No one became a teacher so they can bore kids (p. 176). So says Martha Severtson Rush, author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, a practice-oriented text designed to share the results of the authors teaching experience and her survey of 800 high school students and graduates. I can certainly relate to this statement as a former high school teacher and now a university teacher educator. The hours of reading, creating, and planning activities arent spent to inspire boredom. As a parent of a teenage son, Im sure his teachers also didnt get into the profession to elicit his disinterested sighs and shrugs. What is the nature of adolescent boredom and what can we do about it?
Rushs text, in truth, aims to address the second question more than the first. She maintains that active learning or teaching with high-engagement strategies (p. 8) is necessary to reduce boredom among adolescents. The text, then, is organized primarily around six such strategies: storytelling, discussion and debate, problem-based learning, simulation, competition, and authentic tasks. In a way thats standard for methods texts, each chapter offers rich content area descriptions that illustrate the strategy as well as tips for teaching. Rushs writing style is engaging, crafting stories about practice that take us inside her own and other teachers classrooms. The methods themselves are intended for use in any content area, though they are not particularly novel. Secondary teachers, and especially those unfamiliar with these methods, will learn something new and gain practical insights from reading Rushs engaging text.
Storytelling and discussion strategies are a great place to start. These are common methods in most teachers repertoires, so attending to them makes a great deal of sense; Rush emphasizes how teachers can make more deliberate use of these methods for student engagement. For example, in discussing storytelling, she emphasizes the need to connect stories to a larger set of goals for instruction. While storytelling can reify the sage on the stage, Rush emphasizes relationships and the back-and-forth exchange that can arise through storytelling. She also suggests that encouraging students to share their stories relieves teachers from always having to be in the center. In exploring discussion, Rush similarly notes how discussion builds relationships and that nurturing a culture that values talk can start by using cold-calling to get students used to speaking up.
While the book is practical, easy to read, and makes an important point that engaging strategies are critical for adolescent learners, the framing of the problem leaves something to be desired. Rushs central premise in her first chapters about boredom and high school teaching offer a critique of secondary teaching and teenagers. No doubt the author did not intend to convey negativity. She herself is a secondary teacher and her reflections on her own teaching reveal that she is highly effective with the age group. However, she casts teenagers as tuned out in the sub-title of the book and bemoans the state of high school education to establish a case for the techniques highlighted in the book. At times, she gives a nod to amazing work done by teachers in some classes, yet what sticks out are some sloppy claims like more than 30 years after I graduated, most high school classes are still boring (p. 3). Comments like these risk alienating the audience for this book. Although Rush cites prominent educators and research that corroborate student reports of being bored, she discusses the idea of boredom in the absence of connecting to any powerful theory or construct like student engagement that might have created a more coherent rationale for these strategies. In my view, this was a missed opportunity to cast this topic through the lens of a more positive frame like engagement, rather than the negative image of boredom, in order to articulate an actual theory of change about what drives learning for adolescents.
Another limitation is the discussion of these strategies across the content areas. Within the discussion of the first three strategies of storytelling, discussion and debate, and problem-based learning, there was an attempt to balance core subject areas such as science, math, and English in the examples discussed. However, in the texts discussion of the final three strategies (simulations, competition, and authentic tasks), the range of disciplinary examples narrowed sharply, consisting primarily of examples from Rushs own experience teaching social studies, including economics, psychology, and government. While many content areas are represented, especially in the first half of the book, Rush quite understandably writes most passionately about social studies and her own classroom. The challenge is that, at times, you come to feel like you are reading a social studies methods text rather than a general text on combating boredom.
Moreover, the text could illuminate more about differentiation for these strategies. In references to student examples, Rush often mentions Advanced Placement or Honors students. This may leave the reader wondering how these strategies work for English language learners, students with disabilities, and other struggling students, even though theres nothing to indicate these strategies wouldnt work well with these students. To be sure, the discussion of these methods is well-written and provides insight into student experience and performance that is often missing in methods texts; the authors experience as a teacher and her relationships with students are clearly what make these rich descriptions possible.
In some chapters, Rush cites a lack of training to explain why teachers dont use some of the strategies she presents. She suggests teachers need to experience these methods themselves in order to do a better job of using them with their adolescent learners. Her intention here is a viewpoint I share; teachers need to experience professional learning that mirrors the kind of student learning to which they aspire. But Rush takes it a step further by suggesting teachers need to experience even more; she argues for a kind of empathy for our students and their experiences of school. To this end, Rush urges educators to think about what our students are experiencing and what they need from us in school, not just what they will produce for teachers (p. 26). When critics suggest that teachers should not have to work so hard to prevent boredom, she asks a question that gets at the purpose of her work: Do we want to treat high school education as an endurance test, something to be suffered through? Or do we want high school to be an opportunity for genuine learning and growth? (p. 29). Clearly, Rush wants a high school that supports learning and growth, and she feels that a key to beating boredom is to make learning more active.