Why learning and having fun are not inimical

10th October 2013

Of all the arguments I’ve read, from the plethora of education bloggers over the last year or so, the one I find hardest to get my head round is the supposed dichotomy between enjoyment and learning.

Learning, it seems, is a very serious business and teachers who look to make their lessons fun are committing the cardinal sin of putting their student’s enjoyment ahead of knowledge acquisition and skills development. When I first read this argument I was a little perplexed and it took me a while to unpick the different strands. In so doing, I came to the conclusion that these bloggers had a point, but that they were overstating their argument. This blog is an attempt to explain why.

The argument against making lessons fun has three connected claims:

1. “Learning is more important than having fun”

Which is true and, furthermore, is true in all circumstances, in a classroom context. It seems obvious to me the primary purpose of a lesson is for the students to end up knowing more than they did when they started (I’m using the term ‘knowing’ to encompass all dimensions of the learning process – acquisition, application, and development of knowledge, skills, and understanding) and if anything, including having fun, gets in the way of this then that makes the lesson less effective.

I’d like to propose a maxim upon which we can all agree: learning is always more important than having fun (in a classroom context).

With that sorted, we move on to the next matter…

2. “Focusing on fun can distract students from the purpose of learning”

Well, since many things can distract students from the purpose of learning – a wasp flying in the room, an empty belly, falling out with their friends – and many students do not need much to distract them, especially if the lesson is boring, then, I think we can all agree, this is also true.

However, since many things can be distracting then this is not an argument against ‘fun’ per se, but a general criticism of any teaching strategy that distracts students from the genuine purpose of the lesson.

If we follow this logic then any strategy that distracts students from the genuine purpose of the lesson is a bad strategy. Including, we must conclude, not only things that make the students enjoy the lesson, but also those things that make them not enjoy it. Including being bored and/or intimidated. There is a good chance if a student finds a lesson boring or is embarrassed by the teacher, this is what they will remember when they leave the classroom and not the intended purpose of the lesson. Of course, no teacher deliberately sets out to bore their students or to embarrass them (I hope), but these can be unintended outcomes of a teacher’s strategies.

If this logic is true of teachers who do not want to make their lessons fun, it also true of those that do. I would hope no teacher intends to distract students from learning by making a lesson really exciting, however, I suppose it might happen occasionally.

Is this reason enough not to make (or at least attempt to make) lessons fun? Not for me. I’m not a perfect teacher and I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes (far too many for comfort), but making my lessons so much fun that the kids forgot they were learning, is not amongst the ones that keep me awake at night.

Although I think the critics have a point (certainly focusing more on making a lesson fun than an effective learning experience is a serious mistake), I think making a lesson fun is only bad if the students only remember how much fun they had and can’t remember the learning intention. The argument seems to be more a warning about overcooking puddings, than an argument for not cooking puddings at all.

There are, I believe, far worse crimes perpetuated on children than trying to make lessons fun. But that is a subject for another day.

3. “Fun is frivolous and unimportant, and has no role in the classroom”

This all depends on how we define the term ‘fun’. Certainly fun in the sense of ‘messing about’ or ‘showing off’ has no place in the classroom. Neither (as I have argued) do actions from the other end of the spectrum – ‘bullying’ or ‘intimidation’. These extremes are inimical to the learning process and have no part to play in an effective learning environment.

Fun can also be interpreted as hollow and meaningless, a spinning bowtie of irrelevance, that beguiles the students, but adds nothing to the true purpose of the lesson. This is a damaging association and I have some sympathy with the argument. Certainly, as I hope I’ve established, anything that makes it less likely for the children to learn – either intentionally or unintentionally – is a bad strategy, and spinning bowties, stories that beguile, tricks, pretending, and illusions all fall into this category.

Similarly, although for different reasons, there is no place for the ‘teacher as clown’. This is showing off of a different kind. It is not our role to entertain the students and if we adopt it we deny them opportunities to contribute and to develop effective learning strategies including dealing with difficult situations. Sometimes learning can be a hard slog and doing something worth doing takes time and effort: If we spend all our time thinking of ways to entertain our students we are doing them a disservice and misinterpreting our profession. This I think might be a misunderstanding of the way we think of play and work. For some people these are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but for those that become genuinely effective learners, play and work are dimensions of the same experience. They do not see them as separate, but as complimentary and equally important.

Perhaps ‘fun’ is not the right word to describe the commitment, effort, and time it takes to learn something difficult and complex. Would Andy Murray describe his close-season training sessions in Miami as ‘fun’? It seems unlikely, but he would probably say they are enjoyable and important. ‘Fun’ is a word children use, especially young children, and we shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. However, unfortunately, it is laced with connotations of frivolousness, which make it difficult to use seriously. I suggest we substitute ‘fun’ with ‘enjoyable’ but not in a passive sense, like being entertained, but in an active participatory sense, where the learner finds enjoyment from the activity of learning, even (perhaps especially) if the learning is difficult. This is a point made by Matthew Syed in ‘Bounce’:

“It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise… where the motivation is internalized, children tend to regard practice not as gruelling but as fun” (P.83 Kindle)

He further illustrates this point by quoting Serena Williams, “It felt like a blessing to practice because we had so much fun.”

The point being: learning does not have to be boring, nor does it have to entertaining, but it does have to mean something to the learner. This, I think, is the nuance that is missing from the ‘anti-fun’ argument. Of course it is bad practice to make lessons vacuous or so distracting the students forget what they are learning. Just as much as it is bad practice to make lessons so tedious and boring they lose the will to live. But there is no reason at all not to try to make learning enjoyable, to make the context interesting and attractive to the learners, to offer them a way in and to give some opportunities to contribute and be heard.

I’ll finish by sharing a heuristic from a teacher who understood the importance of really listening to students and using their ideas to create genuinely interesting and enjoyable learning experiences, Dorothy Heathcote. I use this continuum all the time in my teaching to try and gauge where I think my class are, individually and collectively, in regards to the context we are studying. Notice it doesn’t mention ‘fun’.


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