October 30, 2016

"This is boring!" - sign of demotivation or of a fixed mindset?

When students say "This is boring", does it indicate a lack of motivation? That is indeed possible but the remark can also be an indication of something else: a fixed mindset.

In this video Carol Dweck explains that a fixed mindset makes it harder for people to deal with difficulty. When they find assignments difficult they can be fearful because they wonder whether they have the ability to do them right. This fear can manifest itself in different ways. One way is to directly express it. But often people with a fixed mindset will try to mask their fear. Because when we are in a fixed mindset it can be quite threatening to us to show that we don't believe we are able to do something or to learn something.

Masking fear

When in a fixed mindset, we may try to mask our fear using different strategies. One strategy is to remain a bit in the background in order to avoid difficult challenges and not let other people notice our fear. Other masking strategies are to actively avoid or run from the situation in order to not have to face the difficult challenge. There are also strategies which are a bit more active or even aggressive. As Carol Dweck explains here, the remark "This is boring", is often a way to mask a fixed mindset. In fact, the person is scared to try and fail.

Pretending to look down on the challenge

This type of defensive behaviors can be expressed in different ways. Some examples I have heard are: "Math is boring!", "I don't like math because it is not logical", and "This type exercise does not work for me because it does not match my learning style." With these remarks we try to mask our fear by talking condescendingly about the challenge we actually fear. The "this is boring" remark is interesting for the following reason. Research has shown that when we are under-challenged, we tend to experience boredom, whereas when we are over-challenge we experience fear. So expressing boredom when we feel fear is a way of saying "This is not challenging enough for me", when, actually, we fear the situation is too challenging.

It may get even worse. I once heard a neuroscientist say - unfortunately, I lost the source of this quote - that often students would rather been seen as dangerous than as stupid. The motto appears to be: "I'd rather they be afraid of me than realize I am stupid."

Growth mindset interventions

Understanding that defensive and aggressive behaviors may be an attempt to hide fears can help us to find effective reactions to these behaviors. Getting angry is often useless because it will probably only worsen the defensive or oppositional behavior. Applying growth mindset interventions is an alternative strategy which is worth a try.

I once saw a math teacher respond as follows to the remark "Math is boring!" She said: "I have heard students say that before. But do you know what I have noticed? Many students find math difficult and that is understandable because it actually can be difficult. But I have noticed that practically every student can get better at it if they put in enough effort and practice enough. And do you know what often happens, then? Students begin to like it more! The more you start to understand it, the more more fun it usually gets. "

Interventions like these normalize the fear and frustration that students may experience when they are doing things that are hard. At the same time, they create a positive expectation due to which students may get a bit more confidence in the possibility that they might get better.

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