Should learning be fun?

A few years ago I remember saying that was all learning should be. If you weren’t enjoying it, why on earth would you do it? But now I’m not so sure.

One of the most frequently used (and abused) buzz words in education over recent years is ‘engagement’. Now, I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t be engaged in their lessons but I would urge you to check the definition of the word. To engage means either “to occupy the attention or efforts of a person” or, “to attract and hold fast”. For a dissenting view on engagement read this.

You may have noticed that we’ve become much more concerned by the second meaning and as teachers we are under pressure to make sure we are attracting the interest of our students. Ofsted have even gotten in on the act. In training material entitled Towards an outstanding lesson checklist, inspectors are urged to check that learning is ‘real’. In brackets after this are the acronyms CITV and WIIFM.

These arcane initials are not, as you might imagine, youth TV and radio stations; they actually stand for Connect Into Their Values and What’s In It For Me respectively. Worrying about students’ values and what’s in if for the blighters are not in themselves terrible things, but if we’re only ever interested in students’ (sometimes very narrow) horizons then we’re likely to be stuck teaching to the lowest common denominator. That way madness and low expectations lies. See here for an example.

If instead we focus on occupying students’ efforts and attention then we are likely to approach teaching challenging material in a quite different way. Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.”

This idea has been knocking around for quite a while. Way back in 1898 Bryan & Harter were apparently telling us that it takes 10 years to become an expert in whatever field you choose to pursue. This was picked up more recently by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and has since become something of an industry with books like Bounce and The Talent Code dominating best seller lists. The new orthodoxy is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of anything. It’s worth noting here that practice does not equate to rote learning or repetitive ‘skill and drill’.

If we want students to learn new skills and knowledge (and we do) we need to teach them the value of deliberate practice. Boring? Well, maybe not. Many students commit many hours to playing computer games where the goal is to master the game and reach the end.  They get constant and instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t and then they get the opportunity to try out this feedback again and again until they get it right.

And it’s hard. Kids that quickly throw in the towel at school are willing to persevere at Call of Duty until they overcome their limitations. Why do they do it? Because they want to win. Being killed endlessly is all kinds of frustrating; the pleasure comes from mastery.

But why is it that these same kids moan at doing something hard in class and are delighted at the opportunity of filling in word searches? What is it that ‘engages’ them with computer games but turns them off with, say, grammar?

There are a couple of possible answers to this:

1) Not enough feedback

2) Limited opportunities to perform

We’ve already seen that one of the reasons people stick at computer games is because the feedback is instant, specific and useful. Sometimes it will take some thinking about but we know that there answer is the there if we look for it. In school this doesn’t always appear to be the case. Success criteria aren’t always clear enough about how students ‘win’ or how they get to the ‘end’. They have to wait until the end of the lesson for feedback and often don’t get any even then. Then, when we do give them some feedback, we ask them to do something else. They rarely get the opportunity to master one thing before being asked to start on some new, barely understood topic for reason which are often hazy. This is the second part of the problem: we don’t give students nearly enough time to practice before moving them on in our desire to cover all the content we have to get through. We tell ourselves (and them) that it’s all about skills which student should be able to transfer from one subject to another but they don’t get the chance to ever master these skills in one area before being asked to jump though new, slightly differently shaped hoops.

So, maybe we should be teaching students to understand the process of learning so that they can monitor, control and regulate their own learning. We should encourage them to see that hard work is its own reward and that anything worth learning will be challenging. I often begin a new topic by telling students that it’s really hard, that they’ll struggle and that this is normal: if it wasn’t difficult what would be the point in doing it? I tell them that they will make mistakes and that this is not only OK, it’s essential. I tell them that they can achieve more than they believe possible if they’re prepared to put the effort in, and that whatever they do achieve will be exactly proportionate to that effort.

If they doubt you, show them this:

So, should learning be fun? Well, yes, maybe it should. But whether students find learning fun depends on their attitude to hard work and on whether we allow them the opportunity to master the stuff we’ve taught ’em.

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