for sustained enjoyable learning increases dramatically.

This is part of why eccentric autodidacts (who are trying as best they know how to do this to themselves) can achieve such impressive erudition in such a small amount of time even if they lacked formal education or dropped out early, only later catching the learning bug.

But, of course, not everyone can be David Friedman's kids, being taught at home by the Friedman parents. I'd guess, therefore, that the technique does not scale very well.

Steve writes:

I was so bored in high school that I used to stare at the clock and practice holding my breath for as long as possible...it was mind-numbing. And I'm much more academically inclined than the average person.

Kevin writes:

Students in my graduate program were joking the other day that we're all bored to tears in class; we feel as though we're taking the same course over and over and over, and are doomed to do so for at least another year. The material and difficulty hardly varies at all, only the person presenting it does.

Lee Kelly writes:

I was terribly bored, but then boredom was often preferable to the next likely alternative.

Enial Cattesi writes:
Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.

There are some people calling this signaling.

NZ writes:

We tend to think of boredom in school as resulting from lack of challenge, but that's probably not true across the bored--er, board.

For many kids who drop out, it's probably boredom as a result of this progression:

Can't understand the content > disengage from the learning mode > Why am I sitting in this stuffy room with this adult I don't like? > bored.

It also makes me think about what DOESN'T bore kids. It's hard to know, because boredom is mostly a choice.

Glen Smith writes:

Much of life is boring but most people who droped out of life didn't do so because life was boring.

Pajser writes:

For me, intelectual work is at the best 25% fun, 75% disciplined and boring work. I am not sure that schools should avoid - or even minimize boredom. Perhaps little fun here and there should be good measure.


Scott Scheule writes:

I think NZ's right. What I was being taught in high school chemistry, biology, math, English was all absolutely fascinating. That the human race knows this much is miraculous, and there it was, mine for the taking. And I was too stupid to know it. And I did better than nearly all of my classmates.

It's amazing you can teach children at all.

I wasted nearly every learning moment. Instead, I turned the majority of my attention to observing the continually more buxom blonde on the opposite of the room. At the time this seemed of paramount importance.

In retrospect, calculus would've been more useful.

Maniel writes:

@Scott,
I turned the majority of my attention to observing the continually more buxom blonde on the opposite of the room. At the time this seemed of paramount importance. In retrospect, calculus would've been more useful.”
Students fall into two groups: group A, motivated; and Group B, unmotivated. The greatest gains (in education) come from moving students from B to A. You might have moved from B to A under this condition: the blonde was highly attracted to calculus nerds.

MingoV writes:

The greatest cause of student boredom in class is a lack of desire to learn. This is true when the teacher is superb, the textbook is excellent, and the level of teaching matches the intellectual capability of the student. I've seen this in high school through graduate school and medical school.

I never found a way to prod such students out of their boredom. In college, grad school, and med school, I never learned why such anti-learners were spending money on higher educations, especially for fields such as medicine that require continual learning.

Why are so many people bored with almost every type of learning? Answer: Our 'advanced' society can support these semi-leeches.

David Zamperini writes:

I can back these findings up. I am a first year American history teacher at a catholic high school in western PA. I have students that are genuinely interested in learning and others that don't think learning American history, especially early American history, is important and can't see the relevance to their own lives. I try to be as engaging as possible and make the material relevant but it can be very difficult to get everyone interested in it.

Kevin writes:

I stopped being bored at school when I realized that the whole thing was about making the kids conform. Once I understood that, every class was like going undercover - how to make them think I care? How to appear to be exactly what they want me to be to get a perfect grade? High school academics for me consisted of just one subject - acting. Nobody's bored in acting class.

NZ writes:

To clarify, I just think most people aren't smart enough to handle a high school curriculum--especially not while they're high school aged. Imagine a test question of average difficulty from high school, then imagine asking it to the first 10 people you see at Walmart.

I think people should be required to complete school through 6th grade or so, with standards--get your basic literacy and numeracy--and then they should have the option of learning a simple trade instead.

You know, like journalism. (Half joking.)

It's also important to keep in mind that a lot of ethnic groups haven't actually been literate more than a handful of generations. Jews have a history of literacy (not just literacy, but sitting in a kind of "school" all day) going back several hundreds or thousands of years, but that can't be said of most black people or even many non-Jewish whites. That's got to have some impact on how likely a student is to be bored in school.

Steve Sailer writes:

What % of dropouts from boredom dropped out because they had already mastered the material and thus were bored versus what % dropped out because they hadn't mastered the material and were too bored to put in the effort?

Thomas Sewell writes:

Handle, the key words in David's comment are "home unschooled."

As it requires the least parental intervention, unschooling scales broadly and solves the interest and motivation problems because children are encouraged to learn what they're interested in learning, whatever that happens to be.

The hardest part for my unschooled kids is that when they started college years earlier than others they thought they'd like grades and school and such, because they'd always enjoyed learning before and it was something new and "exciting". Sadly, what they actually figure out is that traditional school styles really do suck the life out of learning, ultimately training students to stop learning and just do the minimum work to achieve the desired grade.

At which "school" did your child learn to walk and to talk and other similar skills? School isn't required for someone to learn something they're already interested in, but it can easily convince children that learning is boring.

Steven Das writes:

@Handle, per your earlier remarks on the "scaling" of auto-didacticism: Are you familiar at all with spaced repetition/speed learning programs like SuperMemo (supermemo.com) and Anki (ankisrs.net)?

