“Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard
Some philosophers have much to say about boredom. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer didn’t really think much of it; “…for every human life,” he wrote in 1818, “is tossed backwards and forwards between pain and boredom”. Schopenhauer saw boredom as suffering, a reminder of the ultimate meaningless of human existence. To be fair to the gloomy Arthur, I have spent many hours of my life sat in meetings, pondering the meaning of life and reminding myself that with every tick of the clock I am one second closer to death. I think I have a propensity towards boredom, or at least a malfunctioning attention system (having checked my emails once and Twitter twice since I began writing this paragraph). Perhaps, as Kierkegaard suggests, I’m just refusing to be myself; sitting in mind-numbing meetings rather than getting up and leaving (which is usually what I really want to do). Many of us find boredom almost physically painful and even when we are engaged in an activity our minds begin to wander. We daydream; we ‘zone out’ and we flit from one activity to another. If, as adults, we find it painful to sit through meaningless meetings and as teachers we begin to nod off during a presentation on training day, then should we be critical of our pupils when they behave in a similar way? Should we make lessons lively and entertaining in order to ‘engage’? Furthermore, do we really understand the reasons why pupils get bored in the first place?
Organisational Psychologist Cynthia Fisher describes boredom as:
“an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a persuasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity”,
while psychologist Mark Leary offers a more concise definition:
“an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes”.
Both these definitions adequately describe my feelings of being bored, but suggest little about the motivational aspects of boredom – in that when I’m bored I feel a desire to escape the boredom by doing something (even if I don’t do anything) and the near tangible pain it appears to cause me. I recall sitting in a meeting that was scheduled to last one hour even though there wasn’t enough content to keep anyone there for that long (in fact I recall sitting in a great many meetings like this). As the seconds ticked by my mind began to wonder, resting upon all the work I had to do and becoming more and more anxious at the realisation that I was wasting valuable time. I doodled in my planner, checked my phone several times, closed my eyes for a few moments, I looked at my watch, the clock on the wall and the watch on the wrist of the person seated next to me. I could feel my heart rate quickening and palms becoming clammy as the stress response began to kick in – my pain was real; I was bored to the point of anxiety, I wanted to escape but protocol decreed that the meeting must last one hour, no more and no less. In fact, boredom can even cause us to inflict pain on ourselves. In a recent study Chantal Nederkoorn and her colleagues actually found that people would inflict painful electric shocks on themselves in order to relieve the symptoms of boredom. While I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a meeting that has inflicted so much psychological pain on me that I would want to inflict physical pain on myself, I’ve never had the equipment to do so. Perhaps I would given the opportunity.
Reinhard Pekrun feels my pain. The University of Munich psychologist defines boredom as:
“an affective state composed of unpleasant feelings, lack of stimulation and low physiological arousal.”
This pretty much sums up my experience although I would suggest that, at times, my arousal is high (I want to get out of that meeting!). Pekrun’s interest in boredom is also a little different from Fisher and Leary in that Pekrun is specifically interested in how boredom manifests itself in the classroom settings. Boredom, and people’s propensity towards it, has been linked to academic underachievement. Boredom also appears to be associated with other non-academic behaviours such as depression, anger, impulsivity and even pathological gambling and bad driving. While gambling and bad driving are unlikely to impact academic achievement, depression, anger and impulsivity might. According to Eric Dahlen of the University of Mississippi, boredom predicts a propensity to experience anger and also to display maladaptive anger expression, aggression and deficits in anger control. This suggests that boredom could lead to some behaviours teachers witness in the classroom, especially from those students who display higher levels of aggression and poor emotional regulation.
