The Significance and Causes of School Boredom

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Introduction – boredom as an attributive feature of school institutions

Most studies on students’ experiences of school clearly show that boredom is “a necessary component of schools”, inevitable attribute of school institutions (Breidenstein, 2007, 103) and that “the concept of boredom is a defining element of what students experience as ‘school work’” (Stańczyk, 2012, 36). As Piotr Stańczyk points out, “methodical boredom must be seen as the essence of the school, and therefore students should not expect any change that takes into account their cognitive needs. This thesis is repeated to pupils’ until boredom sets in,’ in the hope that it to be internalised” (2012, 48).

In this context, some researchers see school as an organised waste of time (Kwieciński, 1995). Many students seem to share this view, admitting that a considerable proportion of time spent at school is completely lost (Jackson, 1990, 44). Philip Jackson even speaks of the “lost time syndrome” (1990, 168), which is supposed to manifest itself by doing things slower than necessary, by doing nothing when something should be done or by doing something that later turns out to be unnecessary.

It can also be said that boredom is part of the hidden curriculum of the school. This concept can be defined as those elements of socialisation, those aspects of learning in a school that is not included in its official curriculum, “which are the unofficial, unintentional or undeclared consequences of the way teaching and learning are organised and delivered in schools” (Pryszmont-Ciesielska, 2010, 19). The internalisation of these implicit rules of the school is essential for successful coping within its walls. Boredom would be one such implicit element of the learning experience at school. It is not present at the level of goals and values and assumed rules of functioning of this institution – however, it is an essential experience of participants of the educational system. The school seems to instil in students the conviction that moments of enforced boredom are inevitable and must be dealt with in life. School can therefore play the role of socialisation to boredom at work and as a place where pupils develop ways of coping with it. Few people, however, would officially subscribe to such statements.

The fact that boredom is a defining feature of the school institution is confirmed by quantitative studies conducted in schools in the USA, Canada and Germany, where the most important centres of research on boredom in school education are located. The results of these studies indicate that students are bored on average 32% (Larson and Richards, 1991), 50% (Goetz, Frenzel and Pekrun, 2007) or even 58% (Nett, Goetz and Hall, 2011) of classroom time. In a study by Elena Daschmann, Thomas Goetz and Robert Stupinsky (2011), 44.3% of students reported that they are often bored in mathematics lessons. Most of these studies were conducted among pupils in the older grades of primary school (junior high school, middle school, students aged approximately 11-14 years) and in high school (students aged approximately 15-19), while none involved pupils in the first years of primary school. Of course, research among younger pupils are undertaken, but none of them has been carried out in connection with boredom – hence, there is a lack of precise data on the scale of the phenomenon among younger pupils. However, the available qualitative research suggests that boredom affects pupils almost from the beginning of their school education (Kazimierczyk, 2021).

However, it should be noted that boredom is not a phenomenon generally regarded as important in a school context and often goes unnoticed or neglected. Many educators do not address this issue explicitly, although research by psychologists indicates that it is an essential factor in the teaching and upbringing process. One reason for this may be that boredom is an inconspicuous, “quiet” emotion compared to such emotions as anger, aggression or anxiety (Pekrun et al., 2010, 531). Most commentators and scholars working on the issue of schooling focus on what I would call the effects of boredom rather than the phenomenon itself. Research indicates that boredom in the school context is correlated with phenomena such as alienation, hostility towards school, disregard for school rules, dissatisfaction with school rules, dissatisfaction with school in general, shallow information processing, low level of attention, lower motivation to work and consequently low grades. Boredom often also leads to more serious phenomena, such as non-attendance school, truancy, dropping out of school, drug use, deviant behaviour at school and delinquency.

