Boredom, a word first coined by Dickens, is something our children don't get enough of, right? If you don't agree give me ten minutes of your time and let me convince you of the educational power of boredom. Go on, where else are you going right now?
Many children spend every waking hour stimulated with input; school, clubs, TV, games, the same goes for adults too. When was the last time you spent an hour staring off into the middle distance, allowing your thoughts to flow like a babbling brook tumbling over rocks? Modern life rarely gives us any time to ponder, daydream, or stare off in a "dilly" without some notification, alarm, alert or electronic ping clamouring for our attention and interrupting our thoughts.
It's my contention that boredom is healthy and develops a much needed skill that sadly our children are quickly losing touch with to the detriment of society. Don't just take my word for it! In 2014 researchers at Pennsylvania State University found participants who were bored outperformed those who were relaxed, elated, or distressed on creativity tests.
Boredom can be the start of an entrepreneurial journey
Before I explain why I think boredom is so crucial, let me offer some context for my assertions, like all good tales this one needs a bit of "backstory"...
Thomas Alva Edison, a name you will probably be familiar with, the inventor of so many things we now take for granted. You may have seen a recent film called "The Current War" inspired by the competition between Edison and Westinghouse (another bright mind of the time). The action centres around which electric power system would wire up the United States (if you spot me on screen you get 10 bonus points). What the film didn't dwell on was his childhood. Edison attended school for a few months, then dropped out to be taught by his mother instead. History books tell us much of his education came from reading R. G. Parker's School of Natural Philosophy and from enrolling in chemistry courses at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
His mother nurtured the young inventor's love of reading, which in turn fuelled his intellect and curiosity. Edison's love of learning coupled with an entrepreneurial flair selling candy, vegetables and newspapers on trains had him turning a $50 a week profit by age 13. This income was spent on buying equipment experiments to further his interests. His early forays into science, together with a job as a telegraph operator, considered highly skilled at the time, was Edison's pathway to success that led to him becoming one of the greatest inventors we've ever known. His flair for business, especially marketing led to financial success and wider fame and notoriety! His achievements firmly etched his name into the history books, making him a worthy topic for films.
Edison's life story is one I know well and has inspired me on my own entrepreneurial journey. It also proves to me that learning doesn't have to take place in a 'school' and curriculum based learning isn't for everyone. We can't all be an Edison, not everyone's gifted like that, but given a stimulating environment and encouragement to develop a love of learning and any of us can achieve what we put our minds to. Edison's just an exemplary example of this and shows firsthand what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.
Edison is not the only example of independent learning leading to good things. The Wright Brothers went from working in a bicycle shop to pioneering inventors of a heavier-than-air powered flying machines. Wilbur Wright had just 4 years of high school education, his brother and man credited with the first ever flight Orville had just 3 years. By modern standards the Wright Brothers were amateurs, literally. They never attended a course on flying machines, been taught anything about aviation or engineering but a supportive family developing a love of learning when young and following their interests and curiosity led to mankind taking to the air. We've then gone from first flight in 1903, to first man on the moon in 1969, 66 years of insights, invention and inspiration started by two self-educated bicycle repairmen.
OK, I do concede that home education may not be for everyone, some learners prefer structure that academia offers. Knowledge is a good thing, however acquired but a lot of the greatest inventions throughout history have been uncovered by bored, enquiring minds of all ages. Many of these inventions led to the founding of an entire industry, and entirely changed society and our way of life.
Boredom can be a ‘learn-o-tunity’
To bring the story bang up to date, this intrepid, entrepreneurial approach has been recently exemplified by Robert Browning. Robert founded Gravity Industries after strapping a miniature jet pack on his arm just to see if it had enough power to lift him. Go look up those first initial, tentative tests and first flights on You Tube, he literally ties a miniature jet engine onto his arm and points it at the ground. He went from messing about with jets to Ironman in less than 3 years. Again, just shows you what can be achieved when you put your mind to it and have the time to explore your thoughts.
Boredom is good, it's necessary and it has produced many of mankind's biggest and best "aha!" moments. Where would we be without LED Slippers, Pizza Scissors, Fireworks? (sometimes Google fails you, and these were the best results from "Inventions by people who were bored, go see the rest for yourself!).
Calling it "boredom" does this wonderful process a disservice, think of it as mental wandering or thinking without purpose. Not all boredom is good, boredom with no outlet can lead to self destructive, harmful and anti-social behaviour. But as my examples above show the key to constructive use of boredom is to create a rich learning environment. Show your children that anything can be a learning opportunity or "learn-o-tunity" as we call it.
Train yourself to think "why is that like that?" or "why isn't this done like this?". Starting with "why" is a great way to start to get those thinking juices flowing. Another useful word "how", "How did they do that?" or "How could I make that better"? "What" is one of my faves though "What would happen if..." and "What if we tried it like this..." are things I often use to help me explore new ideas or make changes to improve existing ideas. My role at SiGNAL is to make business owners curious about their customers, find out what makes them tick and offer them goods and services that improve their lives. I often ask questions like those above to prompt more productive thinking.
But, the key to any successful boredom session is giving yourself time off from any stimulation. Let your brain take over, let it wake up and flex those creative thought "muscles". To really give your thoughts room to stretch and run free switch off your phone, your computer and your TV. Go for a walk, of sit looking at a wonderful view, let the mind tick over on idle for a while. The key to productive boredom is having the time for mental exploration, theoretical invention and deeper understanding. To achieve this you have to give yourself and your children time to do it. Time to explore possibilities, time to let your subconscious roll thorny problems about, time to just bide-a-while.
So, during this lockdown instead of worrying about whether your young learners are going to be severely impacted by time out of school start to see the whole of life as a learning opportunity. Start looking for moments to show them something genuinely useful, in our house we call it "life skills" or "life lessons". Learning how to iron can be fun, using the Hoover for more than just cleaning (Google is your friend!), and trying new things together can all lead to new interests and new ideas. Before you run off to make a "to do" list of learn-o-tunities turn off their Internet, switch of the TV, divest everyone of their devices and see what happens. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the brain likes stimulation but letting it rest and look for its own entertainment may reveal some interesting, exciting and new possibilities.
As an only child I was often left to my own devices and one of the best skills my parents gave me was the ability, no matter what, to find something to interest me . If the young people in your house exclaim "I'm bored!" it's not your job to be their entertainment. Put out some paper and pencils, strew some books about, plant seeds and watch them grow. Boredom develops your thinking muscles, it means you can be comfortable in your own company and gives you a chance to reflect. Don't forget to tell me what you come up with, I'd love to know! So, stop reading this and go get bored with your kids, it may just be the best time you invest in your child's education during lockdown.
Stuart Morrison is business growth coach and co-host of the SiGNAL BiZHUB. He and his partner Jemma are experienced home educators with two children learning at home.