Many a debate is sparked in education about the need for ‘engagement‘ in teaching and learning. Some dismiss ‘engagement‘ as the bastard language of OFSTED to encourage an adventure playground style approach to learning. For me it is something a little more quotidian, a little bit more…well, normal. It captures a buzz symptomatic of students tackling a challenge with effort and enjoyment. That being said, perhaps engagement isn’t the key at all. Maybe, against our instincts we should concentrate on boredom as the real secret to success for learning.

For many, ‘engagement‘ would be an apt antonym for ‘boredom‘. Now, surely almost any teacher would not wish to label their lessons as ‘boring’ – nor would they wish to be described as a boring teacher. However, crucially, we may need to prioritise boredom, maybe even celebrate boredom! Perhaps we should look to pursue teaching and learning that helps students achieve a mastery over boredom. I am not saying we shouldn’t seek to engage, but we need not fear being a bit dull either! Sometimes difficult, challenging work is easily dismissed as boring. We should be careful not to allow our students to confuse the two. In a culture of instant gratification, such heralding of gritty, boring work is unlikely to be an easy sell!

Why, you may ask, should we subject our students to spells of disinterest and impulse quashing boredom? Well, there are some well-founded scientific reasons to focus on a determined mastery over boring work? Now for some neuroscience… The crucial aspect that links mastery of boredom for our students to their learning behaviour is what scientists call ‘executive function‘. Put simply, it is a term used to describe the self-regulatory behaviours needed to guide our actions with success. When we plan or organise, shift and sustain our attention, or, crucially, inhibit our desire to stray from the task at hand, we are exercising our executive function (EF).

A couple of definitions of EF are useful:

[It is the] Orchestration of basic cognitive processes during goal-oriented problem-solving.
Neisser, 1967

Planning and sequencing of complex behaviours:
– Ability to pay attention to several components at
– Capacity for grasping the gist of a complex situation
– Resistance to distraction and interference
– Inhibition of inappropriate response tendencies
– Ability to sustain behavioral output for relatively prolonged periods
Stuss and Benson, 1984

I like the orchestration word choice. An orchestra would be a good analogy. It is the capacity of a student to be a virtuoso conductor – marshalling all their skill to keep procrastination at bay; to plan to succeed; to stay on task and to persevere. Then remembering all of this and do it again. Easy!

Fending off boredom and sticking to a dull task is paramount. This may strike us all as common sense. Indeed, this is true and it is nothing new, in scientific circles and beyond. Famously, Walter Mischel’s ‘marshmallow test‘, conducted in 1973, has long since shown that the capacity of small children to avoid eating the marshmallow, deferring their gratification and mastering their impulses, is crucial to success in learning and in life.

The ‘marshmallow test‘ is a really effective shorthand for how we need to help students strengthen their self-control, plan and sustain themselves through spells of boredom. In KIPP schools in America, this ‘character building‘ quest is central to the curriculum model. Their slogan is ‘don’t eat the marshmallow‘. More widely, research by Angela Duckworth about GRIT has also popularised the notion that what Victorians would have called ‘good character‘ is a crucial accompaniment to learning the best of what is thought and known.

There is also a great deal of research evidence to link impaired EF with students who have ADHD (see here) and Tourette’s Syndrome (see here). There is also ample research to prove that the ‘working memory‘ of students is essential to their learning, with any damage or impairment having significant repercussions – see the research here. The neuroscience of learning here strikes at the heart of many of the ‘misbehaviours‘ we know and recognise from our daily experience in the classroom. Of course, knowledge is power. The more we know about he reasons behind the science of learning, and of learning impairment, the more effective we can be as teachers.

In an excellent book about the effects of scarcity, entitled ‘Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much‘, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, they also show that children from poor backgrounds can be distracted more easily than their peers. Effectively they have had their EF impaired by their childhood experience. Social class can be crucial. Younger children from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to have better access to environments which better foster the development of their EF from birth, such as responsive caregivers, scaffolding, predictable order and an avoidance of threats and disruptive influences.

Consider being on a diet. Any person who has lived on a diet knows that any reference to food can prove horribly distracting – stealing all our attention and overwhelming the capacity for self-control. What does this mean for our students? If we return to the ‘marshmallow test‘ it can prove instructive. If we have students suffering from hunger, neglect or abuse, their capacity to exhibit self-control or to master boredom and function as a highly effective learner can be severely damaged. Any traumas suffered in early childhood can have a significantly damaging effect. Simply not having breakfast on a regular basis or a lack of sleep, staying up late playing on computer games, can have very damaging consequences. Our poorest and most vulnerable students often need the most help help to strengthen their EF.

Are there any easy answers or ‘silver bullets’? Of course not.

