Is boredom actually good for you?

Boredom can be good for you, it’s true. But at school, not so much.

After my last blog post, a friend challenged me and pointed out that boredom is not all bad. I spent a little time following up on that — to see what research says about the plus side of boredom.

Researchers have in fact found connections between boredom and creativity. This study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that people who were forced to do a boring activity — either copying numbers from the phone book or simply reading the phone book — performed better on a test of divergent thinking than a control group.

“The findings suggest that boredom felt during passive activities, liking reading reports or attending tedious meetings, heightens the “daydreaming effect” on creativity—the more passive the boredom, the more likely the daydreaming and the more creative you could be afterward,” the article explains.

That all sounds strongly in favor of boredom. But let’s look back at that task. The researchers asked people to “read the phone book”. Did they want the participants to actually remember the phone numbers they read or wrote down? No. Did anything about the task matter? No.

The task was completely insignificant; only the creativity afterwards was valued.

Now, let’s put that in a school context. A student is listening to a lecture on the causes of World War II or the process of mitosis or the shape of a cosine curve — and they are bored. They start daydreaming, and creative thoughts are percolating. Soon they are sketching out their ideas (doodling), sharing them with friends (distracting) or posting them on social media.

All sounds great, right? Then it comes time to remember what they “learned” … and they’ve got nothing. Their brain responded exactly as it should to boredom — it moved them onto something new, something different. Good for the creative juices, but bad for learning course content. They don’t remember ever hearing about the German economy.

I’m not arguing there is no place for downtime, boredom and creative energy. Our schools should foster more divergent thinking, but not by boring kids with content.

If we value what our students are learning in our high school curriculum, then they will be missing something more than phone numbers when they check out and daydream. We can prevent that by making our classes more engaging, by using strategies that actually stimulate the brain.

Let’s give kids downtime and daydream time, yes. But let’s not make it the only thing they do in school.