Authors writing about school boredom most often treat boredom as a problem (boredom-as-problem-literature; Calhoun, 2011, 269). Boredom in this context is mainly associated with inactivity (more specifically, lack of stimulation, e.g. Acee et al., 2000), a sense of time lingering (Greenson, 1953), lack of attention and engagement (Jackson, 1990) and consequently with any of teaching or educational problems. As Antonina Gurycka puts it, “people have nothing to do with themselves. Then stupid ideas come into their heads and in order to kill this boredom they implement them” (1977, 65). It is indicated that boredom is a negative emotion that deactivates students to things related to the teaching and learning (negative-deactivating emotion, Acee et al., 2010, 17) and “triggers the desire (…) for activities that will simultaneously against boredom and against the institution of school itself’ (Stańczyk, 2012: 46).

Causes of school boredom

Boredom can have serious consequences for the teaching process – at this point, it is worth discussing the concepts appearing in the literature that explain its causes. First of all, they are divided into those that result from individual conditions and those that result from external environment conditions. This is well seen in the many definitions of boredom, which distinguish two types of boredom, (1) situation- or task-related boredom (situational boredom, Vodanovich, 2003; state boredom, Bernstein, 1975; reactive boredom, Neu, 1998; responsive boredom, Farmer and Sundberg, 1986; task-focused boredom, Acee et al., 2010) and (2) boredom related to the characteristics of the individual (dispositional boredom, Vodanovich, 2003; trait boredom, Bernstein, 1975; endogenous boredom, Neu, 1998; self-focused boredom, Acee et al., 2010) or its long-term nature (chronic boredom, Farmer and Sundberg, 1986).

The following detailed analysis of the determinants of boredom at school will be divided into three categories or levels of causes of boredom; these are the school system, the lesson and the pupil.

The educational system.

The school appears to students as a system of oppression, not only in the sense of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron, 2006) but also at a more fundamental level. As Stańczyk notes, the right to education is ‘perhaps the only human right that is expressed as a duty’ (2012, 36) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26). Boredom may constitute a form of resistance against the punitive and authoritative system of compulsory education, a form of resistance to the school authority and the organisation of work (including the curriculum) imposed by it. The school system is the bureaucratic system par excellence, in which the whole learning process is subject to far-reaching standardisation and depersonalisation so that it becomes an unbearable, boring routine (see Nelsen, 1985, 149). The school, as a bureaucratic organisation of learning, provides an essentially immutable institutional framework for how students function in school. “Not only is the classroom a relatively stable physical environment, it also provides a fairly constant social context. Behind the same old desks sit the same old students, in front of the familiar blackboard stands the familiar teacher” (Jackson, 1990, 7). Standardisation also extends to the curriculum. Nothing stimulates student boredom as much as the slavish adherence of teachers to a programme imposed by textbooks (Obuchowski, 1964). The latest incarnation of this totalitarian system is the “testing culture”, which is indicated as another important factor causing boredom in school (Mora, 2011).

The democratic deficit in the top-down bureaucratic education system means that nothing depends on the pupils; they lose their sense of agency and often their willingness to learn. Nobody asks the pupils whether they want to learn what they are being taught, nor whether they are ready for it. There is far-reaching de-individualisation in this area and, as Marzena Żychlińska points out

Brain researchers argue that school in its current form does not support natural learning processes and is not a place that enables the individual development of each student. It is based on our ideas about how learning processes take place, but the findings of brain research do not support these ideas. The brain learns all the time, but in a different way than the school expects it to (Żylińska, 2013, 9).

The teaching process does not take into account individual differences and predispositions in terms of efficiency and speed of acquiring knowledge and skills, and the punitive, stressful way of motivating students causes more harm than benefits. Żylińska shows that such an approach does not lead to the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for a sense of reward and positive arousal. On the other hand, low levels of dopamine are linked unequivocally to boredom (see Toohey, 2011). The school system does not take into account the specific functioning and development of the human brain, for which reason students have to develop strategies to cope with the conflict between their natural needs and interests and the expectations of the institution (cf. Jackson, 1990, 9). One result of this conflict is boredom.

