“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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Related posts

The problem with fun
Motivation: when the going gets tough, the tough get going

51 Responses to “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks

  1. thom says:

    David,

    I wonder what each of means when we talk about ‘fun’ in our classrooms? I don’t think there are many people who would disagree that putting fun at the top of your list of priorities is not really thinking about teaching and learning seriously enough. And students do see through it very quickly. I’d hope the nirvana I am always looking for is when at the end of a unit the students can look back and say, ‘That was hard work, I really learned something, and it was fun’. For me what I am looking for is the sense of satisfaction in a job well done, a peak climbed. That’s how I always looked for ‘fun’ in my classroom, a by-product of what ever else is going on.

    • David Didau says:

      Then that’s absolutely fine. But what do kids mean when they ask for a ‘fun lesson’?

      • thom says:

        Hi David,

        That’s a little like asking what teachers mean when they say a ‘fun’ lesson. I wish I could give very cogent answer but I thin it exists on a spectrum, dependant on the kids, the age, the subject and probably other factors. What little I do know is that I have never discovered a ready formula. With the youngest I have taught (Year 2) when you ask them what was most ‘fun’ they usually mention those things where the learned the most. I really believe younger children desire to gain knowledge means they see learning as fun. I think you have written before about embracing failure as a pre-requisite of learning (apologies if it wan’t you) but if you establish a classroom culture where failure is part of the challenge, part of the process, then there is a sense of ‘fun’ in the striving, the juggling with stuff until you get it.

        On the flip side I think it pays to be straight with students at any age. When something is tough to grasp, to learn, I tell them in advance. When I worked in a particularly rough school in the North West I used to warn the Y6 students at the start of the year that once they entered the room they were expected to think and that some days would be heavy lifting. The danger in teaching for ‘fun’ is that you miss the expectations.

        All of the above said there is a definite difference between teaching in primary and secondary classrooms (I have done both). When you have the same group every day all day relationships are more familiar. There is a natural ebb and flow in the day that there isn’t when your teaching five out of seven periods to Y7, Y9 and Y11.

        Sorry, I don’t think I have answered your question!

  2. […] via “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks | David Didau: The L…. […]

  3. wendy haycock says:

    I don’t always agree with what you write but I am with you on this. We need to distinguish between fun and enjoyable. The bottom line has to be learning but there is no reason why the pupils cannot enjoy the process. A range of activities in your repertoire should mean that you can plan interesting and engaging ways of learning. I have been using foldables recently with all abilities. The pupils ‘love’ them because they are a bit different from what they usually do but the quality of what is in them and the fact that they are used every now and again keeps them fresh and keeps the learning at the fore. I am seeing lots of “kagan’ style games at the moment which the kids love but no learning is either taking place or being reinforced. They are just playing games. The brighter kids have already sussed this and said enough is enough.

  4. Danny says:

    Hmmmm…..yes and no. ‘Loving it’ shouldn’t be a criterion on its own for a good lesson…. but….we seem to remember things we love. I remember as a 3 yr old going to watch my dad play footy for the first time. (A topic of a recent assembly on memory using Willingham’s principles). Now if the teacher can create ‘loving’ at the same time as repetition and thinking about the meaning, that must be a good recipe. I agree the first is a less important ingredient than the other two but it add a certain flavour.

  5. “Enjoyment is a happy accident, a lovely by-product of a lesson, but never a worthy aim.”

    Perhaps you should have tweeted that?

    “There is, I feel certain, not a teacher anywhere in the world that actively wants their pupils not to enjoy learning.”

    Is precisely the point of those who responded to your initial tweet, which, let’s not forget, stated clearly that “loving it” was your least favourite endorsement of a lesson.

    The reaction to all this, including this post, is just grandstanding and grandiloquence.

    Please give the teachers you “overheard” some credit.

    • David Didau says:

      1. I did tweet that
      2. It certainly wasn’t a point which you made, or as far as I could see, anyone else. They seemed to want to stick up for “the kids absolutely love it!” as the quoin on lesson effectiveness.
      3. That’s very dismissive of a position I have thought over a lot and is yet more evidence of the very real dichotomy in education which you seem to want to deny
      4. Why have you used inverted commas here? Are you perhaps implying that I’ve made this up?

  6. jonathan says:

    The response is – ‘it depends.’ I know that enjoyment was the aim of my teaching when `i started forty years ago, indeed that controlled them, but you’re right I don’t think it taught them more than school can be a good place to be. In my older years as a teacher joy is still what I aim at provoking. Now, for me ‘joy’ is closer to the neurologist’s definition – any positive state from reflection, thorough mild engagement, curiosity, interest towards ecstasy. Any positive emotion has been shown by dozens of neuroscientific and psychological studies to result in a broadened potential for learning, relationship-making , and even increased health benefits. Through a career in the classroom I have also found that the sort of joy I now seek for my classes often results from genuine challenge, problems that seem real to them. It is enjoyment that results from deep and positive engagement I am looking for, but sometimes with some children simple feeling school can be a cool place to be is a good start.

    • David Didau says:

      My problem with joy as an aim for lessons is Eleanor Roosevelt’s observation that “Happiness is not a goal… it’s a by-product of a life well lived.”

