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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 06/15/2010

Why fun is important in learning -- Part 2

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the ASCD, an educational leadership organization. He wrote the first part on June 4.

By Sean Slade
It’s been interesting reading the comments to my article, “Why fun is important in learning,” (6/4/10) because the responses reflect the reactions and thoughts of so many across the educational field.

What the debate narrows down to is what we mean by "fun." To many, the word can be translated into "meaningless play" – suggesting that it is something trivial and educationally worthless. To others it means "engagement" and "attention" to what is being done.

Not unexpectedly, the meaning one carries with word "fun" itself dictates how it should be aligned (or not) with learning and with the educational process. See these two comments on the original piece as examples:

The author speaks of the lack of fun in educational research, but if you were to tour most classrooms, especially in urban districts, I think you would see a complete over-reliance on "fun" lessons over substantive lessons. Teachers too often confuse a fun lesson with a good lesson. Fun is good, but learning is the real reason students are there.

.... versus....

Fun implies that you are teaching the students to enjoy the subject you are teaching so that they will want to learn. Fun in this sense is not entertainment or silliness. It is enjoyment of the learning process.

Here is one section I left out of the original article.

It takes some notes from Daniel Pink’s recent book "Drive" (Penguin 2009), where he explains the concept of fun or, as he refers to the concept, ‘flow’. Fun means engagement, doing and learning what has meaning and purpose, and it means being challenged. Fun does not equate to being too easy nor too hard, or to feeling disengaged from content and process. As Pink writes in the book, lessons that have flow are:

"'Goldilocks tasks,' challenges that are not too hot and not too cold, neither overly difficult nor overly simple."

"In flow, the relationship between what a person had to do and what he could do was perfect. The challenge wasn’t too easy. Nor was it too difficult. It was a notch or two beyond his current abilities, which stretched the body and mind in a way that made the effort itself the most delicious reward."

Let me give an example from when I taught PE —this one from a middle school basketball unit where students were learning not only sport-skills (passing, dribbling, shooting), but also team-skills (cooperation, group dynamics) and competitive skills (pressure of performance and decision-making under increasing levels of competition).

In order to make the tasks and skills being learned ‘fun’, I had to make sure that activities and game play were neither too easy nor too hard (or as Pink described it not too hot nor cold).

The skill of teaching here was not in how well I demonstrated a skill but how well I set up and adjusted and adapted the lesson to make sure all of the kids were at that optimal ‘flow’ level.

If the sport-skill tasks, or team challenges were too easy then students would be bored (= not fun). If the tasks were too difficult, too competitive and unachievable then students would turn off (= not fun). I had to match the level of the task with the level of the students, keeping the goal reachable but with effort.

I would not ask a sixth grader to play on a senior basketball team as they would too easily be overwhelmed by skill-level, teamwork required, and level of competition (not to mention height). I would also not ask a sixth grader to play on an early elementary team for the opposite reasons. They would not be pushing themselves, would not be challenged, and subsequently would not be having fun.

I am of the belief, as I was when I taught for over 10 years, that learning needs to be fun.

And if a lesson is not fun -- as in meaningful, engaging and challenging -- then why teach it?

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 15, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  fun in learning, learning, making learning fun, sean slade  
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It seems almost silly that we even have to have this debate. Wouldn't it be intuitive that kids learn more when they're engaged and interested? Obviously, you cannot focus on "fun" to the expense of actual learning -- but honestly, even setting things up that way is a false dichotomy.

I can't recall much of high school chemistry after almost 30 years (gack!). But I can still remember the three types of motion in an atom (translational, rotational, vibrational), because Mr. Grabner acted it out for us (think Spock crossed with a vampire, twirling and jumping across the room). Every class was like that. Well, ok, really, he could never top that one -- but he loved chemistry, thought it was just the coolest, most fun thing on the face of the earty. And he got a huge charge out of getting his students just as excited about it as he was. Somehow, I don't think my decision to take Advanced Chem with him 2 years later, or my subsequent 5 on the AP Chem test, were unrelated.