Boredom can be seen as a sign of rebellion, disagreement with such a structured system of wasting time. Students resist the rules imposed on them by the school authorities (resistance model) and often manifest this in the form of ostentatious boredom, boredom for show. Boredom in school, therefore, ‘might be understood less as a spontaneous psychological state and more as the expression of a value or a posture that students adept toward schoolwork and school authority’ (Larson and Richards, 1991, 422). While there is insufficient evidence that, for example, openly falling asleep in class is a form of resistance (Farrell et al., 1988, 499), there is a well-documented trend showing that students who rebel against schooling are more likely than other students to complain of boredom (Larson and Richards, 1991).

Lesson.

The lesson is a fundamental institution of the educational system, so it is not surprising that a considerable amount of research focuses on the situation and behaviour of students during the lesson.

The main determinants of boredom in lessons identified by Georg Breidenstein are (a) the subject matter, (b) the teacher, and (c) the topic (2007, 102-103). A student may not be interested in a subject or may not see the point of learning it, which may, of course, be related to the top-down definition of the subject curriculum. However, even the most interesting subject may be ‘spoiled’ by the teacher or contain less interesting topics. An important determinant of boredom is the sense of meaninglessness of a subject or particular topic. Curriculum designers often assume that the topics taught will be meaningful to students, but this is often not the case, and unless the teacher convincingly explains to students why they are expected to learn a particular subject or a particular unit of material, students may respond with boredom. However, it turns out that more and more often, the justification for discussing particular curricular issues are examination requirements (this will be on the exam). This justification is self-referential and usually not convincing for most students (see Mora, 2011); it can at most contribute to increased levels of conformism or opportunism.

The results of the research conducted by Daschmann and colleagues (Daschmann et al., 2011; Daschmann, 2013) in German schools show that the most common cause of boredom in German and mathematics lessons (those subjects were included in the study) is the way of teaching (characteristics of instruction) and monotony. It is also influenced by the personality of the teacher, unengaging teaching methods, i.e. teacher-dominated activities (Larson and Richards, 1991).

Research also shows that boredom is more likely to be present in more abstract subjects such as social studies, science and foreign languages. Boredom is less prevalent in practical skills classes boredom is less common in practical skills classes such as music and physical education (Larson and Richards, 1991, 430). Within particular subjects, however, lessons using various activities are considered more interesting and boring than those based mainly on working with books (Mora, 2011, 2).

Group processes can strongly influence feelings of boredom during lessons (Farrell et al., 1988; Daschmann, 2013). An important role in this process is played by the so-called mirror neurons (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004). They are responsible for recognising the gestures, emotions and intentions of other individuals, not only of the same species. In children, they are responsible for imitating other people’s behaviour. In groups, on the other hand, they are responsible for tuning individuals to the general feeling of the group. This is certainly particularly important in a school group, as it can strongly influence the pedagogical process. Sometimes all it takes is one bored pupil for others to follow – similarly, if one person in the room yawns ostentatiously, causing a sudden wave of sleepiness.

Boredom is also influenced by certain group characteristics. As Gurycka points out, the degree of voluntariness of the group is important (the more forced the participation, the higher the level of boredom), the informal bond with the group (the lower the cohesion and weaker bonds between group members, the higher the level of boredom), group size group (boredom is higher in large groups of more than ten people) and the convergence of the level of social activity of group members (Gurycka, 1977, 129).

Student.

The last category of this list of causes of boredom at school is the pupil and their characteristics, which may be responsible for higher levels of perceived boredom. The basic category of description here is susceptibility to boredom, the level of which is determined by the boredom proneness scale (Farmer and Sundberg, 1986). This indicator measures individual variation in boredom proneness, which can be caused by both biological predisposition or social training (socialisation) – both influencing the character and traits of the individual. Larson and Richard emphasise that bored students’ characteristics that determine the experience of boredom in various aspects of everyday life. Their study found that students who reported a high frequency of boredom in school often experienced boredom outside school as well (r=.68, Larson, Richards, 1991, 435).