I've used the former daily since October 2012 to teach myself subjects ranging from naval architecture, to computer science and software development, to economics (that's actually how I found EconLog!); I'm certainly not a "Friedman kid" (as you put it), but it did prove a sufficiently fast and effective tool that it helped save me 2-3 years of my life and ~$100K in tuition that I almost spent getting another 1-2 degrees (until I decided to attempt a large-scale autodidacticism project while working part time instead).

You might enjoy reading this article which explains the theory behind SuperMemo; I know it fundamentally changed my own impression of what the learning process was meant to entail (this after having earned an engineering degree from a well-regarded university program), particularly given its assertion that "a majority of population can reach today's standards of genius."

Re: the boredom issue...

I can't say I much recall being bored during any part of my "formal" secondary and postsecondary education, although my experience at a graduate engineering program after having done my self-instruction regimen (which, incidentally, was terrific fodder for the admissions essays!) came as a bit of a shock not because of boredom, but rather for how little it felt like the experience mimicked the real world: I now work as a software engineer at a startup company (a role I actually obtained through some contacts I wouldn't have gained, most likely, if I hadn't undertaken that self-instruction program), and my experience so far has been that the self-instruction process of careful planning, judiciously and critically seeking out knowledge sources, and designing feedback loops and exercises for mastery much more closely resembles the open-ended design and business environment of a startup company than does completing lectures and assigned homework exercises in a "traditional" educational program.

@Bill Poster: I agree entirely, particularly from my own experiences documented above, that a good many parts of both learning and work can be tedious or grueling, and that a valid learning/educational strategy, therefore, probably places an even higher premium on persistence and work ethic than it does on intellectual curiosity or love of the subject (a professional, even in the best job in the world, needs the work ethic to roll out of bed and get the job done regardless of mood or motivation for the day...).

But I'd also argue it's crucial not to confuse an educational/learning system which emphasizes persistence and work ethic with one which simply requires putting up with unnecessary inefficiency. A great work ethic can till a field of wheat by hand; a critical and creative mind, plus a good enough work ethic, can invent a robot saving the inventor years of his life otherwise spent tilling the soil...

AS writes:

Because we have a top-down education system that tries to be a one-size-fits-all solution to every student.

What if instead of the status quo, education systems were allowed to emerge organically, each one tailored to the preferences of the customer? Like any other commodity.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I am confused by those who consider those who are bored to be anti-learners. Yes, that is true of many, but it is very easy to be bored even if you want to learn much, but not necessarily what the teacher is droning on about in front of the classroom. I was somewhat of an intellectual even way back in Middle School, but I was also consistently bored in school. And it wasn't because it was too easy, it was because it just wasn't interesting. I think most of school isn't about learning, it is about doing boring projects.

Also, I agree with Pajser (25% fun, 75% boring). Even when I had classes that were right on point with my interests, a bunch of the process was boring, whether it was understanding the technicalities of the subject I was studying, or writing a coherent paper about the subject.

NZ writes:

@Steve Sailer:

My off-the-cuff uneducated guess is that somewhere in the neighborhood of 95% of dropouts are bored from not mastering the material and are too disengaged to put in the effort.

I'm reminded of Mike Judge's reaction to the fact that a huge percentage of kids can't point to China on a map. He said something like "Yeah, that seems about right."

Glen Raphael writes:

I was bored in most textbook-based classes to the degree that lectures were just repeating material that was in the book for people who hadn't read it or had had trouble understanding it. Given a choice, the textbook is bound to be a better presentation of the material than is that sort of lecture; if you read the book, listening to the lecture too is a waste of time.

Textbooks have editors whose job is to remove repetition and make sure the material flows well; lectures generally don't. Your math textbook might be written by one of the best math textbook writers in the entire country whereas your lecture is only presented by one of the best math teachers in your local county - a much lower bar to clear (the US has ~3000 counties).

(The imbalance is even worse than that because you have to select a teacher from people available to teach this year, but if there aren't any great new textbooks this year you can keep using a book from 5 or 10 or 20 years ago.)

Which isn't to say that all the textbooks were great - sometimes they were terrible. Just not as terrible as the lectures.

(I dealt with boredom by secretly reading other books in my lap during class. In retrospect I think my teachers knew and let me get away with it so long as I was subtle.)

Mark Bahner writes:

David Zamperini writes:

I am a first year American history teacher at a catholic high school in western PA. I have students that are genuinely interested in learning and others that don't think learning American history, especially early American history, is important and can't see the relevance to their own lives.

I'm curious about what you say to those who "don't think learning American history, especially early American history, is important and can't see the relevance to their own lives."

What do you tell them regarding importance and relevance to their lives?

Floccina writes:

Is there any evidence that experiencing and enduring boredom better prepares the students for doing boring work in the future, or is school just signaling in this regard also?

Thiago writes:

David Zamperini writes:
"I can back these findings up. I am a first year American history teacher at a catholic high school in western PA. I have students that are genuinely interested in learning and others that don't think learning American history, especially early American history, is important and can't see the relevance to their own lives. I try to be as engaging as possible and make the material relevant but it can be very difficult to get everyone interested in it."

To be fair, are you mad about trigonometric identities and Geography? Seriously, how many adults do you think remember their Organic Chemistry and English Lit? How many care?
Regarding kids and school, it's their job, they have to go through it, but to demand enthusiasm from them is unfair to them ... and for you.

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