The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #29 September / October 2017
Boredom And Classroom Students - A Teacher's Perspective
by Olivier Elzingre
September / October 2017 | 

At a time when autodidacticism, or self-learning, is celebrated, I would like to take this opportunity to promote the old-fashion formal classroom, by addressing some of the criticism found in web-based language learning platforms.

Often mentioned, boredom is known to be felt in language classrooms. I will not deny that despite my best effort, some students claim to be bored. What is extraordinary is that boredom, in my experience as a teacher, does not stem from the curriculum content. Ask students to prepare a presentation on anything they are interested in French, and immediately a chorus of bovine moans drowns the classroom. How can students be bored if they choose the content? Tell students, however, to complete a very structured problem-based “fill in the table based on the following text” activity, a flurry of activity immediately ensues, students turn to their friends to compare answers, check vocabulary, negotiate ways to complete the work, etc. You may think that I am exaggerating, but this is precisely what happened in my class on the day I wrote these words.

So what was it that engaged the students? Was it the amazing content or the incredible “mise en page”? Of course not. It was the provision of activities which could be completed by all students, the tasks which were gradually more difficult, the certainty that though they may get a lot wrong, they will also get a lot right, and finally and for some students most importantly, the teacher walking around the class helping students individually, answering questions and giving clues. In other words, guiding rather than teaching.

The next snippet is another illustration of why I think that boredom is not what it seems. Recently, a young girl loudly announced in my class “this is boring!” I firmly believe that when students are on task, they cannot be bored. I told her quite dryly that her head was light enough to hold itself up. I also asked her to see me after class. When the bell unshackled surprisingly smiling students from their desks, a sulking 13 year-old girl approached my table. I told her that it had been quite rude to announce so loudly that she was bored. Had she been on task? No. Had I asked her to return to her work? You bet I did. Did she do it? With as much enthusiasm as an innocent person condemned to a long sentence. With the pressure of her friends waiting outside the class, I asked her how she was. Her non-committed answer told me that she was not going to open up, but I then said something she didn’t expect: “Sorry I told you off, it wasn’t fair of me to do so.” Used appropriately and at the right moment, I find that admission of my own responsibility when something hasn’t gone ideally can turn things around. Of course, it was rude of her to so blatantly announce her boredom, with the purpose of attracting attention and causing a reaction. Yet, I am the adult, and she is very young. She didn’t apologise, nor did I ask her to do so, though I most certainly left it open. The following class, she sat in the middle of the room, next to one of the class’s top students. She worked well, pointed out when I had missed something, was engaged. Too cool to admit her own fault, she apologised by way of reconnecting with the work.

I consider the two above situations successes in my practice. Yet there are plenty of examples in my career that illustrate failings. Perhaps what is important about those failures is to learn from them and make improvements.

About 10 years ago, I was teaching a year 10 class (students are 15-16 year old). Everything went well in the first term, students working well, smiling. A new teacher, I thought they were ready for a challenge and tried to give them material that was too difficult for their level. In my fantasies, I thought students would engage with the task, spend time trying to figure out the language, ask questions, eventually celebrate their success in a culmination of their learning journeys. That did not take place. Instead, anxiety set it, and I didn’t notice it until it was too late. Students started to disengage and refuse to do work either at home or in class. As I was feeling the stress of having lost scores of students, I called the parents of a girl who had been oppositional in class. From this point on, she refused not only all work and made a point of not writing even her name on test papers, she refused to speak to me until she left the school more than 2 years later.

This disaster taught me how far I can challenge my students, how to identify early signs of anxiety and among other things taught me not to call home behind a student’s back!

It is too easy to forget that some learning is facilitated by teaching. It’s also too easy to forget that not all teaching is effective. Teachers frequently remind themselves that they are dealing with people, and therefore cannot control all factors in the classroom. They tend to forget that they are “people” too and that not everything they do in the classroom will end up with actual learning.

Evidently, the presence of a teacher gives learning a language a relational dimension - failures and successes are expressed aloud and enacted socially. This dimension may render all language learning more intimidating.

When a person is able to cope with the anxiety of a classroom environment, half the battle is won. To me, a student who claims to be bored is a sign that our relationship needs to find a more stable state, and of course there is no training on how to create a teacher-student relationship that leads to motivation and learning. What it does invariably mean, however, is that language classes are without doubt more fundamentally affecting than any self-guided language learning.

Final word

Learning a foreign language is hard work. A language class is often the stage of tension, self-consciousness and anxiety, a place where emotions run high. A language class is also the place where a person trained in the pedagogy of foreign language teaching and learning provides a coherent, structured program, alongside regular contact hours. Whether you end up liking your teacher or not, your ability as a learner to achieve your goals may rest in a large part in a mutual acceptance of each other’s presence in the classroom.

Olivier Elzingre is a PhD candidate researching motivation and identity development in study abroad contexts. He teaches high school French in Australia. Correspondence to

Boredom And Classroom Students - A Teacher's Perspective
Writer: Olivier Elzingre
Petey: Bored girl (title); Classroom 1; Classroom 2

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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