Another characteristic of students that strongly influences boredom is attention problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, i.e. ADHD, which correlates strongly with susceptibility to boredom (Macklem, 2015). Students with attention difficulties also have trouble staying engaged, are more likely to switch off, and have more difficulty enduring without moving for an entire lesson. When an individual experiences a chronic inability to maintain attention, their interest, motivation, and a sense of purpose decrease and negative emotions become an unpleasant daily reality.

Some researchers, particularly in relation to adolescents, indicate that experiencing boredom at school can be related to age or a specific period of life. It is pointed out that “as people mature, their general curiosity about everything gradually wanes. There is a growing conviction that what surrounds us is well known and that it takes an ever greater “load” of novelty in order to evoke curiosity” (Gurycka, 1977, 48). This phenomenon is sometimes explained by the fact that the greatest involvement of pupils occurs during their learning in primary school and declines sharply once they move on to secondary school (Macklem, 2015, 37). On the one hand, secondary school students have spent more years in school; their curiosity has been more or less effectively suppressed by an oppressive, de-individualised school system. On the other hand, it is pointed out that adolescence is a highly absorbing period for young people, and the teaching process is a rather unimportant element in the life of teenagers. It is a period of great physical and mental change. Young people also start to take a greater interest in the opposite sex. It can be said that this is a period of “storm and pressure” in their lives, rapid changes and many problems (real or imaginary). This results in less engagement in learning and a more distracted state during lessons.

Another issue absorbing much research attention is how boredom is correlated with student ability. It seems reasonable to conclude that the most and least able students are most likely to be bored, although each group for different reasons. The leading cause of boredom highlighted here is ‘inadequate’ stimulation, i.e. stimulation that does not match the student’s ability. The reason for this type of inadequacy may be due to the level of knowledge or skills – its inadequacy to the level of task difficulty (Daschmann et al., 2011; Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Students experience boredom mainly due to inadequate teaching. School education is adapted to the average level of pupils in each class; those who deviate from this conventional average are at risk of boredom (Preckel et al., 2010). Gifted students are more likely to be bored because they absorb information and attain skills more quickly (Preckel et al., 2010; lessons become a tedious process of repetition of content they already know and understand well), those less able because they can no longer keep up (the more they lag behind the rest of the class, the more they fall behind with the material and understanding, the less able they are to understand subsequent content, which leads to a tendency to lose interest, lack of engagement and alienation).

The link between school performance and boredom is also pointed out. As indicated by Daschmann and colleagues’ (2011), students reporting higher levels of boredom and irrelevance had lower grades on average than less bored students. However, this relationship does not occur in the other direction. Student grade point average is not a good predictor of feeling bored because, as mentioned above, both good and poor students admit to high levels of feeling bored (Larson and Richard, 1991; Mora, 2011).

A significant influence on the feeling of boredom is perception. In this context, the so-called opportunity cost is often mentioned (Daschmann et al., 2011). Students perceive lessons as boring because they are associated with missed opportunities to spend their time more fruitful and enjoyable. The school situation does not need to have any ‘objectively’ boring features; it is enough for pupils to subjectively perceive it as such. Boredom depends on the subjective evaluation of the difficulty of the task, its meaningfulness, one’s own ability to perform it. In this respect, it can be said that it is to a large extent consciousness that shapes the conditions for boredom at school, and the “objective” features of the school situation are more or less secondary to it.

Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2016). Istotność nudy w szkole: interdyscyplinarny przegląd badań [The Significance of Boredom at School: an Interdisciplinary Research Overview]. In: V. Tanaś & W. Welskop (Eds.), Edukacja w zglobalizowanym świecie [Education in the Globalized World] (pp. 83-94). Łódź: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Wyższej Szkoły Biznesu i Nauk o Zdrowiu.

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