The problem is that it takes time and effort and creativity to come up with interesting lesson plans and different ways to present things. Which seems to be inconsistent with the push to standardize all things nowadays.

Posted by: laura33 | June 15, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Different subjects lend themselves differently to "fun". In his day Shakespeare was an entertainer and even today many people attend Shakespeare in the Park -- quite voluntarily -- for fun. So I just love it when some ex-English teacher -- like my boss -- tells me that because she was able to "engage" students in Shakespeare I should be able to do the same best-fit line calculations. Sure.

This article illustrates precisely what is wrong with our education system. We have people, like former PE teachers (and plenty of art and English majors) who extrapolate their teaching experiences and attempt to apply them to all subjects and age groups.

The author mentions not having kids of different levels together, yet this is precisely what I've had to deal with. I can easily have a calculus student sitting next to someone who is a full three years behind, and yet BOTH these students are to "master" the material. How is this to happen, I would ask. "You have to ENGAGE the students!", I would hear.

The author talks about gym classes. Suppose he used the same approach for training olympic athletes. Would his emphasis on fun work then? Not the olympics, you say.

It was my job to get ALL students to "master" the material. I can point out many people with engineering degrees and physics degrees who haven't yet "mastered" all the material that you can find in a HS textbook. It's an absurd goal and the result is overall lower achievement.

It should be apparent that America's education problems are directly attributable to America's educational leadership and the people who keep coming up with all these so called great ideas.

It's quite possible that people like the author have it right when it comes to teaching gym. My ex-english teacher boss may have it right when it comes to teaching English. But neither should be insisting that these ideas are blindly applicable to each and every subject, especially STEM subjects. By now, America's performance in science and math should have convinced everyone that America's educational idea men are out of ideas.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 15, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

One more thing. For those who still insist that any arbitrary subject can be made arbitrarily engaging, ponder this question: If great film makers like Spielburg, Scorsese, and Cameron can make engaging movies about sharks, aliens, mobsters, and a sinking ship, why is it that none of them have produced Hollywood blockbusters about things like vector calculations?

There are some famous documentary film makers, like Burns, but their work does not come close to the kind of audience "engagement" that hollywood does. By education standards, Ken Burns suck, because he can't pack an audience with every teenager on the block.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 15, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

@physics teacher:

Maybe you need to find your creative side and make the first blockbuster film about vector calculations - then maybe we'd all realize what we've been missing.

Warning: if you take up this challenge, you might have some fun, as in Wow! OMG,I can't believe I'm doing this....!!!!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 15, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

Dear Physics teacher,

It sounds like you might need a new job or direction in your career.

I used to work in environmental engineering before becoming a science teacher. By the time I left my previous career I was spending most of my time hating my job and thinking how I could get out. There was no enjoyment.

Now, as a teacher I love my job. I feel as though I'm in "the Flow". There is always plenty of challenge with relation to my ability.

Finding the "The Flow" is actually a very powerful tool for keeping students engaged. The secret is giving students the ability to assess where their flow is.

Posted by: tazmodious | June 16, 2010 2:30 AM | Report abuse

Finding the "The Flow" is actually a very powerful tool for keeping students engaged, in science too!

Try it, your students will want to be in your class.

Posted by: tazmodious | June 16, 2010 2:32 AM | Report abuse


Sounds like you're making this completely about you. You've said nothing to demonstrate that seeking fun is an optimal way to learn serious subjects.

Unlike you, I am not making this about me. I did do some "fun" projects, and yes, we all had fun, but my 4+ decades of life on earth including doing work that could result in serious problems if done WRONG led me to see that these fun projects don't teach HS kids any more than they learned in kindergarten. Many of the "fun" projects I've seen around me are little more than exercises on how to use crayons correctly.

Not long ago I took an organic chemistry class at a local college. The professor, an immigrant from Iran, had the following to say when students whined about the material being hard. He said that in Iran, he studied all this in HIGH SCHOOL and had to commit all these various reactions to memory. He then went on to say that his daughter had graduated from high school here so he knew that HS here was about nothing but "fun" and the result was all the struggling students that he saw.

