Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Role of Boredom and Dabbling in Pursuit of Passionate Learning

One of the greatest benefits of unschooling, it's frequently said, is that it gives children the time and encouragement to truly find and embrace their passions. I agree with this, for sure, yet I've noticed that many people new to unschooling or self directed learning, whether they're parents or young adults newly risen out of college, panic when they don't see a passion immediately manifesting itself in their life or the lives of their children. We're supposed to be driven by passion and digging deep into real learning, they think, so what's with all this boredom and flitting from one thing to another?

I'd say that both of those things, instead of being signs of failure, are just part of the process.

"For me, it was probably about a year before I felt like we were truly unschooling, not deschooling. There was no announcement, no graduation ceremony, but one day I realized I no longer felt like I was emulating the lifestyle—we were living it. I was no longer trying to wrap my mind around the principles, instead I was spending my time supporting how those principles were playing out in my unique family." Pam Laricchia, Why Deschooling?
If you're new to life learning, I think the first thing to realize is that it's going to take time. Time to adjust, to move past school ideas about what learning looks like, time to figure out how your new learning path is going to work in your own life. I feel like people tend to rush things, or feel like the change is going to be immediate, when in reality we're all taking things step by step, no matter where we are in our life learning journey. As I regularly tell myself in a variety of circumstances, slow down, breathe, and try not to panic if things don't look the way you'd imagined right off!

"What if, I wondered, as I enjoyed the sights and smells of the early morning, more people paid attention to the journey of life, not just the destination? What if they paid more attention to their experiences moment by moment? I suspect they would find that boredom is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, a filter through which emotions, experiences and, yes, solitude can pass, resulting in a soaring of creativity and imagination." Wendy Priesnitz, The Benefits of Boredom
"Out of boredom, interests spring like mushrooms in moist soil. In the autonomous zone we have created, students have the time and support to explore each of these interests as fully as they choose. If that interest pays dividends, if it engages the student in a compelling way, sufficiently meeting her intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, or other needs, she will stay with it, dig deeper, until she achieves what feels like mastery to her. Then she can apply those lessons of perseverance, effort, and excellence to any other topic, well into adulthood. If it does not meet these needs, if its hooks do not catch, she will let it go and return to the difficult but rich soil of boredom, until the next mushroom appears." Michelle Loucas, Bored? Explore It!
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury
Before I sat down to write this post, I frustrated my sister by chattering, singing deliberately off-key, being melodramatic about everything, begging her to let me have coffee, and otherwise being difficult. In short, I was bored, and showing it by being very exuberantly annoying. Complaining is part of my writing process, I recently said on Facebook, and while I wrote it with a smile, I believe it to be true, because boredom is part of my writing process. It's in the restlessness and frustration of a mind that has nothing else interesting to focus on that a post starts to take shape. It's while I'm lying awake in bed, unable to sleep (which must be the ultimate in boredom), that I start to build a narrative for an article I've wanted to write for ages, or start putting together a menu full of interesting new dishes to experiment with.

Without boredom, I wouldn't be able to create, to be creative. I'd say that's true of most if not all of us.

Not only does boredom lead to creativity in the areas we're already proficient in, but it also leads to new discoveries. Whether you're new to unschooling or not, I think boredom is just a part of life, and while boredom that becomes a continuous and ongoing companion might definitely be an indicator that changes that need to be made, in general, boredom is just the space that allows us to discover new things we wouldn't otherwise discover. It's boredom that leads me to pick up a guitar for the first time in many months and try to learn a new song, or read about a new subject online.

Boredom is an essential element in both creativity and discovery, and should be recognized as the restless stage that proceeds a new project, passion, or breakthrough.

"This is not to say that, when the student finally decides to engage in an activity, it will always be immensely satisfying or long lasting. She may flit from activity to activity for quite some time. She may embrace art for weeks, with devotion and drive, only to drop it unceremoniously one day and lapse back into a painful bout of boredom. Or, she might trade in art for kick boxing, a passion that she adopts fiercely and exclusively for a day or a month, only to abandon it as well." Michelle Loucas, Bored? Explore It!
"It might appear that some children are more prone to 'quitting things' and less able to 'commit' to activities and stick with them – but what if you flip that around and view those children as dabblers, experimenters – open to the world and curious about everything? Those are the children who, if their trust is not eroded by parental control, will try anything once (or more than once). And yes, they will quit more things than those children who dive deep and stick around longer with one activity. But that’s due to the sheer volume of things they try! If you have a child who decides she wants to put everything she has into martial arts and music, and then decides later that she actually prefers martial arts and is tired of music for now, she has a fifty percent quit rate. If you have a child who tries sixteen different things in one year, and ends up liking four of them a lot, that child might have a seventy-five percent quit rate, but he now has four activities he loves, not just one." Lyla Wolffenstein, Dabbling, Digging Deep, and Quitting: The Real Costs of Parental Pressure
 I've gotten more than one message from a parent concerned that their child can't settle on anything, each day drawn to a new interest or subject, forever flitting from one thing to another. As the above quotes point out, this "dabbling" is likely either due to the personality of the individual, or is simply part of the process of finding a passion.

One of the things I've always appreciated about unschooling is that I never had to spend more time than I wanted on any specific subject or interest. There were hundreds--thousands--of questions answered by Google or a quick look at a book from our home or community library. Just because something is interesting, doesn't mean that interest has to last longer than it takes to find the answer to a question, and if it doesn't end there, it may take just an hour or a day's exploration to feel satisfied. Because really, that's what you're looking for: satisfaction, or the discovery that something really isn't for you, which is a satisfying sense of closure in itself.

