The Importance of Being Bored

Boredom is not a problem to be dealt with, but a crucial learning process that needs to be given space.

People often ask why Sudbury schools can’t “just offer a few classes for anybody who is interested”. In reply I would answer, “why bother?” – if somebody is truly interested they can always start a class. Staff time is one of the school’s most precious resources; investing it in offering classes “just in case” could be a waste if nobody is interested.

But there is another reason why these schools don’t bother. This reason is that Sudbury schools value boredom.

Boredom has gotten a bad rep. There are entire industries geared towards providing parents and children with antidotes for boredom. But boredom isn’t actually a bad thing.

Boredom is the feeling of not being highly motivated. It’s unpleasant, which is why it makes us try and find a way to get out of it – leading us to to engage in high-motivation activity. There is nothing quite as satisfying as doing things you are highly motivated to do. Boredom is a part of our instinct to find that kind of drive – how can it possibly be a bad thing?

In Sudbury schools, we see that boredom plays a significant role.

Because students are allowed to do whatever they want and nobody tries to cure them of their boredom, they sometimes find themselves in a strange situation: They have all these options around them, people playing, painting, talking, studying or teaching, reading or writing, listening to music or making their own, yet unlike all of those people, they are bored.

This boredom means something – it means they don’t have something they are highly motivated to do; they have not found something that brings out that drive in them. Despite the extraordinary variety of self-organized activity within the school, they have not identified something there which they feel driven to pursue.

People cope with boredom in different ways.

Some find something to do – not necessarily something great, just something. They “peck around”, trying all kinds of different activities, some that already take place, some they create themselves. Often they keep pecking around, rarely sticking with the same thing for long, because none of these things dispels the boredom – none of these inspires enough keen interest and motivation to make them want to keep at it.

After the pecking (or instead of it), some sit around and whine about how bored they are; those around them will try and interest them in new activities – or get annoyed and tell them to stop whining. Sometimes, with or without the whining, they might start talking with someone about their boredom. Conversation often inspires all kinds of new ideas; at any rate, it keeps you busy enough.

Whatever you choose to do with your boredom, it ends sometime.

Sooner or later you do find something interesting enough that you really get into it, and then the boredom is gone. Sometimes you find something like this among the activities you “peck” at; sometimes you figure it out in conversation; often, it suddenly occurs to you after weeks of boredom (it might have been right under your nose the whole time!)

It could be anything — a game, a series or genre of literature, a religion, a science. It can be anything a person might care to spend time on. And people will pursue a newfound interest as if obsessed, often spending days on end just doing that one thing. In Sudbury schools, students have the time and space for that.

This process is cyclical – you may find something really interesting, but that’s no guarantee that you’ll never be bored again. Boredom is a natural part of living and learning.

Usually, when someone finds something they really like, they’ll be happily busy for a few hours, days or weeks. If they’re lucky, it will last for months. In some cases it might even last years (when you get paid for it, it’s called “a dream job”). But eventually, people exhaust their interest and get bored again.

They may have read every single history book they could get their hands on, or they played enough soccer to last them a lifetime. Maybe they discovered that that really tough video game is much easier to beat once you really apply yourself to it, or they realized that they want to do more than just work in a pet store. Boredom kicks in – and moves them to find something else that can really motivate them.

I believe you find motivation and keen interest in things that you consider valuable, or potentially valuable. Sudbury schools don’t claim to know better than the student what is good for them. Instead they say “it’s up to you to figure out what is good for you, what is important to you – and it’s up to you to go and get those things!”

People routinely become excited and motivated about things they identify consciously or unconsciously as important or useful.

Kids discovering reading and writing are often amazingly enthusiastic about it. They just gobble up all the reading they can get their hands on, or scribble out all the writing that they can.

You see the same excitement in somebody acquiring a new language, learning about numbers and arithmetic, learning to sketch or paint – learning almost anything, really. (Unless, of course, they are doing these things because they are forced to — then, it’s usually an awful chore.)

It is the fact that Sudbury schools do not try and cut off the search for an interesting new thing that allows students to explore themselves and the world around them in search of something interesting – something that may be valuable for them. And allowing this to happen means students learn to live with boredom rather than suppress it.

People who suppress boredom end up settling for less, stop exploring, and possibly end up doing things they really don’t care about. This is good if you want your kid to work in a dead-end menial labor job, but it probably isn’t what most people want for their children, or for themselves.


7 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Bored”

  1. Good article! Something I would expect to find in Sudbury’s books.
    Anyway, few notes:
    -I think it’ll be more precise to say that you don’t feel bored when you do something you have an emotional (even maybe spiritual) attachment to it. As a result of this attachment, you will be also highly motivated.
    -Generally speaking, I agree that boredom is important, but sometimes we just have to put is aside. Many of the worlds’ artists, scientists, craftsmen are masters in their field, due to their determination, persistence and hard work. Being really good at something means you’ll usually go through repetitive learning and mastering process, which its side-effect’s boredom. And yet – you know that only through that boredom you will be better. For example, my first guitar lessons were the most frustrating and boring I can remember; practising just few accord few hours a day, for a week – Argh, it sucks. But if you want to be good – there’s no way around it.

