Why We Need to Stop Telling Children Learning is Fun

 

How many times have you heard someone say, or have you said yourself to children, “Learning should be fun”?  

Stop for a moment and really think about that statement. Focus on it.  Why do we say this?  Why do we think this is an important message to deliver to children?  Why do some of us need this to be true?  

When I think about this, I find it to be misleading and ultimately damaging.  I wrote elsewhere that I suspect that, after deep reflection on such a statement, if one can’t at least see how telling kids learning should be fun might be counterproductive, then there’s a decent chance that one has yet to fully understand what it means to grow as a result of real learning.

It’s very easy to validate this if you can arrange a conversation with a personal trainer.  I challenge you to find a personal trainer who would ever want her clients to say that a given workout was fun.  Her goal is to push you to your limit, to make you work hard in the name of achieving the results you desire.  Personal trainers who fail to create those circumstances aren’t likely to be in business for very long.

Rather, what you’ll likely find when you talk to a personal trainer about fun is something akin to “my clients’ workouts aren’t fun – for them – but the feeling of reaching and exceeding their limits, of proving to themselves that they are capable of so much more than they know – THAT realization that comes after doing really hard work – THAT feeling is absolutely fun and is often what brings them back for the next session.”

Doing hard work, in the moment, whether it is doing an interval workout, having a hard conversation with someone you’d rather not talk to or persisting through a hard math problem until you find the answer, is NOT, necessarily, fun and it shouldn’t need to be.  But it is what leads to growth.  Indeed, it is arguably the ONLY thing that leads to growth.

When we tell our students that learning should be fun, we are setting them up for failure and disappointment.  Life is simply not going to deliver them an unending stream of joyful learning experiences.  

When students don’t experience school as fun, for example, then what should we expect of them when we tell them learning should be fun?  We’ve created an unrealistic and damaging expectation that we as educators not only can’t always meet but we should not even be trying to meet.

A simple tweak in our language might accomplish what we want to convey when we say “learning is fun”.  Instead of telling our children that occasional lie, we would do better to guide them to understand that “learning is rewarding”.

Doing the hard work, the often repetitive work, that leads to mastery and growth may not always be fun, but, when we persist to breakthrough to our next level of accomplishment, it is always rewarding.  Though I no longer teach in a classroom today, as a parent, I have found it to be absolutely necessary to model what hard work looks like to my kids so that they witness the fact that learning and growing is often not fun, but it is rewarding.  

As a result, when it is time to do hard work themselves, they understand that the reason to do the hard work in the first place isn’t because the work is fun, but because that work leads to a feeling of fulfillment afterwards and the understanding that that feeling can only be accessed by doing that hard work.  There are no short cuts.  

We shouldn’t need learning to be fun and we shouldn’t, to the detriment of our children’s mindset, set that expectation because, ultimately, it is the children who lose out when we fail deliver on an unnecessary promise.

 

 

 

Enthrallment vs. Engagement

I spent a lot of time in Twitter education chats over the last year.  More often than not, I’ve had the pleasure of participating and learning (and moderating, once) from #edchat, #edtechchat, #edtechbridge and a range of geographic and subject matter chats and Tweeters.

Often, topics revolve around how ed tech can be optimally used, what it looks like when it doesn’t work well, what developers ought to do better, what they’re doing well and where the intersection is and should be between teachers and tech in terms of delivering instruction.  Perhaps not surprisingly due to self-selection bias, many chats feel like there is consensus on the topic of the day.  There do not often seem to be notable disagreements.

I think there is room for much more disagreement, though the nature and structure of a Twitter chat may simply make for a poor venue for such discourse.  One of the most striking disconnects that I think merits a bit more disagreement is what engagement means in the classroom.  

Engagement seems to be viewed as the hallmark of an excellent lesson or product (typically an ed tech product).  When students are engaged, good things can happen.

Outside of Twitter education chats, engagement (time spent in an app, frequency of using an app on a daily or monthly basis and retention, the number of users that continue to use your product one, seven, ten or 30 days, for example, after their first use) is a common metric for evaluating the quality of, for example, an app.  Users who spend a lot of time in an app and who repeatedly came back to an app, clearly find some kind of value in it.  They are engaging with the app.

So engagement is a good thing, right?

Maybe.

We ought to establish an education-specific definition of engagement.  In doing so, I’d also like to separate out what the current use of the term tends to actually describe, which is:  enthrallment (somewhere in the Twittersphere is the educator who used this term in response to one of my tweets about how engagement does not mean learning is occurring -- here’s a shout out to that educator for providing me with the term).

Enthrallment occurs when kids love a learning product but no learning of any significant value occurs.  Such products leave children floundering outside of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), even though the dopamine is on rapid release.  Define “significant value” as you will – the point is less about whether we might agree on the definition and more about the fact that the phenomenon of (enjoyable) time on task does not necessarily mean valuable learning is occurring.

If that’s enthrallment, then what’s engagement? 

One form of engagement is enthrallment, plus verifiable learning.  When students are enjoying time on task and that time contributes to delivering significant learning improvement as a result of placing students in their ZPD on skills that matter, then I think we’re talking about engagement.

Drilling down a notch, enthrallment is all about the enthrallee – the agent that causes the enthrallment is just that: an agent. Engagement, in contrast, is about the engaged individual together with what she or he is engaged with. To put it another way, enthrallment is a state of an individual, whereas engagement is a relationship between an individual and whatever the focus of the engagement is.

Enthrallment strikes me as an irresponsible waste of time in education.  The gamification of education, for example, can produce apparent engagement when really gamified products can be little more than enthrallment engines.  A student’s time on task and the joy they experience on that task can be misleading and unreliable indicators of learning.

To push past enthrallment and to ensure we don’t waste teachers’ and children’s time, verifiable, important learning outcomes must be available, ideally to both the student and the teacher (and the family). Within the context of ed tech, data dashboards are currently the vehicle of choice for communicating this data.  However, data that lives in a dashboard does not mean that that data is reflecting the learning outcomes brought on, in part, due to engagement.  The data itself, for teachers, might very well be its own unintentionally insidious form of enthrallment rather than engagement.

We ought to set the engagement bar for products and materials above the enthrallment bar.  Simply starting to ask how a company can demonstrate that its work engages rather than enthralls might be enough to start to place much welcome pressure on those of us who seek to impact student outcomes.  Collectively, we can expect and deliver more of ourselves.

 

There is at least one other definition of engagement to consider.  This is time on task that leads to verifiable learning.  There’s no enthrallment here.  Fun and joy aren’t part of the in-the-moment experience – they come afterwards.  Engagement in doing hard work that is not enjoyable immediately is still absolutely engagement.  

If this sounds odd, I encourage you to try an interval work out.  Not fun in the moment and demanding your full attention, completing an interval work out in which you gave it your all will absolutely leave you feeling enthralled afterwards.  The enthrallment comes later, knowing you persisted through something hard.  Learning is not always fun (perhaps it should rarely be fun – more on that in a future post).

The implication here is products and materials that do not produce in-the-moment squeals of delight may, nonetheless, deliver significant learning outcomes.  

Look for whether or not any of the products you’re using today create an engagement afterglow.  If you find you have none, you may be overlooking some outstanding offerings by requiring enthrallment rather than engagement.

Engagement, if defined and identified properly, can be an excellent metric for evaluating educational products and materials.  But if we continue to mistake enthrallment for engagement, we might as well let our students watch sitcoms during class. 

- Randy &  The BQ Team