Newsflash - “Students are Bored”

Posted in Just Starting Out, Teaching on December 21, 2016 - by

When the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) surveyed over 81,000 students in 2006, it reported that 2 out of 3 students are bored in class every day (in fact, 17 percent reported they are bored in every class).[1] … Duh!

So, students are clearly not engaged, nor motivated. And why are they not motivated? That's the $64,000 question.

In a remarkable paper published in 2002[2], Deci and Ryan discuss the impact of motivation on performance in school. They outline two basic types of motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the “gold standard” of motivation. It is “a type of self-motivation in which people do activities that interest them, provide spontaneous pleasure or enjoyment, and do not require any 'reward' beyond this inherent satisfaction.”

When your child is engrossed in an activity that they don't want to stop (such as playing Minecraft, or playing with their favorite toy), they are intrinsically motivated. They may also be experiencing the state of “flow”.[3]

Now, imagine your child engrossed in a similar manner while tackling a math problem, or trying to imagine life in Ancient Rome. The challenge of learning is to engage and engross our children in learning activities … and that requires intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation, as the name suggests, occurs due to external factors. For example, people may do something because they expect to be rewarded (such as a grade, or a weekly wage). An individual may also choose to do something because they believe it will result in achieving a long-term goal (such as getting into college). Yet another type of extrinsic motivation is when the individual does something to boost their ego (such as getting a high grade to look good amongst peers). The worst type of external motivation is when an individual does something to avoid a punishment.

Why is motivation important?

This is probably self-evident. However, let's explore it a little further. Deci and Ryan note that “students who learned in order to be tested reported finding the material less intrinsically interesting than did the others. Further, those who expected to be tested actually gave worse answers on the conceptual questions than those who learned expecting to put the material to active use.” They concluded that “when students are intrinsically motivated they learn better at the conceptual level and, second, that having students learn in order to be tested is detrimental to their being intrinsically motivated.” So, learning for learning's sake is good, and learning for other reasons is not so good.

What does this mean in a school setting?

We all function better, including learning, when we are provided autonomy and the ability to choose our actions. Whenever that autonomy and choice are restricted, it will negatively impact motivation. Specifically, the more our children are tested and graded, the less conducive the environment is to learning. Whenever our children are subjected to rigid schedules, lesson plans, and curricula, the less engaged they will be. Conversely, the more autonomy provided to children, the higher the motivation and level of engagement. These same arguments pertain to teachers. The more autonomy and choice given to the teacher, the greater the engagement (and job satisfaction).

The implications for the classroom are clear:

Allow teachers and students to select topics and projects they wish to study.

  • While, at first, this may seem to be overly ambitious for today's classroom, it could be accomplished upon removal of a proscribed curriculum. Furthermore, the ready availability of information on the internet for research would facilitate this approach.

Eliminate a proscribed curriculum.

  • Why do we require every child to learn topics such as calculus, or foreign languages? Some students may prefer to concentrate on math, or animation, dance, or biology. Each child is individual; each curriculum should be individual. Allow the student, parent, and teacher to tailor the education to the child, rather than the other way round.

Eliminate the requirement for grades and testing.

  • Certainly, there are occasions where these are appropriate. However, their use should be dictated by their contribution to learning. Quizzes can indicate to a teacher when mastery has been achieved (or not); however, much of this grunt work can be achieved online (e.g. Khan Academy approach to mastery learning).
  • Achievement can be demonstrated by multiple means. Grading and testing is only one. Other methods include completion of projects; portfolios to demonstrate accomplishments; online publishing of writing, coding, or artwork, etc.

Eliminate the requirement for homework.

  • Homework is appropriate when a student desires to complete a project, or to continue research on a topic.

Let's Digress

Deci and Ryan's paper is mostly focused upon motivation and achievement in the classroom and school. However, it is not too much of a stretch to extend the principles further.

Just as intrinsic motivation provides the best results in a school setting, it seems that the same principles are equally applicable to the home and work environment.

