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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

This article was first published in the Teacher Development Special Interest Group Newsletter, number 54, Spring 2007

Challenging Boredom

Simon Marshall, UK

Simon Marshall is a teacher/teacher trainer at Pilgrims, Canterbury. He has worked as an ELT teacher, trainer and academic manager for more than 25 years both within the UK and overseas. He is particularly interested in the principled application of Humanistic Approaches to language teaching and teacher training. He is a keen etymologist and reader of philosophy and psychology. E-amil:




My seemingly oxymoronic interest in boredom results from some unpalatable teaching experience I gained while working in a UK college of further education in the late 1990s. English lessons lasted three hours in the morning, attracting a variety of highly motivated language learners, mostly in their early to mid-twenties, from various countries across the world. They were keen to improve their English for both personal and professional reasons. As a rule, these lessons were an absolute pleasure to teach. Everything was sunlight and roses until a sudden and completely unexpected change occurred.


I entered class one morning with my usual verve only to find three new students sound asleep on their desks! Internally I was severely taken aback but tried my level best to conceal my discomfort. The other members of the class looked as uneasy as I felt inside, shuffled their papers, went different shades of red and manufactured sufficiently loud coughs to awaken our "sleeping beauties". I was determined neither to lose my cool nor to ask for justification for their behaviour. In addition, I was not prepared to arouse any conflict through confrontational admonition. I simply decided to start the lesson. I soon noticed that these new arrivals were markedly reluctant to join in pair and group work and were equally unforthcoming during whole class activities. They appeared uninterested, lacking in attention and wholly fed up with the entire process of the lesson. They frequently asked to leave the room and generally gave the impression of being ill at ease. The lesson came to an end and many of the regular attendees shuffled out with unusual haste. The atmosphere was horribly tense. I was now determined to talk to this palpably unhappy trio.

In short, they told me that they had come to England at their (extremely wealthy) parents' bidding. They claimed, quite accurately, that English was one of their native languages and that studying the language bored them. I found their accents difficult to decipher and the structural aspects of their English unusual, but it was patently clear that when they said they were bored that they meant it. I was deflated but by no means defeated.

The next day I entered the staff room and heard some far less experienced colleagues discussing other members of this "packed off to England" group with great concern. I joined in readily with the exchange. One relatively new teacher said to me, what amounted to "I feel so responsible. What can I do so they won't get bored?" I resisted the temptation to give a teacher-trainerly formulaic rescue remedy and said, "those people were bored before the lesson had even started, how can we really be fully responsible for this?" I'm going to challenge them about it." I had set a clear agenda for myself.

After the next lesson with the same class, the same three students continued to show a resolute lack of commitment or engagement, again causing acute unease among their peers. Once the lesson ended I spoke to the threesome again. I asked them several questions, including:

Were you bored before or after the lesson started?
What activities would make for an interesting class?
What does your boredom feel like?

These questions seemed to cause them a good deal of discomfort and annoyance. Tellingly, they were only able to say what they didn't like. I made it plain to them that I couldn't allow their behaviour to have an adverse affect on the other members of the class and the flow of the lessons in general.

None of them attended my next class.

Due to pressure from higher college authorities and the threat of reprisals from home, they soon began to come to class again and, little by little, showed a more cooperative attitude, although they never demonstrated anything close to what I would define as enthusiasm. At least their attendance no longer disturbed the other members of the class.

Again I talked to colleagues about how the situation was unfolding and we wholeheartedly agreed that a teacher's limits of responsibility only stretch so far! We concurred that teachers should be caring and supportive but not carry the burden of their students' feelings.

My fascination with boredom was now burgeoning and I started to search for articles on the topic. There was the usual illimitable choice on the web, both anecdotal and academic in nature. However, site that grabbed my attention most was, "To produce or not to produce? Understanding boredom and the honour of underachievement." (Kanevsky, L & Keighly, T) Although the subjects of this study, Canadian secondary students with high intelligence quotients (and, yes, I am aware of the well founded misgivings about the latter term) were very different in nature to those I had been working with, I garnered some fascinating observations and data from this invaluable research project.

Fifty per cent of the 25,000 young people interviewed in this survey claimed that they were bored at school fifty per cent of the time, across a wide range of subjects, rather than just in language classes. There were a number of diverse influences that they considered major causes for boredom. Teaching approaches which they found frustrating and dull were copying, memorising, regurgitation, repetition and waiting (for their classmates to finish.) They associated these activities with what they termed "schooling," a lifeless state also characterised by teacher directedness, over reliance on the textbook and familiar content.
"Schooling" deprived them of what they regarded as "the Essential Five Cs," namely:

The fair distribution of power between teacher and students.

The explicit opportunities to act on one's preferences concerning lesson content, process and pace. They also requested choice in relation to the environment in which they learnt.

Engaging the intellect, working at a fast pace and with an appropriate level of complexity.

Required a mixture of novel, authentic, abstract and open ended experiences.

Unsurprisingly, a quality of the teacher; one who is "non judgemental, fair, flexible and humorous." These teachers use "discovery, enquiry, hands on methods, varying their techniques and media."

