Targeting boredom in school, in life
If you ask students what they think of school, I bet “BORE-R-RING” is one of the top answers.
Bertrand Russell observed that “half of the sins of mankind are caused by a fear of boredom.” Students make mischief in class because of boredom, so do teachers in faculty rooms. Boredom seems to have made some of the most powerful people commit all kinds of foolishness!
While boredom is commonly associated with monotonous or repetitive activities, or having nothing to do, psychologists look at it as a state of understimulation or underarousal, a lack of interest or involvement or momentum. Interestingly, boredom is associated with the experience of time.
The German word for boredom, langeweile, means long time.
In “Humboldt’s Gift”, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow says boredom is “the pain of unused powers, wasted possibilities”. Hence, underchallenged intelligent students are bored in class. When things are too easy, when mental challenge is lacking, students experience boredom. Again the same goes for teachers.
Boredom and schooling
In school, boredom is induced by meaningless or repetitive tasks, abstract or decontextualized activities, nondirected periods between activities, or restrictive circumstances. They result in mental shutdown while waiting.
Students are bored with tasks that are beyond or below their capabilities. Moments that threaten an individual’s self-esteem can also precipitate boredom.
And what are the effects of boredom? Boredom has been associated with ailments, listlessness, fatigue, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hostility, vanity, self-absorption, and lowered work performance.
A proneness to boredom is associated with an inclination to hostility and aggression, sensation-seeking, impulsivity and destructive behaviors. Disciplinary offices in schools are busy with bored students!
Types of boredom
It may help to distinguish “situational” from “dispositional” boredom that reveals differences in possible causes—either a lack of external stimulus or a lack of internal stimulus.
There is also a distinction between “responsive” and “chronic”—one transient, a response to a specific external situation; the other an ongoing malaise experienced by those who feel bored much of the time.
Lastly, note the difference between “agitated” and “apathetic” boredom—the former experienced by students in monotonous tasks or with too much leisure time, and the latter by individuals whose lives lack meaning.
Lost art form
Believe it or not, a certain amount of boredom is good. It allows for relaxation, contemplation, daydreaming, and imagining alternatives. Boredom also presents an opportunity for thought before action, and a stimulus for creativity.
Children who cannot stand boredom and whose minds and senses are constantly assaulted by a barrage of sights and sounds through the Internet, cell phones, and television, are robbed of the space or silence to engage in more inward activities of observation, reflection and assimilation of experience.
Amusing ourselves to death
The number of people who suffer from chronic, dispositional, apathetic boredom, particularly among the upper-class youth, has risen significantly.
Adolescents are particularly likely to complain of boredom due to uncertainty about their identity and goals. They are “amusing themselves to death”, as Neil Postman’s landmark book declares.
Technology offers speed but obsession with speed destroys the natural rhythm of culture. The accelerated pace makes it difficult to experience life, except as a series of fluid and fleeting impressions that further induces boredom.
According to Walter Benjamin (1999), boredom could be a defense mechanism against activity and anonymity, a screen against stimuli. Outward high-tech presentations will not ease inward boredom.
Society tells us we need stuff to do, but sometimes we do so much stuff and have so much stuff that we don’t have time to think about the important stuff—the meaning of life.
H. Zeiger suggests boredom is a product of doing too much rather than too little, which means teachers preparing a full day of cheap gimmicks will not alleviate boredom.
Among the many topics I teach in the university these many years, the idea of “Flow” of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi consistently catches the attention of my students, who themselves are teachers.
The key to great teaching is learning to keep the delicate balance of matching skills with capabilities of the students so they could experience “flow” instead of boredom (because of too little challenge) or anxiety (too much challenge).
Activities that produce “flow” have clear goals, clear rules, immediate feedback—tasks that focus our attention and make demands on our skills, and make one feel competent and in control such that he loses a sense of time.
The opposite of flow is psychic entropy—which happens often in class.
To nurture children’s full cognitive and affective engagement with learning tasks, teachers are advised to provide choice that reflects respect for student’s own goals and learning agendas.
Exercising choice will foster self-awareness and intellectual self-control, allowing children to pause, consider and reflect to become responsible and autonomous.
Carol Dweck (1988) says children are greatly helped when they learn to develop “learning goals” that have internal meaning rather than “achievement goals” that are dependent on the judgment of others. For the intrinsically motivated students, school offers opportunities for them to be actively engaged.
An important vision in class is to prevent passive spectatorship among students. In Csikszentmihalyi’s research, watching television produces the least flow. Have you observed how indifferent the TV audience looks? Engaging in hobbies is two times more likely to produce flow than watching TV and active games and sports about three times more.
Consider this: Even if teachers are acting like TV entertainers, it would still be very difficult to cure boredom in class.
Autotelic teachers, students
To help counter boredom, both teachers and students must learn how to be autotelic—from Greek, meaning “self” and “goal”. An autotelic person needs few possessions, little entertainment, no fame or power, because what he does is already rewarding.
An autotelic task is one student-and-teacher will do for its own sake because the experience is the goal. Curious and creative people are usually autotelic.
Someone says, “The cure for boredom is curiosity and there is no cure for curiosity.”
As teachers, are we ingenious enough to input ideas and provide experiences that will arouse student curiosity? Are we secure in our competence not to stifle creativity? Are school authorities appreciative of such teachers?
E-mail the author at email@example.com
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