Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts: Students Who Seem to Willfully Defy Admonishments to Focus on Their Work May Not Be Doing So Intentionally but Rather as a Normal, Age-Appropriate Brain Reaction

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts: Students Who Seem to Willfully Defy Admonishments to Focus on Their Work May Not Be Doing So Intentionally but Rather as a Normal, Age-Appropriate Brain Reaction

Article excerpt

School funding, teacher performance ratings, and student success are increasingly tied to standardized test performance. Project-based and inquiry-directed learning, field trips, and teachable moments are being truncated to make space for learning geared to standardized testing. In addition, the standards set, for student mastery now require students to digest an excessive volume of information. These have spawned corresponding increases in direct instruction and memorization requirements--stressors that increase boredom and damage the brain.

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The most frequent response now given by high school students who drop out is boredom. Students say they're bored when they have to focus on material that's uninteresting and/or not relevant to their lives. That's fueling student responses similar to those of some factory assembly line workers, as students are losing the expectation of either relevance or pleasure. They feel increasingly powerless to influence their hopeless state by any mental effort or physical actions.

Boredom has been described as a mismatch between an individual's needed intellectual arousal and the availability of external stimulation with, "the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity" (Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, & Smilek, 2012). In a classroom overburdened with excessive curriculum, this mismatch is exacerbated by students' broad range of background knowledge and mastery. Instruction uniformity leaves many students unable to engage in satisfying activity --including students with inadequate foundational knowledge and those who already have mastered the skill or topics being taught.

These experiences of boredom, without hope or expectation of change, can have long-reaching effect. When the brain repeatedly experiences stressful boredom while engaged in an activity, it may respond by creating a generalized prejudice against the topics and activities and result in impaired classroom performance (Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, & Smilek, 2012).

For example, the daily skill-building practice of conjugating verbs in a new language may be experienced as boring. Although this practice may take place for only 10 minutes of language class, the expectation of that boredom can translate into negative expectations for the whole class and reduced engagement and performance. Without hope of change, the brain loses an expectation of potential pleasure. Negative expectations and task withdrawal can ensue when the hopelessness builds class after class and year after year without students experiencing adequate positive emotional connections to what they are taught. Their distress is exacerbated when standardized or summative tests don't recognize their efforts and learning achievements as success.

Stress and brain traffic

The amygdalae, deep in the brain's emotional limbic system, are stress-reactive switching stations. The metabolic activity of these affective filters directly-influences what information passes through them to and from the cognitive and reflective control networks in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). In the normal state of alertness, without high stress, the amygdalae allow input from the senses to reach the PFC where it is correlated with prior knowledge, evaluated by the neural networks of executive function where understanding is developed, and constructed into long-term memory.

Whenever the amygdalae are highly activated by stressors, including sustained boredom, the PFC loses communication with the rest of the brain. The output from these upper reflective control networks --such as judgment, goal-directed planning, risk assessment, attention focus, distraction suppression, and intentional control over emotional responses --can no longer reach the lower brain networks that produce behavioral responses. When the reflective PFC does not supervise the lower brain, responses become involuntary. …

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