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.