When I talk to adults about their years of schooling, they rarely talk about what they learned in math class. They talk about teachers. They talk about their social life. And at some point almost all of them talk about the boredom.
Boredom researcher John Eastwood from York University in Canada defines boredom as "The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity." He and others have found that boredom is linked to, and in some circumstances potentially the cause of, depression and anger, pathological gambling, bad driving, sensation seeking and impulsivity, and lowered levels of self-actualization. This is unsurprising because, after all, the feeling of boredom is very similar to the symptoms of clinical depression -- emptiness, sadness, lack of focus, limited attention span, apathy, and lethargy.
Other researchers believe that boredom provides the important function of motivating people to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those before them. It is a spur to creativity. This is the thinking behind those who urge parents to "let your kids get bored" over summer or holiday breaks.
So, it seems that some amount of boredom is a good thing, but too much is potentially harmful. This is an important thing to think about when it comes to standard schooling. Because teachers are charged with administering a particular curriculum to all children, whether they are interested or not, we too often place our children in a position of boredom from which there is no escape. If they try to engage in activities that are more meaningful, like fidgeting, goofing off, or trying to change the subject, which is apparently the evolutionary purpose behind boredom, we reprimand and punish them.
Many teachers go to great lengths to make the curriculum interesting in an attempt to curb boredom and many children ultimately figure out how to take an interest for the same reason. But for many children, the boredom begins to affect their mental health.
When I was a boy, adults would tell me, "Only boring people get bored" in an attempt to shame me out of my boredom. There's a lot of that in our society, this idea that experiencing boredom too often is some kind of character flaw. This is how we shift the blame onto individuals rather than admit that our schools have a boredom problem.
This is a problem that self-directed learning (or play-based learning) will never have because when boredom arises, the children have options.
"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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