  2. I agree with Vlad that this is a good article!!. Still, it’s interesting to see what Sudbury’s books have to offer on the subject:

    “………The most important educational concept in the school is that of responsibility. For each student, as Harry Truman posted on his desk, “the buck stops here.” There is nobody in the school who will carry the burden for your child and my child. They each carry it for themselves. It is impossible to overstate how important this is for the educational process here.

    We saw this vividly when we first opened the school. In those days, students didn’t believe us when we said to them that they were fully and solely responsible for their own education. We told them we would respond to expressed needs, but we weren’t going to direct anyone. Several students thought we didn’t really mean it . After all, we were good guys, progressive educators who, when the chips were down, were surely going to come through and bail them out. We had a group of students who tested us for months. They just wouldn’t get going. They hung around. They listened to records. But they carefully didn’t “do” anything. They were terribly bored, but they waited. They were testing us to find out the answer to a simple question: when would one of us finally break down and come into that room and put an arm around one of them and say, “We understand. We know you’re going through hard times. Can we help you find something interesting things to do?” That’s what they were waiting for, but it never happened.

    One by one they had to break out of their stagnation on their own. That’s the heart of the whole process. The ability to carry the ball for yourself………..”

    [excerpt from, “How and What Do Children Learn at SVS”, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

    “I have become more convinced with each passing year that even though a host of problems are raised in connection with the Sudbury Valley School educationally, the root problem people have with the school is whether the people here are going to make good use of their time. That is what really bugs people, whether they are parents, or visitors, or educational critics, or even potential enrollees. “Suppose I send my kid and he spends a year or so at the school. What’s he going to do with himself? Is he going to waste his time there?” As a result, we find it necessary to get into philosophical discussions on what’s a good use of time………”

    “………If the student doesn’t have a technological goal — if they say, for example, that they want to get themselves together to find out what they want to do in life, that they want to work out what their relationship is to themselves, to their parents, to the culture – these are non-technological aspects of life, and to these there is only one good use of time, a non-technological one. You can’t say to a person in that position, “We will give you three months to figure out your attitude toward life,” or “We will let you come here for a year, and if after a year you can pull yourself together, then we will let you come again; if not, it’s been a waste of time and money.”……”

    [two excerpts from, “When Does a Person Make Good Use of His Time”, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

    “…….The respect the school shows to private rhythms is inviolate. It guarantees that everyone, “sooner or later,” will get in touch with their inner selves. Students are well aware of this respect for private time. They come to depend on it, to cherish it. How often have I heard an older teenager say, “More than anything, the school gave me the time to find myself.”……..”

    [excerpt from, Chapter 18, “Time Enough”, Free at Last – The Sudbury Valley School, Daniel Greenberg.]

    see also:
    Chapter 2, “Classes”, and 3, “Persistance,” Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School, Daniel Greenberg.

    From Free at Last Classes

    From Free at Last Persistence

  3. I realize that this is a very old blog post, but on the off chance that you get notifications of new comments…

    Some friends and I are thinking about starting our own Sudbury model school, and one idea we’ve been thinking about is providing a Chromebook – or LeapFrog, depending on age – for every student. This sort of one-to-one computing access has only recently become affordable for most schools, and the schools that have used it note that it creates far more benefits than a bank of computers that students have to share. It especially makes a difference to low-income students who don’t have computers at home.

    Now of course, these are conventional schools – to my knowledge, no democratic school has tried this yet – so when they talk about “making a difference,” they mean that students get better grades, write better essays, and do more in-depth research for school reports. But it’s easy to see how increased access to the vast resources of the internet would benefit a Sudbury student.

    What concerns me is, could this reduce boredom? Surfing the web can become addictive; if you’re bored, you can just refresh Buzzfeed all day and you never have to confront your own soul or question what you really want out of life. I’m just curious to know what you think about this.

    1. Hi Giulianna,
      I do still get notifications but I’m not so involved in education anymore. My immediate thought, though, is that there’s little reason to give every student an individual computer, since students aren’t confined to a frontal lecture situation and will never all spend all of their time in front of a screen… It would make sense, to me, to have a pool of laptops that anyone can use, just like most Sudbury schools have a pool of desktop computers everyone can use, maintained and regulated by a Computer Corporation.
      Either way, I think boredom will still be there; there are always lots of things that could interest someone, it’s just that some of the time, none of them do. I’d say the damaging thing is when boredom is stigmatized and when active steps are taken against it, instead of allowing it to take its course…
      Maybe other commenters who come through here might have more thoughts. :)

  4. Great article! It resonates with me throughout. Except for the last two sentences. “Dead end, menial labor” job are those that keep the underpinnings of a society strong. A calling, for a time, whether an hour, week, or a lifetime to such work might be just what I would want for myself or my children. Knowing that I am doing something to benefit another is of great importance.

    1. Thanks! Actually, I absolutely agree about labor. One of the many things I’ve learned more about and changed my perspective about in these past years. :)

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