So are bored students simply not interested? Thomas Götz of the University of Konstanz, Germany thinks not. A lack of interest is neutral in that is doesn’t cause any emotional pain or discomfort whereas boredom can be emotionally distressing. They also have different motivational consequences; a student who lacks interest neither wishes to engage in an activity nor do they wish to avoid it, whereas, a bored student will feel compelled to escape the situation. Such behaviour led the late Daniel Berlyne to suggest that boredom results from high (not low) arousal. The behaviours arising from boredom, such as restlessness, agitation and emotional upset, motivates the individual to escape, perhaps by misbehaving, falling asleep or daydreaming. The classroom represents a closed system (there is no physical escape) whereas if you or I are at home and bored we could go for a walk or a drive or engage in other activities beyond our four walls.
Boredom, therefore, represents an academic emotion; an emotion that is tied to learning situations and achievement related activities. Common sense informs us that bored students aren’t learning efficiently because they aren’t fully engaged with the activities of the subject. However, there might be many reasons why pupils get bored and these reasons often differ between student and teacher. If you are a teacher you might have specific ideas about what creates boredom in your classroom; perhaps it’s certain topics within the subject that are boring or perhaps the delivery.
Elena Daschmann along with Thomas Götz and Robert Stupinsky were also interested in any differences between why teachers thought their students were bored and the explanations from the students themselves. They administered open-ended questionnaires to 111 grade nine students and conducted semi-structured interviews with 117 grade nine teachers in German schools, about what led to students’ boredom. Results overlapped somewhat, for example the relevance of the subject or the content of the specific topic. Some students directed the cause of their boredom to other students (others in the class being ‘too loud’, for example) while teachers suggested the size of the class had an impact. Some were unrelated to school (‘I was in a bad mood because of a boy,’ was one response) so perhaps we need to acknowledge that students bring their own baggage with them and that this can impact behaviour inside the classroom. The main reason for boredom cited by student was the continual monotony of the scheme, the going over of content everyday. Teachers, however, thought that boredom arose when pupils were over-challenged with ‘a nut that they can’t crack’ or under-challenged because the teacher was going over material the students felt they already knew.
However, the most startling difference was that while students identified the teacher as a source of boredom, the teachers themselves never did; ‘When the teacher is as boring as a sleeping pill,’ was one comment. Teachers therefore might have a reasonably good idea of the specific things that make their students bored, even though they don’t appear to see themselves as a source of the boredom. With such a small sample, it’s difficult to see if these results are universal but they do provide some indication about the disparity of boredom beliefs and the way in which multiple personal and public elements can feed it.
While the results described above are quite specific, more general models of boredom have been proposed:
Cynthia Fisher has proposed a three-pronged model based on aspects outside and within the individual and the fit between the two. Certain antecedents of boredom, suggests Fisher, lie outside the person, for example the task or the environmental conditions, while others inhabit the person. Aspects within the person are perhaps more complex but would certainly include personality. Genetic components unrelated to personality also play a role, specifically those related to academic achievement such as intelligence (as measured in terms of IQ). The third antecedent involves the fit between the external component and internal component. The fit is important because you need to gauge the complexity of the task with the ability of the individual to complete it; if the task is too hard then the student will feel overwhelmed, too easy and they will feel under-challenged.
Pekrun’s Control Value Theory also relates to both subjective and environmental factors. Boredom arises through the interplay between certain external determinants (such as quality of teaching) and individual internal appraisals. Learning environments are approached through aspects of personal control and subjective evaluation. For example, if teaching quality is poor and the students feel that they have little personal control of the situation, plus the student feels the task has little value, is meaningless or irrelevant to their needs the likelihood that they will be bored is increased. On the other hand, if the quality of teaching is high and the instructions are clear (the students have some kind of control) then whether or not the students become bored will be the result of perceived value and meaning of the task. In the study described above, one comment from a student was ‘I think German is the most pointless subject in general’, meaning that even if instruction and teaching were excellent, the perceived value of the subject was low and this was the antecedent of the boredom the student experienced. Unfortunately, this would imply that some subjects, or topics within subjects, would always be boring to some students, no matter how much of cabaret teachers try to stage.
Ultimately, teachers can circumvent boredom by ensuring that students are challenged, but not overly so. But teachers also need to take into account that you just can’t please some people.