Should we dispense with traditional subject disciplines and teach a ‘character curriculum‘? Once more, the answer is no. Giving our students a strong foundation in knowledge helps them to strengthen their working memory, which is beneficial for students. They can better recall knowledge and therefore stick to a task better and make plans to improve. Yet, understandably, a deep reservoir of knowledge is not a singular solution. Recent cognitive research is proving that the capacity to pass tests (what is termed as ‘crystallised intelligence‘) does not correlate with the capacity to problem solve (or what is known as ‘fluid intelligence‘): see here. We must therefore consider the ‘how‘ of our curriculum and not just the ‘what‘. As we teach content we should consider ‘character‘.

Can we help our students strengthen their EF? Yes we can. Can we better instruct students to develop strong habits for learning and to master boredom? Yes we can.

Strengthening Executive Function to Master Boredom and More:

1. Planning to succeed:

– Relentlessly model the planning process with students. Provide different options for planning, such as concept mapping, listing etc. Co-construct plans before getting students to complete plans independently.
– Use graphic organisers or planning apps to help structure and prioritise their tasks, such as their homework.
– Use visual timers regularly to ensure students can better regulate their learning.
– Encourage the use of to-do lists with time estimates.
– Make long-term goals visible, but breakdown their learning into short-term, manageable goals. Creating SMART goals are understandably popular in this regard.

2. Difficulty getting started and struggling with complex tasks:

– See ‘planning to succeed’!
– Create routines and ‘cues’ for where and when students will begin a task.
– Provide students with a prompt list for a complex task.
– Structure and model note taking. ‘Triplicate Note Making‘ can help foreground strategies for memorisation.
– Use ‘worked examples‘ that you work through with students, identifying strengths and weaknesses in answers, as well as walking through common problems and misconceptions.
– Modelling is the real master skill teachers should utilise. Whether it is undertaking ‘shared writing’ or using exemplar models, these strategies should be repeated to reduce the mental workload of students that, when strained, leaves them prone to distraction.
– Review success criteria before a task to ensure students understand their goal.
– Encourage students to ask challenging ‘why‘ questions. This will help students remember the important knowledge and deepen their understanding, lessening the load on their working memory.
– Ensure explanations aren’t overloaded with too many steps. Keep to a core message. With lengthy tasks, remind the child of crucial information for that particular phase of the task, rather than repetition of the original instruction. Ensure that the child hasn’t forgotten crucial information by asking them to repeat it back.
– Encourage students to have a ‘growth mindset‘ attitude to their learning.

3. Easily prone to procrastination and distraction:

– See ‘Difficulty getting started…’.
– Create support scaffolds. For example, create ‘if then…’ options. A list of potential solutions if they are stuck or struggling. If a student is writing you may support students with an accessible literacy guide or other support tools, like dictionaries etc. If they get stuck with a problem in Maths do students know which previous topics and problems could support their thinking? A quick discussion of ‘if then…’ options before a significant task could eliminate a myriad of time-consuming obstacles to learning.
– Provide students with a scaffold for their writing or their task.
– Create an orderly atmosphere where distraction is obvious. If silence is golden in the classroom then distraction is typically audible. Create the conditions for real focus. Rather than allowing for immediate, knee-jerk questions, get students to write questions on a post-it note. This usually dissuades students from asking ‘learned helplessness‘ questions that they know the answer to already!
– Remind students of the ‘why‘ of the learning. What long-term goal are they working towards that will ramp up their motivation to stay on task and avoid procrastination?
– Talk and share habit building strategies. Repeating mantras like ‘don’t eat the marshmallow‘ can foreground the fact that it is natural to struggle with self-control and procrastination.

4. Difficulty in self-monitoring:

– Allocate time to reflect on a given task. Talk about what didn’t work and how you would alter the plan next time. DIRT time is crucial here.
– Use ‘gallery critique‘ to create a dialogue about improving their work and reaching the highest of standards.
– Make good progress visible. Using a visualiser or an iPad, you can image project images of work in progress. More simply, ask students to read their answers aloud and conduct high quality instant feedback.
– Ensure students have a skilled grasp of the assessment criteria, sharing marked exemplars etc.

Will these measures ‘fix‘ students? Of course not. Are many of the strategies simply part of good teaching and learning and nothing new – well, yes! Still, we should bear in mind the importance of boredom – and the capacity to master boredom. As Walter Mischel states – the human brain has tremendous ‘plasticity‘ – our brain and our behaviours can change. We can strengthen our will and learn to conquer the slings and arrows of distraction and boredom.

Further reading:

This Harvard PDF is essential reading for the definition and development of EF: see here.

A useful article on mastering procrastination by strengthening EF: see here.

Useful definition and tips for parents and teachers for strengthening EF: see here.


Featured image via Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images