How many people dread going to work because their boss routinely asks them to do menial tasks; or watches their lunch and breaks like a hawk to ensure they are working every minute; or tells them exactly how to do your job (even though you know how to do it more efficiently and more accurately)?

Contrast this to a job where you get to choose your next assignment; recommend improved processes; or are free to work whenever you want (as long as you get the work done).

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation – the principles clearly apply in the workplace. Therefore, if  managers and owners want to increase employee satisfaction (and productivity), they should seek to provide greater autonomy and responsibility.

Teenagers are monsters

As parents, we want our children to be happy, safe, and to succeed. Therefore we encourage them to do well in school, get good grades, and complete all assignments. We encourage them to participate in extracurricular activities (to round out their transcript), and to compete against their academic peers. To keep them safe, we monitor their online activities; we make sure they do not hang out with the wrong friends; we are careful not to let them attend parties where they may encounter alcohol or drugs. We encourage activities like Little League, orchestra, robotics, and summer camps.

We do all these things because we are good parents, and because we care. Or do we?

When we do all these things that good parents do, we are harming our children. We are denying them autonomy and responsibility. We are imposing external motivation, by measuring their performance with grades, comparison with peers, and by limiting their freedom to choose their own interests and activities. We (and the school philosophy) are controlling their lives to a very great extent.

Furthermore, both parents and the school conceptual system create enormous pressures on our children. Pressures to perform; pressures to conform; pressures to please.

It is no wonder that teenagers rebel, hate school, and (ultimately) “hate” their parents. Every aspect of their lives are minutely controlled. They have no autonomy; no responsibility; no intrinsic motivation.

The school is a virtual prison. It requires obedience to rules; to schedule; to dress code; to peer pressure; to the requirement to get good grades; to the requirement to compete against your peers; to complete homework.

At home, the pressure continues. Parents endorse all the school requirements, and turn up the pressure by demanding better and better school performance. Plus the additional pressure of extracurricular activities.

It's no wonder that teenagers are monsters.

Time to jump off the Merry-go-round?

If we really want to do the best things for our children, we need to think carefully about priorities.

  • What are your goals for your child? Do you really want them to compete for that Ivy League school? Is the pressure worth it? More importantly, what does your child want?
  • Will other approaches reach your goals? Perhaps a small college is a better choice for real learning? Perhaps a community college followed by a four-year college?
  • Is it more important to enjoy learning, or to get good grades?
  • Can increased autonomy and responsibility reduce the pressure on your child, and increase the desire to learn?
  • Is it time to become your child's ally, rather than their taskmaster?

Parting Thoughts

For many years, we have become accustomed to the idea of the importance of doing well in school, in order to succeed in life. However, there is a menacing assumption embedded in this idea – that the current approach to education can help us achieve this goal.

This discussion questions that assumption, and highlights that success in school has primarily been an external motivation. As we have seen, external motivation is probably not the best way to promote learning.

The alternative, therefore, is to seek to increase internal motivation. My suggestions are to allow our children to have a much greater say in determining what they learn; to be able to choose what and how they study; to seek out mentors; and to follow their passions.

As parents, we are responsible for assisting our children on their journey. However, we are merely the pilots on that journey – our children are the captains, and the masters of their fate. We can point out where the shoals lie; where the currents are strong; where the winds blow in their favor. But ultimately, they alone must determine the course of their journey, and the final destination.



[2]    The paradox of achievement: The harder you push, the worse it gets. Deci, Edward L.; Ryan, Richard M. Aronson, Joshua (Ed). (2002). Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education , (pp. 61-87). San Diego, CA, US: Academic Press, xxvii, 395 pp


About Ross Hall

Hi, I'm Ross Hall. I've done a lot of stuff. I've flown planes around Greenland; driven a submarine; lived on an aircraft carrier, and been on safari in Kenya - and that was just while I was in the Navy. Since then I have tested Navy ships, airplanes and helicopters, and helped design the engineering system for the Navy's new destroyer. Oh yes, I'm also a homeschool dad.

You can contact me at my Facebook page (, but I warn you that it's pretty boring.

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