by Melissa A. Butler
Boredom means different things to different people. Some try to avoid it. Others embrace it as essential for creative process. Some use it as an opportunity to meditate. Others keep busy so they never have to feel it.
In school settings, there is not much variation in thinking about boredom. Most often, it continues to be something that is highly discouraged. People sound the alarm when they hear students say, “This is boring.” The mere utterance of the word boredom is quickly framed as a problem, an emergency to be fixed. It’s the teachers, the curriculum, the schedule, the classroom design. And thus, people set out to fix the “problem” and try to make things more fun, more engaging, and more relevant so students will stop being bored.
There are many well-intentioned efforts based in care for children and their learning experiences both in and out of schools. In the logic of our educational system, it makes sense that people want to invest in new programs, new initiatives, new curricula, new technologies. These are things that can be controlled, measured, framed as “solutions,” and result in observable evidence that children seem happier and less bored in school.
At best, however, these efforts remain on the surface and don’t dig deeply enough into the complexities of what it means to learn. The investment is helpful, but not sufficient to grow deep and rigorous processes for teaching and learning. At worst, though, these “solutions” actually make it more difficult for students to intrinsically motivate their own learning because they implicitly teach children that motivation for learning comes from outside of themselves—learning is about being entertained, having many choices, being “fun.” Thus, the “problem” of boredom is avoided, but the feelings underneath the boredom are ignored, making it increasingly difficult for children to learn what to do with these feelings.
In the short term, external motivators can be effective carrots to entice children’s learning and make things on the surface look “fixed.” It appears that children are engaged in learning, but what’s underneath? What are children really learning about learning? And what can we do as educators and parents in a system that tries to steer children away from boredom and steer schools away from complex conversations about learning?
For me, the question we need to be asking is this: How do we support all children to grow their own engagement in learning from inside themselves? Or, how do we nurture children to find their own internalized enjoyment and purpose in learning?
One specific first step we can practice in order to support more intrinsically motivated learning is to teach children how to grapple with their feelings of boredom. Here are some ways to start (and none of them requires buying anything new).
1. Notice instead of judge. Boredom is not a problem. It’s just information. When you hear a child say, “I’m bored,” simply notice it and listen for what’s underneath. Acknowledge the feelings. Hmm. That’s interesting. Tell me more. Ask questions. Why do you think you’re bored? What other word/s might you use to describe how you’re feeling?
2. Leverage feelings as material. Often children are taught to manage away their feelings or control them in some way. But feelings are a necessary material for finding out what it means to direct your own learning. When children articulate a feeling in the midst of learning, notice it, help children name it, and then invite other children to discuss. Charlie got mad at his blocks because they weren’t staying up the way he wanted. Maya felt sad because she didn’t know what else to think about with her button. She wanted to do something else. Robert hates multiplication. He says it’s “stupid.” Have you ever felt this way? What do you do when you feel this way during learning?
3. Find more opportunities for boredom. If you’re thinking “My students/children rarely say they are bored,” then you might consider that they aren’t getting enough opportunities to be bored and learn to direct their own learning motivations. Too often, activities are arranged (overly-scaffolded) so children have multiple options for how to begin and know exactly what choices they have when they “finish.” Learning spaces are stocked full of engaging materials and activities so children always have something to do. This is why children don’t know how to engage in their own thinking when they don’t know what to do. What they need are more open-ended spaces (times in the day with no direct task or way to be done) so they can practice finding ways to play and think grown from inside themselves. In other words, they need more practice not knowing what to do.
4. Start small. Less is more. The less stuff children have as options, the more they will need to invent in their minds. Arrange for times in the day when children have one rock or one leaf or one button or one key or one __. Allow them an opportunity to notice and wonder and imagine just with one small thing. This is a powerful way to support children in learning how to trust that they are enough and they have all they need for their learning inside themselves.
5. Notice yourself. Fred Rogers often said that “Learning is caught, not taught.” We teach who we are. Thus, it is important that we notice and reflect on our own dispositions for learning and our own feelings of boredom. How often do you look at your phone instead of just waiting? What do you do when something is hard and you don’t want to do it? How long could you do nothing? When do you use the word boring? And remember, #1: Notice instead of judge.
In The Power of Boredom, Mark A. Hawkins writes: “One way we can conceptualize boredom is by thinking of it as a type of space. When we think of space, we usually think of emptiness. But space is actually full of limitless potential (2016, p.8).” Imagine the depths of curiosity and playful rigor of children’s thinking if they could learn how to engage their feelings of boredom as limitless potential. Imagine the depths of learning in our schools if we could stop trying to fix them with new packages and allow educators more mind space to engage with the immensity of material that already exists inside all students.
We need to teach children how to grapple with their feelings of boredom.
Imagine the depths of curiosity and playful rigor of children’s thinking if they could learn how to engage their feelings of boredom as limitless potential.
Melissa A. Butler is a writer, researcher, and educator. To learn more about a noticing-based approach to teaching and learning, visit www.reimaginingproject.com.