We’ve Heard It All Before, Boring

What can we do when anti-bullying initiatives no longer engage students?

Posted Dec 02, 2019

“We’ve tried,” one vice-principal told me. “We’ve brought in speakers, provided development workshops for teachers and staff, implemented initiatives (including peer mediation)—not to mention blanketing the halls with anti-bullying pamphlets, school resources, etc.
And yes, there definitely has been a change. But honestly, by now their attitude is like ‘OK, we’ve heard it. We know, we know.’ And they go back to their adolescent dramas—liking someone one day, blocking them the next—back to behaviors that stir up trouble and make the day less boring....”

Across town, another educator was more specific: "Kids are bored. Kids get up to trouble when they are bored. They pull out a phone, text friends, play games, entertain themselves—I’m sure you know they can do this right under your nose; they hardly need to look at their phone to be dissing or doxing… Sometimes, they just don’t seem to connect the dots between entertaining themselves and bullying."

These educators echo what others have claimed—that there is increased awareness, but that students roll their eyes (which then glaze over) when they hear the word "bullying." At the same time, they are quick to point the finger and cry "bullying" if they get into a disagreement with another student.

So, where does that leave us? 

Are schools safer with anti-bullying initiatives? Absolutely.

Is bullying still "alive and well"? Absolutely.

Do our young people tune out when they hear the word "bullying"? Absolutely.

"Boredom" (like "bullying") is a word that few of us will ever look up in a dictionary. We all know the feeling (or the absence of feeling): the lack of stimulation, disinterest, even disengagement with life. Everything has the potential to be boring, but school (and jobs) often epitomize our apathy and ennui. (Even the sine qua non of teenagerhood, "hanging out," ranks high among "boring" activities.)  

Experts tell us that no small part of our boredom lies in our collective de-sensitization. In ongoing over-stimulation.

We know.

We are adrenaline junkies, and sensory-overload has become a hallmark of our culture, blah blah blah… dopamine receptors are deadened by excesses and overstimulation, blah blah blah… leads to irritability, angry outbursts, sensory processing disorders, blah blah blah… the need to unplug and disconnect—we know, we know.

Yet despite "knowing," we continuously try to alleviate our boredom with quick-fix adrenaline rushes. Because the fact is, we suffer when we are bored. 

In a 2014 study conducted by Timothy Wilson and the University of Virginia, researchers designed a series of studies to understand boredom better—eventually asking how far people will go to avoid being bored. The final scenario required participants to spend 15 minutes in a room that lacked external stimuli. No cell phones, food, music, or objects from their backpack. The only thing the room contained was a button/device that allowed participants to painfully shock themselves.

The results were startling: A quarter of the women and well over half the men chose to alleviate their boredom by shocking themselves. In other words, they were so uncomfortable with the absence of stimuli that they chose pain over boredom (Wilson et al., 2014. Note: continue reading “supplemental materials” for full article).

Given these findings, how are educators—who are not in the business of facilitating adrenaline rushes—expected to engage our youth successfully?  

How are they to counter their students' ennui and subsequent urge to instigate (i.e., the impulse to interrupt the tedious status quo of the school day by entertaining themselves—often at the expense of others)?

How do they negotiate student boredom, so that its alleviation is not the primary undercurrent in their classroom? 

Perhaps by embracing the boredom.

Consider: If teachers foreground boredom—in fact, if they purposefully remove as many stimuli as possible, including their own voice—will they prime students to engage with class material?
Entice them to choose active listening over boredom?

John Spencer thinks so. In his seminal piece, “The Gift of Boredom,” he asserts that boredom is an integral part of creative processes, and of learning. Moreover, he believes that by strategically requiring students to slow their minds and focus on their boredom, aka the "thinking time" they try to escape, teachers can foster "creative breakthroughs."

In his piece, Spencer discusses different types of boredom, including "tedious boredom," which occurs when students must cognitively focus on lessons that they perceive as tiresome and meaningless.

He goes on to cite studies that suggest that the "mental rest" that results from boredom spurs "divergent thinking," creativity, and ingenuity—the hallmarks of engagement.

In light of these studies, he deliberately creates "spaces of silence" that require students to focus on information, a project, or a problem by quietly thinking about it for a few minutes. Not checking their devices, not writing down their thoughts. Rather allowing their minds to wander.

Can this insight (and the additional strategies he discusses in his article) be used as a springboard for anti-bullying initiatives? Be used to stimulate creative, ongoing ways that students can challenge themselves to (actively) interrupt the many guises that bullying assumes within the incessantly morphing cultural economy of any particular school?

Can we foster grass-roots anti-bullying strategies by boring our students?