These "Five Cs" constituted "learning," which they contrasted most favourably with the aforementioned mind numbing "schooling." The difference is captivatingly expressed by one student's formulation "(that) we are never bored when we are learning and never learning when we are bored." These students valued learning activities taking place in a meaningful context and within what Vytgotsky termed their "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). This is where the learning objective is just beyond the limit of an individual's current level of competence, but sufficiently within their range to achieve independently.

Many of those interviewed were sympathetic to the difficulties faced by their teachers but ultimately they failed to produce assignments, played truant and left school as soon as they possibly could.


The main conclusions of this research initiative are:

  • Bored students demoralise teachers.
  • Bored teachers demoralise students.
  • Adolescents and senior citizens are more boredom prone than children and adults.
  • Extroverts are more easily bored than introverts.
  • Men are more boredom prone than women.
  • Boredom and curiosity are the most common causes of drug use.
  • Boredom is one of the most frequently identified causes for leaving school temporarily or permanently.
  • Boredom is both dispositional (related to the nature of the individual) and situational (the school system, classroom environment, teaching methods etc.)
  • There is no definitive evidence that intelligence and boredom are related but it appears that situational boredom affects high ability students more.

These findings are strongly resonant of Earl Stevick's "Five Pillars of Alienation" where students suffer "alienation from the topic, the materials, the teacher, their peers and themselves."

It is obvious that the results of one project from Canada cannot be over generalised to the many different contexts within which we work but I feel they do raise many crucial issues. I was "one of the lucky ones" who found school interesting and engaging, however, I can remember in certain lessons some of the ghastly sense of alienation described above. Nonetheless, I attended school many, many moons ago so I decided to create a questionnaire for two seventeen year olds who were both well known to me. One was a young woman who found school tolerable, especially after reaching the stage where she could choose the subjects she studied. The other was a young man who hated school so much that he even ran away from home to avoid it. Both are highly articulate and intelligent. The following are the questions I asked them:

  1. Roughly, what percentage of your time at school do you find boring?
  2. If you are interested in the subject but the teacher is boring, can you still enjoy the lesson?
  3. Can a good teacher make a subject interesting for you even if it is one that you don't like very much?
  4. What type of activities in foreign language lessons do you find interesting/boring?
  5. What are some of the personal qualities and teaching style of a boring teacher?
  6. Do you think your feeling of boredom is a result of outside influences or something that starts from within you?
  7. To what extent do you think that your feelings of boredom are your own responsibility?
  8. To what extent do you think that your teacher should "entertain" you?
  9. When you are bored, which strategies, if any, do you employ to overcome the feeling?
  10. What other feelings are close to boredom for you? Anger, frustration, tiredness etc? The young man gave the following poetic, almost mystical answer for number 10 "completely switch off and enter a Zen like trance."

(For full answers to the young man's questionnaire, please go to "Humanising Language Teaching" March 2005 at and look at a piece entitled "Boredom")

You may wish to use the above questionnaire, incorporating your own adaptations, with your own students who claim to be bored rather than simply "trying harder" in order to investigate, with a productive outcome in mind, the reasons for boredom setting in.

I would now like to return to the specific conclusion that "bored teachers demoralise bored students" as this is something I am certain we have some degree of control over. Have you, like me, ever become bored with your own lessons due to over familiarity with the content, relying too much on externally produced materials or simply "wishing the students were different?" If so, what strategies do you employ to fend off tedium?

It seems that nearly all humans at one time or another are gripped by boredom, described with ferocious insight by Charlotte Whitton as "like a pitiless arrow zooming in on the epidermis of time. Every instant dilated and magnified like the pores of the face." Like pain, taxation, and administrative school meetings we treat boredom as something to be avoided at all costs, yet is it not part of the human condition? Dr Richard Ralley, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College, Lancashire says "boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of such emotions as being dysfunctional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason……(Boredom) can be useful. When there's nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy. Boredom is natural so let's do something with it." Elsewhere Lars Svenson says in his new work "A Philosophy of Boredom," "Boredom is a typical phenomenon of modernity… relevant for practically everyone in the western world."


As I have tried to suggest throughout this article, boredom, like many other "negative emotions," can be the entry point into vivifying action enquiry where the "sufferer" can participate in the process of remedying their ills. Teachers are frequently caring, dedicated "other oriented" people who feel a great deal of responsibility for their students. Sometimes this sense of responsibility can become an ocean in which they drown - indeed, research sadly indicates that some of the most dedicated teachers are leaving the profession due to overwhelming emotional pressure that are placed upon them and that they also place on themselves. Is it not more healthy, more creative and more productive to take responsibility along with students wherever possible so everyone can benefit?


Stevick, Earl W. 1990. "Humanism" in Language Teaching: A Critical Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Svendsen, L. 2004. A Philosophy of Boredom. Reaktion Books.

J. Baker, J. & M. Rinvolucri. 2005 Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP. Delta Publishing.

Butt, R. 2006. "Boredom could be good for children." Article in "The Guardian" 13.4.06.,,1752599,00.html

Ouspensky, P.D. "In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching." Harvest. (1947)


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