Foolish quest for the roots of boredom

9th January 2009 at 00:00

"What's wrong with being a boring kind of guy?" George Bush once enquired. Well, a certain innate dullness may have equipped him for the Oval Office, but he surely will never have a career in England's classrooms. Ofsted chief Christine Gilbert this week announced that boring teachers had been identified as a distinct impediment to learning, and that henceforth they would be fair game for her inspectorate.

The reaction from the profession, unsurprisingly, has been defensive or dismissive. Must every lesson be an entertainment fest? Teachers have never been better. Who exactly is responsible for prescribing and policing a curriculum so restrictive that all excitement is squeezed out? You try doing a pedagogic pirouette under the beady eye of an inspector. And since when have they been so interesting?

Leaving aside wounded pride (and the wonderfully observed "a lot of life is boring and it's a useful skill learning to endure it"), the nub of Ms Gilbert's argument is that there is a link between uninspired teaching and poor behaviour: an engaged pupil is a better pupil. But is that entirely correct?

As researchers Esther Priyadharshini and Teresa Belton (pages 12-13) have found, "boredom" is a slippery and insufficient term for labelling divergent kinds of pupil reaction - dissatisfaction, rebellion, resentment. And meaningless: what bores one pupil captivates another. To try to eradicate it and identify the drones responsible for it would be pointless and foolish, though the profession would await with interest the development of an Ofsted-sanctioned clapometer to register class satisfaction.

More seriously, how clear is the link between engaged and entertained pupils and their performance? England recorded a significant improvement in last month's Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Yet the same survey found the proportion of pupils reporting "highly positive" attitudes to those subjects fell by more than 20 per cent. In other words, the country's overall performance was generally eclipsed only by those East Asian nations whose idea of inspired pedagogy is to give pupils the occasional Sunday off.

In short, can pupils be propelled up international league tables and have fun? And if, despite Ms Gilbert's assumptions, Ofsted had to choose between performance and inspiration, what would it be?

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