I myself saw the same thing. On occasion I would have a new student from another FCPS school who supposedly had taken physics before they came to me. They never seemed to know any of the material that my students at least could identify.

Amazingly, things were different with students who arrived from foreign countries. I had girl pop in in the middle of the year from China and another two from some middle eastern country. They immediately became the top students and were able to solve problems with little more than pencil and paper, didn't whine, and knew how to look up something in a index.

Among my proudest accomplishments as a teacher is the fact that I now have former students studying engineering who tell me that they were PREPARED because of the tedious, but necessary, exercises that we did day in and day out. I have a HS student who told me that my class paved her way through the calculus class she's now taking. I'm also proud of the many students who have since realized that their chemistry classes are easier and their math skills sharper because of the then not-so-fun things we did in my class.

I would be ashamed to say that I do nothing but have "fun" with students who subsequently go on to fail their college classes.

The results speak for themselves. American schools have been on this fun seeking agenda for a long time now and various international comparisons have demonstrated where all this is heading.

Sorry, but you have no evidence to support your case.

Posted by: physicsteacher | June 16, 2010 4:24 AM | Report abuse

Not of modern Hollywood style, but wonderful and exiting movies:

The movies are especially engaging and entertaining after reading the older biographies of the scientists (tho' I didn't read one on R.J. Mitchell). In the movie Madame Curie, the the Curies' mastery of various disciplines of science is really brought to light.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 16, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Maybe if we used the word "enjoyable" instead of "fun" the debate would be a bit clearer. I think what Mr. Slade is talking about is finding a way for students to enjoy working hard. For example, using each spelling word in five different sentences is more enjoyable than simply writing each word five times (and probably a whole lot more productive).

It's the difference between walking two miles through parkland. Both give you exercise, but the first is more likely to become a regular habit (except in the mosquito season--right now we are in danger of being carried away by the mosquitos).

Posted by: sideswiththekids | June 16, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Actually, I think the key is balance;in almost all areas of study there is a drudgery side, whether it's memory work, honing a hands-on skill, doing a rewrite, etc. The enjoyment and/or inspirational factors help students to stay with the program or, in the best circumstances,have creative insights that lead to new and exciting paths.

There have been many studies for years now that show if the brain is in a constant work mode, the creative breakthroughs don't happen.....the input and work have to take place, but then a time of relaxation is necessary for the insights.
Fun, however you define it, aids in this process.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 16, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Physics teacher is correct about his subject not lending itself to "fun" at the level that he is teaching. He says that he has students that are unprepared for Calculus in a class with students who are prepared. When he asks for help, he is told to make his lessons more engaging. The students are unengaged because they are 3 years behind. They should not be in his class and trying to make it sound like they would catch up by having fun projects is ridiculous.

Students think material is fun when they can do the work. I do think that some subjects lend themselves to creativity and fun more than others.

I teach foreign language and one year I taught a group that had a teacher who didn't know the language the previous year. I tried to cram in 2 years instruction into one year, but they were just so lost. I consider myself to be a very good teacher, but I knew that even the hardest working kids were going to be at a disadvantage in Level 3, all because of the teacher in Level 1.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 16, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Some subjects require more memorization than others do. Often we teach memorizing through games, but then the students don't focus enough to memorize. I have noticed that at the very beginning level some students have a very hard time memorizing. I try to give them different strategies and time to practice in class, but the bottom line is, this class requires you to memorize these words. Some students have to memorize meanings to make sense of what we are doing. It isn't creative and some teachers act like it is out moded. That is not all we do in my classes, but there is an element of learning another language that requires memorization.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 16, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I am pro-fun. I think the quote about the "enjoyment of the learning process" is mine. In my subject, I can do that. But I do agree with physics teacher. Nobody should blindly insist that another teacher do things because they are popular at the moment.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 16, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

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