Teachers sense when students are bored in the classroom. Eyes glaze over, their minds drift off, and a pall descends upon the class. The tendency is to drone on, repeating your points, perhaps even answering your own questions. A phrase, vividly recalled from childhood, is etched on their faces: “I’m bored!”
Seeing that happening before my very eyes, during a Grade 10 History Exam Review period, in late May 2009, I resorted to extraordinary measures. Spotting the term “Jean Chretien Liberalism” on the review sheet, I walked up to an unsuspecting Grade 10 boy, asked him to stand, and administered “the Shawinigan Handshake.” It certainly grabbed the classes’ attention, and, thankfully, the startled boy was a good sport — and didn’t report it to his parents.
That’s definitely an unorthodox antidote to boredom in the classroom, but it speaks to a much larger issue. Although boredom has been viewed as a rather trivial and short-lived discomfort relived by a change in circumstances, it can be pervasive in high schools, where one period follows another, featuring mostly didactic instruction.
Today’s students are also finding it increasingly intolerable because virtually everything outside of the classroom is on speed dial and “teacher talk” seems to be in slow motion. It’s also clear that engaging student minds is getting harder and that boredom is becoming an unfortunate and pervasive stressor that can have significant consequences for future health and well being.
Although it’s clear that boredom can be a serious problem, the scientific study of boredom remains an obscure field, and boredom itself is still poorly understood. Even though it’s a common experience, boredom hasn’t been clearly defined within the scientific community.
Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University and colleagues at two other universities, Waterloo and Guelph, are emerging as leaders in the new field. The September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science featured their latest study. It was designed to understand the mental processes that underlie our feelings of boredom in order to create a precise definition of boredom and to begin looking at how teachers and instructors might respond with new strategies designed to ease the silent pain endured by boredom sufferers of all ages.
Drawing from research across many areas of psychological science and neuroscience, Eastwood and the Canadian research team defined boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.
Specifically, students become bored when they:
- have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
- become aware of the fact that they’re having difficulty paying attention
- believe that the environment is responsible for their aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).
Eastwood and his researchers are confident that integrating the disparate fields of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and clinical psychology will produce a more thorough understanding of boredom and attention.
My History class was often a social laboratory for measures designed to interrupt the boredom. Surveying Dr. Eastwood’s experiments in inducing boredom had me laughing at similar boring activities. Taking daily attendance, the homework take-up routine, and showing instructional videos of any kind come readily to mind. Supervising study periods was absolute torture, especially in the past decade when students simply refuse, or are unable to, stop fidgeting and chatting. No wonder creative teachers go a little haywire sometimes!
What comes next for the researchers? Eastwood and his colleagues hope to help in the discovery and development of new strategies that ease the problems of boredom sufferers and address the potential dangers of cognitive errors that are often associated with boredom. That cannot come soon enough for countless numbers of students — and a great many socially-aware educators. After all, even wiz-bang Power Point presentations and You Tube videos are starting to wear thin with today’s generation of students.
Why are today’s students so easily bored? Are students, particularly in high school, being challenged enough — or simply being entertained? Why are the Canadian researchers focusing so much on on defining boredom when what we really need are strategies to improve the quality of teaching, revitalize student learning and foster student re-engagement?