Let’s begin by stating the obvious: schools must be fun, and schools must be lively and dynamic. Heaven forbid that schools should become boring. This is because we believe boring schools means inefficient use of school time and resources and that learning has failed. We believe boredom is bad because it brings mental stagnation, and it makes our children hate school.
However, research are increasingly showing that we have misjudged boredom and that schools ought to be, well, boring. That schools should be boring appear counter-intuitive. How can this be? The Malaysian government has recently unveiled (yet another) Education Blueprint 2013-25 to bring the country’s education system out of its current quagmire, and it seems counter-productive and even scandalous to suggest our nation’s schools should be boring.
Like most people, I believe schools should of course be less boring. Schools should also deemphasize rote learning because rote learning, in my opinion, is like us trying to compete with computers. We will lose all the time because computers can remember much more, and they can remember faster and more effectively than we can. And computers don’t get tired or error-prone, unlike us.
However, I now have my doubts. Perhaps I have been too extreme in my stance. Yes, schools should be fun and exciting, and yes, rote learning is not learning per se, but schools do need some elements of boredom in them, and schools do need to place some importance on rote learning.
The article “The unbearable lightness of boredom” by Jeremy Mercer in The Intelligent Optimist (Issue 4, Vol. 11, Jul./Aug. 2013) is profound. Mercer argues that boredom has a bad reputation because boredom is associated with weakness or intellectual shortcoming. But boredom can instead unleash creativity and pro-social works and deliver positive outcomes.
Boredom is a simmering stage where the brains develops ways to keep itself engage and could spur creativity – such as when bored children develop storytelling skills and imaginative or make-belief plays. Playing tag, sword fighting, robot battles, castles and forts, fairies, and car and speedboat racings can often materialize out of bored children’s minds.
So important is boredom in triggering creativity and enhancing learning that Teresa Belton and Esther Priyadharshini, two early childhood experts, went as far to rally that boredom is a legitimate and necessary experience is school curricula. Astonishing. Boredom, they say, is a critical reflective potential. A child who cannot deal with boredom, they say, becomes flustered with higher education. Could it be that boredom teaches our children mental endurance, focus, and strength?
Boredom is a necessary stage a person needs to go through to gain expertise in a particular field. Just as an athlete goes through the tedium and repetitive training in a gym or a piano player banging away the same musical notes repeatedly, a student requires the tedium and repetitive mental exercise of concentrating, memorizing, analyzing and interpreting facts, and accumulating knowledge.
Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, has written about how the mind works in his book “Why don’t students like school: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom”.
Critical thinking such as reasoning and problem solving are essential skills that we wish to impart on our children. But Willingham argues that children cannot have these skills without first having a sufficient grasp of basic facts of a subject. This basic knowledge needs to be stored in the long-term memory and storing such information would require extended practice and repeated drilling.
Thinking is tied down to background knowledge, Willingham argues. Only when children have sufficient background knowledge can they recognize relevant facts, distinguish trends or patterns in information, and understand what is required to solve a given problem.
In his book, Willingham cites research where students who have background knowledge will remember and learn more than whose without. Knowledge begets more knowledge. Students find it easier to remember a material if they already know something about the subject than if they had not. In other words, having some background knowledge reduces the learning curve and becomes a foundation upon which more knowledge will accumulate.
Furthermore, research have also shown that practice makes memorization more permanent. Students who had taken a single course on psychology, for instance, were tested on their knowledge retention three to sixteen years later. Results showed that regardless of what grades these students had obtained for the psychology course, all these students showed a steady decline in their knowledge retention over the years. This same trend was also observed for students who had taken a single algebra course. However, students who had gone on to take more math courses (such as calculus) saw much less decline in their knowledge retention even after 55 years later! In other words, through practice, especially over long term, knowledge retention became increasingly more permanent.
Willingham’s book reminds us that there is no shortcut for effective learning. At the end and regardless of whatever new or exciting teaching methods we used in schools, there is still no escape from practice, drilling, and memorization in learning. A good learner is still one who works hard and experiences boredom.
A child who cannot deal with boredom … becomes flustered with higher education.
Many people are unaware that boredom can also act like a filter, enabling us to focus and appreciate the beauty and profundity of an experience or phenomena. When our children lives are fed with a steady diet of TV and computer games, this cacophony of dynamic excitement distracts or obscures our children from focusing and appreciating a particular learning experience. Boredom provides that focus needed in children to receive and respond to learning experiences which could otherwise be drowned out by excessive stimulations.
But isn’t boredom associated with negative and anti-social behaviour? Yes, bored kids do get into trouble by being involved in drugs, crime, and other dangerous behaviors. But the same energy that drives bored kids into trouble can also drive these kids into positive, pro-social activities. Research have shown that, when given meaningful opportunities, bored people will more likely donate money to charities or be involved in charity work than the control groups. In other words, boredom can be channelled into positive outlets.
My own experience have shown that I can be most creative – or at least most productive – when I am bored. Out of boredom in 2011, for instance, I started to write and publish in what soon became my most number of papers published in journals in one year. Likewise, it was out of boredom that I decided one day to write an academic book. This book took me nine months to complete, and I only got started because I was bored in 2006.
Meera Syal, the multi-talented British comedian, writer, playwright, singer, journalist, producer and actress, grew up in a small village. She often escaped from boredom by reading books, going for trips to the library, talking to people she would normally not engage with, or even learning to bake cakes from one neighbour. It was boredom and the lack of constant distractions during her childhood that Meera Syal now sees as crucial drivers to her creative development.
So, yes, boredom has a bad reputation – but this is only because we have misjudged it. Channelled to good use, boredom can trigger creativity and break us out of our procrastination. Boredom teaches us concentration, endurance, and resilience, and it appears boredom is a necessary ingredient in our learning exercise.
“… children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”
– Teresa Belton, early childhood specialist