Boredom as a teacher: a case for self-driven exploration


Like all subjects, a science lesson can easily occupy the extremes of either the mundane, unengaging, and outdated, or the fun, attention-grabbing, and thought provoking. Like all other subjects, it usually sits comfortably in the middle of the two. The question, for all educators (including teachers, parents and carers) is how to nudge a child’s experience towards the latter. How do you make a learning opportunity for a student something both memorable, edifying, and trigger one’s sense of wonder and curiosity?


Let them play

Create space and time for them to get their hands a little bit dirty and test their own hypotheses, to run with an activity or line of thought in a way you yourself hadn’t planned for. One recent example of this was in a lesson on the sandy shore ecosystems of Hong Kong. We were examining granules of sand under microscopes to observe the composition of the sand. We tried to determine the abiotic and biotic characteristics of where it came from. This panned out with varying degrees of success. The best part of the lesson was after we wrapped up our worksheets, the students began to examine all sorts of other things under the microscope which led them to wonder and ask questions.


They compared their cuticles with one another, examined the graphite that made up their pencil tips. Students excitedly went back and forth between their microscopes sharing their discoveries, with questions, curiosities, and hypotheses bubbling out of them.


It’s easy to forget to prioritize this self-driven exploration, and I don’t say that lightly. I grew up playing outside in woods, staring into tidepools, and damming up streams. Exploration and wonder are motivators not just for my own growth, but also as a teacher. Part of the difficulty is due to well worn-out reasons: packed schedules, busy lessons and the many multitude of demands that daily life enact upon us all.


Another reason is that it doesn’t always work. You may set aside time in an activity, or field trip for students to run wild with their own lines of reasoning or questions, to play with the tools you’ve been using in the lesson, and nothing happens. No exploration, no play, no eager questions. As a teacher, this can easily feel like failure. There may be lessons to be learned, takeaways on how to make content or hands on activities more accessible, but also it may have just not worked that time. Do not let that deter you from building in space for play. And don’t worry about needing to engage students all the time. Which brings me to my second point.


Let them be bored

Now, I’m not advocating for lessons or school to be boring or unengaging. Rather, don’t feel the pressure of having to keep your child or student entertained at all times. They do not have to be doing something and engaged at all times of the day. Their minds need time to wander. Creativity comes when you have time to contemplate, and think outside the box. As a recent Atlantic article that discussed the growing scientific research on boredom concluded, “In our always-connected world, boredom may be an elusive state, but it is a fertile one. Watch paint dry or water boil, or at least put away your smartphone for a while. You might unlock your next big idea.”


Build in space and time for students to explore on their own - whether they find something they like and get involved, or they sit there and stare at a microscope and perhaps begin to wonder how it all works.

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