13 January 2010

Boredom: bug or feature?

Playing some video games I got for Christmas reminded me how much of a game can be boring. I’m not talking about bad games, but games I enjoy and put in many hours to complete.

I’ve played many games where you spend large chunks of time doing nothing but trudging from one location to another. Not fighting enemies, not solving puzzles, not making strategic decisions, just... walking.

And heaven help you if you miss a room in the dungeon. Back you go, tromp, tromp, tromp... Couldn’t you give me a shortcut back to places, guys?

It got me wondering if the “down-time” of boredom is actually deliberately put into the games to make the high energy moments seem more exciting.

This thought wandered out and connected with a section in Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist, where he argues that it’s not reasonable to expect getting an education without a certain amount of pain – including the boredom of studying.

As an instructor, I am often pursuing engagement relentlessly. I am keenly aware of the need to compete for students’ limited attention. But I wonder if students might be a more tolerant to a little bit of boredom than they’re given credit for. Can a little boredom enhance engagement? Is there some optimal level?


BunchberryFern said...

Big question. Cue rambling comment:-

Boring films: My favourite films are usually thrill-fests. But my Desert Island film, the 'best' film, is Andrei Rublev by Tarkovskii. There's no other way of putting it, it's a boring film for the most part.

Chiaroscuro: Can you appreciate interesting stuff without boredom? There's a yin-yang thing going on. In games and films you could call this boredom. But sometimes we call it tension or suspense.

My fun/their fun: Instructors often have a hugely different idea of what fun is from learners. Fun is contextual but instructors don't seem to get this. Here's some anecdotal stuff on this (http://hypergogue.posterous.com/-fun-inand-learning) but, simply, 'their' fun is probably closer to Flow. You navigate the Flow Channel fuelled by the potential of the difference between rising challenge (interest) and mastery (boredom).

Rote learning: We're all kind of Constructivists now. But everything (and I mean everything) benefits from being based on a substrate of rote learning, be it literacy or [insert name of supposedly purely creative activity now].

Ultimately: People who think that learners should/can/must never be bored are shirking their responsibility. I'm not saying that boredom is a good thing. But the skill of seeing through boredom to the underlying patterns and, yes, beauty of anything is the key skill of life. It's just another way of naming Attention, as far as I'm concerned.

Our job's not to be liked but to help people learn. Boredom's another kind of pain. Do without it at your peril.

nn said...

The moment a lecture turns to boredom, I'm inevitally falling asleep. (That's why I prefer textbooks. If I'm falling asleep, I will have a possibility to re-read that passage again; twice or thrice, sometimes). But there's always a possibility some of the students have bigger stamina than me. :)

Anonymous said...

Such a good question.

I usually think about an ebb and flow design in learning to be a balance between new material, and practice with existing material to create kind of a gradual - kind of a wavy upward curve (I have visuals - will blog).

There's also some data out that looks at whether self-discipline is more important than intelligence in predicting performance (http://bit.ly/61nqQY and http://bit.ly/8j8ChO) which isn't the same question you are talking about, but I think a related issue -- should learning experiences require discipline from learners? It's probably unreasonable to think that most learning experiences won't contain some slow patches, but might it be a disservice not to have them? Really interesting question. Hmmm.

I once created a training program to teach therapists about treating panic attacks, and one of the key ideas was that you can't physically sustain the degree of physiological arousal in a panic attack for more than few minutes. I think it's possible that we need the rest beats, even if they are boring (or perhaps because they are boring).

Besides, if we get too good at entertaining ourselves, we won't ever meet any space aliens http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/why_we_havent_met_any_aliens/