“The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks
I attended a TeachMeet recently where a number of the presenters argued that their teaching strategy of choice was worth trying out because, “The kids absolutely love it!” This seems to me to be a wholly inappropriate reason for teaching something. Then, in a wildly irresponsible fit of despondency, I tweeted the following:
Predictably several people saw fit to take me to task, saying variously that I sounded “really boring”, was in favour of “dour” lessons, that I judged the success of my teaching on whether kids hated learning, or that I was just indulging in some sort of “bear baiting”.
Well, obviously, I am a bit boring, but the other accusations aren’t true. Only one person took the trouble think about what I might mean and concluded this:
Yes! That’s obviously what I meant. Why on earth would any reasoning human being decide that just because I wasn’t happy with kids loving lessons as a criterion for a successful lesson that it would necessarily follow that I would believe that kids shouldn’t enjoy lessons?
I write this not in condemnation of kids having fun, but rather to make abundantly clear my position: enjoyment is a happy accident, a lovely by-product of a lesson, but never a worthy aim. Of course it’s great when pupils enjoy lessons. There is, I feel certain, not a teacher anywhere in the world that actively wants their pupils not to enjoy learning. No one thinks that dour lessons are a good idea. No one. Or only an idiot, perhaps.
It’s fantastic when pupils surprise you by enjoying something hard. In recent years I’ve been staggered at how much pupils seem to enjoy old-fashioned decontextualised grammar lessons but I certainly didn’t expect them to. I taught these lessons because I thought they were important and worthwhile, not to entertain my pupils. Sometimes learning isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s hard graft. As lesson aims, fun and hard work might sometimes be mutually exclusive. Does this mean we should avoid hard work, or that fun needs to be put to one side for the time being?
Ah, but, isn’t it important that lessons are engaging? This blog on the problem with ‘engaging teachers’ is well worth a read. If you accept the argument that ‘engagement’ is only required because of the poor behaviour of students, where does that leave fun lessons? Isn’t it desirable to just have some fun every now and again? We’ve certainly all had classes where we’ve decided to pander to pupils to try to get them onside, and this may even be necessary in schools with terrible behaviour systems. But it has nothing directly to do with learning. Fun is the easy option: it demands less. The real trick is to motivate pupils to work hard at things they find difficult and don’t immediately enjoy. Any fool can motivate kids to have a laugh.
My real problem is that fun and engagement come at a cost. Have I told you the one about the potatoes lesson before? I have? Well, indulge me once more:
I once observed a history lesson in which the teacher had as her stated aim that her class should learn what life was like for Irish peasants during the Potato Famine. She decided to do this by hiding potatoes around the classroom. The kids absolutely loved it! They were highly engaged from the word go and had enormous fun working out the likely hiding places for potatoes. They learned an awful lot about where it was possible to hide a potato in a classroom. They then wrote about the experience of life as an Irish peasant. But because the activity had taught them nothing about the life of an Irish peasant, their responses were poor. The other teacher that I observed the lesson with had covered their pro forma with enthusiastic scrawl and was convinced they’d seen something outstanding. “Hang on, what did they actually learn?” I asked. The only response was, “But they absolutely loved it!”
Update: Some responses to the blog:
In case it’s unclear, my position is neither spurious nor manufactured. I really do believe that prioritising fun harms learning. It’s absolutely fine for you to disagree, but please don’t get angry with me for holding a contrary view. It might be nice to have a nuanced debate about why you disagree in the comments rather than tweeting any more dismissive assertions.