“Boredom is the luxury of those who have time to realize it” - I’m sure I heard that once as a bored teen along with “There are no boring ideas, just boring people” and “Go do something”. As a high school teacher and parent of school aged children, I have become very well acquainted with the lament of boredom. For example:
“Mom, I’m bored.” said the child who had to step over piles of Legos to unearth me hiding behind the pillow of the couch while attempting a grown-up book.
“Why is this reading SOOOO boring?” said the ninth grade student when asked to stop napping during sustained silent reading.
“How am I ever going to get through all this homework. I’m so bored!” said the same student, five minutes later.
“I failed my Stats class. The professor was so boring!” said the college student who I used to have to scold for sleeping during class.
“Filing things is boring.” said college grad (who passed Stats on the third go around) when entering the workforce.
It is appropriately ironic that the time in my life when I feel I best understand the concept of boredom is the time when I don’t have the luxury of experiencing it often. When someone is hard at work, whether out of necessity, passion or both, it is difficult to have the time to reflect on one’s state of being. Fortunately, or unfortunately, adolescents see reflecting on their state of being as a full time job and therefore, anyone around an adolescent hears about boredom. A lot. Developmental psychology tells us that this is normal, that the ability to think about oneself is related to metacognition and awareness of one’s thinking. It doesn’t make it any less annoying.
When I first began teaching and later began parenting, I repeated some of the same dictums about boredom I’d heard all my life. And years passed with the word becoming more annoying with each utterance. Then, the director of my children’s preschool sent out an article from Hand in Hand Parenting about the cries of boredom from preschool and school aged children. My takeaway from the article was that kids often equate feeling disconnected with being bored. It encouraged getting physically closer to your child, even giving a hug, to reconnect them with a living, breathing person. So, I tried it out. When my son said he was bored, I told him to come give me a hug. We began talking about what he was playing and brainstormed some alternatives. Then, he found interest in something else and better yet, I didn’t feel guilty for his boredom. He felt better. I felt better. Did it work every time? No. Did it give me more options? Yes. And so, as with any experiment I run on my children, I thought about how it would translate to my students.
When I looked at my students’ struggles with boredom through the lens of connection, the behavior looked less like whining and more like something deeper. Recently, my students were reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I broached the topic of boredom and connection in discussing Carr’s analysis of the Pavlovian addiction that we have cultivated to our electronic devices. When I told them I felt that boredom was a sign of feeling disconnected, one of my students recalled how she was very bored the previous day when studying for an exam. Another classmate had decided to lift people’s spirits by giving out hugs in study hall, and she realized during our conversation that it had been easier to go back to her studying once she had connected to a friend. After that realization, other students agreed and thought about their experiences feeling disconnected from each other. Again, was it universally true? No. Yet, today’s teens are seemingly more connected than any modern generation. They have an electronic tether to their closest friends and their most distant acquaintances at all hours. They also experience a lot of disconnect because of their artificial sense of connection. They communicate less through nuance, being unable to share a look or gesture to add meaning to a comment, so their conversations, even when active, often lack the sense of connection that a look or handshake can convey.
Beyond a feeling of disconnect from one another, many of my students’ cries of boredom are rarely about having nothing to do, but rather the overwhelm of one task asking more than they can give. Kids who are bored of reading are generally those who struggle with it; the same seems true of almost any course of study. Building connection is incredibly important in overcoming that boredom. It is not simply recommiting oneself to the task, “working harder”, will make the task any easier or less boring. There needs to be a way for the information to be meaningful or connected to another idea in that amazingly dynamic brain in their heads. As brain science confirms, we store memories like a spiderweb, not a filing cabinet. So, helping young people find a sticky spot on that web is critical in making a task less boring. The information has a place to go in their memory and it can be made sense of through the information it is getting stuck to. That is why effective teachers use questions like these on “bored” students:
What is the last detail that you remember reading? Was there something confusing after that?
What unit are you studying? Was it what you were working on last week?
So these homework questions seem repetitive, what are the differences between them?
What do you think this is trying to get you to remember?
Does it seem like something you have studied before?
And sometimes work IS repetitive. But that does not mean it is redundant; it may be recursive, in that the repetition leads to something new, that it is necessary to move forward. It is dangerous to give students language that excuses their boredom too quickly. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard the following from a high school student, “I think the homework is pointless.” That comment comes up in problem solving another significant problem in class- poor performance on tests, negative attitude with a teacher, lack of ability to work in groups or a ridiculously low homework score. These students are often those that adults tell are “very smart” and who make comments about the homework being beneath them. Sometimes, these students are not being challenged. And, sometimes a teacher needs to be asked where an assignment fits in the scheme of things. But most of the time, there is a need to make clear the connection to even doing what seem to be the most redundant tasks. Young people do not possess the skills (or web of knowledge) to distinguish redundancy from recursiveness. Supportive adults who want a student to be successful should suggest ways to make the work seem relevant, even when they are questioning that work’s relevance in their own mind. Then, they should have a conversation with the teacher seeking explanation or model for their child a non-judgemental way to ask how they can make connections between the work and a larger goal. Students who learn to approach work this way tend to be more resilient and tend to be less bored.
Adults know that there are some necessary, redundant tasks in life that are part of being independent. (I don’t particularly care for paying bills. But, LIFE.) We know that paying bills on time have some important consequences (sometimes learned the hard way), but it gets prioritized or automated and it gets done. The executive function required in making decisions about where to dedicate one’s time is an important one to cultivate. When young people are given an escape route in believing that anything that is “boring” to them is unnecessary, there are important cognitive skills going under-developed. More importantly, as a teacher and a citizen of the world, I want the young people of today to see what they are doing as connected to something more than their i-device. I want them to see that they can seek that connection between things and it empowers them. When they are encouraged to examine their own boredom as a need to connect, maybe they will make connecting a practice to hearing the real needs of the world and the people around them and learned that being plugged in goes beyond a socket.