The way you decide if you want to do something is by trying it. And if you look around and feel yourself excited by the vast plethora of options available to you, then you're probably going to try a whole lot of things. Most of them won't stick, won't be as interesting as you thought or will take up more time than you're prepared to commit, or perhaps just won't feel quite right.

That desire to explore, try new things, and take risks is a very childlike attitude, and one that shows strong curiosity and a joy in learning and discovery that too many people lose as they grow into teenage and adult years. Instead of seeing dabbling as a failure to stick with things, it should be valued, and those who practice it should be recognized as the curious individuals they are.

Dabbling, the same as boredom, is an integral part of exploration. For some, this dabbling style of learning will remain lifelong, and for others it will simply be what happens in between periods of more intense focus on a specific activity or topic. Either way, exploring a wider range of topics and activities is certainly a positive thing.

"For a small child, there is no division between playing and learning, between the things he or she does 'just for fun' and things that are 'educational.' The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play." Penelope Leach
"When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives." Fred Rogers
"The central problem is that we undervalue pleasure. We live in a culture that is consumed with the Protestant work ethic. Work as work, not work as play, is a powerful pressure against play. In that ethos, pleasure for itself is frivolous. So play is not widely seen as a value in itself for adults. I have learned, to the contrary, that play is, in short, excellent for my health — for brain, mind, and emotions, all of which promote well-being in my life, economically, emotionally, and spiritually. For health, everyone should choose and pursue activities that are playful and truly pleasurable." Bernard De Koven, Reshaping The Brain Through Play
This guy brings a lot of playfulness into my life.
Dabbling in learning, that free flowing exploration without a strict timetable or set goals or an authority figure looking over our shoulders, is learning that's playful. Increasingly, play is being recognized for the important role it plays in learning and health, for children especially but also for adults. I recognize that playful, free flowing feeling when I'm reading a funny piece of history aloud to my sister while we both laugh, or when I'm so deeply immersed in a cooking project, simultaneously focused and relaxed, a bright joyfulness burning in me while I fiddle and create. I feel it when I'm playing with my oversize shaggy puppy, both of us focused intently on each others' body language and vocalizations, completely engaged in communicating and playing together.

All of these activities feel deeply engaging for my brain, as well as being undeniably fun. Yet despite the growing recognition that play isn't just helpful, but an essential part of growing and learning for countless species, humans included, it's still often not seen as "real" learning. Educational things are supposed to look like work, not play, and too few people realize that you can be engaged in both at once.

Passionate Learning
“We learn because we want to learn, because it’s important to us, because it’s natural, and because it’s impossible to live in the world and not learn." Peggy Pirro
When my sister Emilie was young, she was fascinated by Egyptian mythology. Sparked by a love of Yu-Gi-Oh, which takes inspiration from that mythology, Emilie spent lots of time reading about and researching the subject. She'd talk about how different gods changed over time and by region, she made a presentation for a homeschool expo, and when touring the Smithsonian Museum of History in Washington DC, she indignantly pointed out that one of the items in the Egyptian exhibit was mis-labelled. A middle-aged man, acting as a tour guide for his companions, and talking about the exhibits in Cairo that he'd seen previously, looked down at this small child in shock, and said "you're right."

Finding passions to focus deeply on will be an integral part of unschooling for almost all of us. I do think it's an immensely positive and important part of learning for people, at least sometimes and with some things. However, I'd stress that I think that it's an important part of learning, not the be all and end all of unschooling. We need to recognize the important roles of boredom and dabbling, of free play and exploration. Some things will turn into passions that stay with us for years, but many other interests will be dropped after the briefest of perusing. Countless hours will be spent in exploration, yet that exploration will likely be precipitated by boredom. It's all learning, it's all part of the process, and it's all important.

When we embrace learning as a lifestyle, and as a lifelong passionate pursuit, we learn to value the whole package, boredom and all. We learn that the restlessness comes with rewards, that no time spent in exploring is ever wasted, that idleness breeds creativity, and that play is essential. I'm still re-learning these things over and over again, despite how little schooling I've had in my life, and I'm being reminded daily of how important it is to take my own advice on learning to heart. But what I'm striving for, always, is to live a life filled with joyful learning, with all its inherent struggles and rewards.

I hope you'll join me in this passionate pursuit.


  1. This might be the longest post in the world and I READ IT!!!! LOL

    I need to tell you that I recently heard this quote: It might appear that some children are more prone to 'quitting things' and less able to 'commit' to activities and stick with them – but what if you flip that around and view those children as dabblers, experimenters – open to the world and curious about everything? .....and it changed everything for me!

    I so appreciate your excellent quotes and research points!

    Thanks for the read!

  2. I am a mother of two children, ages 2 and 4. I was traditionally schooled but am following an unschooling path for them - other than one school year of part time (2 mornings a week) preschool for my older son (when he was 3), they haven't been in school yet. I think about boredom often. Although I sometimes feel uncomfortable boredom, I don't see my children going through that at all. They never whine and nag at me for something to do. I think you are using "boredom" in a slightly different way than many parents think of it - more like restlessness or idleness, a fertile state. Most parents who complain about bored kids see it as an empty, unbearable state. I often wonder if this is because traditionally schooled and "disciplined" children are consistently trained to cut themselves off from their own desires (being told what to do and when to do it all day long!), until finally when they have a little time to do whatever they like, they literally do not know what they desire. They struggle to come up with ideas of their own, because in school they are taught to answer questions with memorized "correct" information rather than being creative and original, or even to ask questions sometimes! I'm curious to see how, if allowed to stay connected with themselves, my children will experience downtime as they grow - as fertile time when they follow their interests, as they do now, or as empty time when they need to be told what to do, as traditionally school-aged kids tend to do.