Combating boys' boredom in the classroom

Keeping things interesting for boys.
Keeping things interesting for boys. Photo: Getty

Last week saw the beginning of term three in most public schools around the country and whether your son is into science or soccer, chances are he has days he is reluctant to go to school. But what happens when this reluctance turns into a real apathy and what can we do to sustain our boys' engagement, even enjoyment of school? 

Lisa* whose son is in Year Two at a school in Sydney’s North says that “by the end of last term he just seemed to have lost interest. He still loves the sport and hanging out with his mates but he’s not really trying with homework and things, it’s like he’s suddenly bored.”

One teacher who feels dismay when hearing of boredom in the classroom is Kevin Gallagher, a teacher with over thirty years of experience and Relieving Principal of Beauty Point Public School in Mosman. He comments, “The new curriculum in NSW opens up possibilities to run with things you might not have otherwise and in a fantastic multimedia way.” Broad topics, such as ‘Monsters’ are chosen and then explored in many different ways and utilising many different resources, hopefully led by the students interests. With monsters this took us from studying the creatures of Greek Mythology, to the making of animated movie Monsters Inc via DIY monsters in art, and exploring the monsters of the deep in science.”

There have been many papers written and hands wrung over the disconnection of boys from education. One of these, ‘Do Boys dislike school or just what they’re learning?’ supports Mr Gallagher’s strongly held belief that it is virtually impossible to teach children unless they are self-motivated and interested - and it is vital for teachers to support this. Though the study focused on later years, instilling in youngsters a love of learning and maintaining their natural curiosity is crucial to them succeeding in education later. 'Enquiry Based Learning' is the norm at Beauty Point, allowing, Mr Gallagher points out, “some degree of student control over which direction their study will go, giving everyone the chance to engage with the topic.”  

He cites another project undertaken this year, part of the core curriculum called ‘The Way We Were’ (otherwise known as history).’ Everyone was invited to bring old objects in to class and discuss them, leading to much hilarity such as when the kids were given a music tape; “they were turning it every which way, asking, ‘what do I do with it?’” he laughs.  “So we played it, and they were amazed, engaged and connected.  The lesson in history was made relevant to them. There has to be that connection to their lives” 

Though Enquiry Based Learning is implemented every year, the syllabus goes in sets of two years beginning in Year One. The first year in a set introduces new concepts and the second consolidates that learning. This, coupled with the split between the junior years of K-2 and and seniors of 3-6 means that, by Year Two some kids might be feeling like they are something of a big fish in a small pond, meaning they might simply be ready for new challenges. One such boy is James, whose mum Polly* comments, “I feel like this year James is coasting. He’s enjoying doing well but not being inspired to reach for great heights. His competitive streak kept him pushing ahead last year but now, having achieved a lot he’s taken his foot off the accelerator a bit.”

Caitlin* is another mum whose elder son, despite having a had a dislike of school, performed well in the end. She says, “He was always involved in class discussions in subjects that interested him, and though he completed assignments etc on time, he never performed to the best of his ability. I always felt that he was ''bored'' at school because it was ''for kids'' and he has always been precocious for his age. I felt like he was biding his time, waiting for the real world, and couldn't wait to finish school and just get out. He did well enough in the HSC to get into his course and uni of choice, and now he is using all his skills and abilities.”

Utilising and encouraging a student’s natural interests and talents seems very important in whether a boy succeeds or not, and whether they are even willing to try. Kevin Gallagher touches on this when he makes the point that it is “imperative before starting to teach them that the teacher finds out what they already know.  We were blown away when we realised that about 75% of kids entering Kindy could count and recognise the numbers 1 to 10 (thanks Bruno Mars). We had been sitting them down teaching them that. Of course they’d get bored.”

The battle of screen time is a topic with which we are all familiar and on which we all probably hold strong views. Kevin Gallagher points out the need for the classroom to keep up visual stimulus and excitement. One of his former pupils, Harry Pollock, the inspiring young man discussed in ‘The Importance of teenage role models’ (and who turns out not be as self-conscious as this writer supposed), believes “that boredom in young kids during school is probably caused from the over use of screens in everyday life. Many young children just spend their time on an iPad sitting down, not doing much. The lack of energy release can make children bored in class. Because of this normality of boredom produced by technology it creates a largely mutual outlook on school being uncool. To combat boredom from my experience teachers would have outside lessons just to engage the students which was very effective. Using the whiteboard less and making activities more interactive is also a very effective tool in combating boredom.” 

We are lucky to live in an amazingly interactive time with a modern teaching model which, when utilised well, brings vibrancy and fascination to the classroom, whether boys are into maths, music or monsters. 

*Names have been changed

Julia Cahill is a mum and freelance writer. She blogs about life at www.juliacahillswords.com