      • jonathan says:

        in my line of research we constantly find that well-being and improved health arise from singing and involvement in other arts activities. The more emphasis put on the quality of the singing the better the well-being outcome. The ultimate aim of choir leaders may be well-being, it may be good music, there are different personalities, but the results seem very similar…in the end as with Eleanor Roosevelt if we aim at happiness through living the good life or if we discover to our surprise that living the good life gives happiness the results are indistinguishable

  7. Phil Butterworth says:

    Dave Harris wrote about his five essentials, it was no 2 I questionned. As you say above the engagement can comes from the challenge, the enjoyment from the discovery and the learning. Enjoyment and fun are usually by products not ends in themselves

    1. If it isn’t going to benefit the pupils’learning, don’t do it

    2. If it can be done in a fun way, then why not do it that way

    3. When someone succeeds, share and celebrate it

    4. The glass is half full. Always ( I do think this is so important)

    5. If you wouldn’t want a visitor to see it – don’t do it

  8. I like this post, David. For me, fun should never lead the planning process. There should always be a range of approaches over a given timespan and I find that often the more entertaining approaches have the best results- but I am thinking of things like Slow Writing or Q+A driven presentations. Probably not what children mean by a fun lesson, I imagine. Fun is linked with the absence of learning in the “fun lesson” context. The only driver of a lesson should be the learning that takes place. “Fun” is a distraction.

  9. I totally agree David. The word ‘engagement’ and the idea of enjoyment in lessons is problematic. Often students expect to be entertained in all lessons all of the time, otherwise lessons are labelled ‘boring’ and students can choose opt out of these: “it’s boring so I’m not doing it”. Students don’t learn the lesson in life that not all learning (and all things in life) will be exciting and ‘active’. This then leaves teachers feeling afraid when planning/delivering as their lesson might be deemed boring and it’s somehow up to the teacher to make everything entertaining. Further to this you end up with poor behaviour being blamed solely on planning. While good planning and engagement often leaves less room for poor behaviour it doesn’t fix it. Often good behaviour needs to come before a student allows themselves to become engaged. There also becomes a culture where we’re trying to sell a lesson to a student, as if the subjects we teach aren’t important enough on their own. Does enjoyment outweigh the learning? Well we had fun, but did we actually learn anything? This often leads to teachers saying “well, this is boring but we must get through it”. Which I find a disgraceful thing for a person to say about their own subject, whatever it is.

    Finally engagement can actually be a negative tool for dumbing down education as we decide to ‘find’ things that will engage students as oppose to what is needed. For instance using conflict poetry with boys because we think it will engage them instead of poems about love. Or using a children’s version of Frankenstein instead of the original text because it wont engage them. Instead we should be opening their minds to new experiences that they might not necessarily find ‘engaging’ or interesting to begin with. Do we choose a film over the original Shakespeare text because it’s more engaging? Do we refuse to read the whole text simply because they wont be engaged?

    The enjoyment comes from achievement, from succeeding in that subject. We must teach students to find enjoyment in their learning no matter what it is. Otherwise our students may shun learning for life as it isn’t ‘exciting’ or ‘engaging’ straight off the bat. This is another reason why a lot of students don’t read for pleasure. They say it’s ‘boring’ and give up instantly. We must teach students to persevere, deal with boredom and as I said, find enjoyment in learning; whatever it is.

  10. Dawn Davis-Leigh says:

    This made me laugh. i totally agree!

  11. […] Recently, I’ve heard a number of teachers argue 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.  […]

  12. End class with a fun music education music video; that way your kids have a chance to learn, and something to look forward to:
    http://www.youtube.com/user/coolenglishsongs4kid

  13. […] kids loved it…..” – Inspired by this post from David Didau. This highlights the daft ‘engaging’ things that have been done in the […]

  14. There is a risk that polarising this argument misses the most essential element of learning which is that learning is a process of association neurologically speaking. I don’t buy the puritan argument that hard work is virtuous nor do I buy the argument that fun, per se, equates to learning. The point is surely, that if we want children to become lifelong learners they need to ‘gain’ some perceivable good feeling from the process. I am all in favour of teaching deferred gratification as an essential life skill. I am not in favour of the ‘no pain, no gain’ idiocy which simply alienates thousands of children.

    Nor do I believe we should use the word failure on the context of learning. All sentient beings are learning all of the time. We learn primarily by noticing what produces the results we desire and what does not. Initially, as infants, this is based on the ‘good feeling versus bad feeling’. The role of education (drawing out learning, not ‘teaching’) should be to creative an environment where learners can experience the process of achieving more sustainable and positive good feelings through more self-awareness and self-control.

    Any polarised debate about fun versus hard work is sterile and destructive. Have fun investing Energy, Effort and Enthusiasm into Endeavours that produce wonderful results for all. Check out Charles Handy on motivation in organisations. really old stuff but his notion of what gets people to invest the ‘Es’ is highly relevant to Engagement for higher quality learning in schools. Sadly Gove and the cronies he is assembling around himself in the UK think you can coerce kids into learning. Fatuous, dangerous twaddle.

    • David Didau says:

      Hmm – are you accusing me of ‘fatuous, dangerous twaddle’? If so, that’s rather a polarising statement isn’t it?

      I for one feel I made my unpolarised position clear in the post in this paragraph:

      “I write this not in condemnation of kids having fun, I write this 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.”

      Is your comment in any way an argument against anything you’ve been able to infer from that?

  15. […] week, I read a blog from The Learning Spy on the topic of prioritizing fun in the classroom. I found this to be very […]

  16. […] “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English? Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum […]

  17. Dr Smith says:

    “Teachers and teaching assistants work together extremely effectively to plan and deliver creative and fun lessons that meet the needs of individual pupils very well, and reflect the school’s strong commitment to equal opportunities. For example, in a mathematics lesson where pupils were investigating the properties of three-dimensional shapes, pupils got very excited while they were testing the ability of these different shapes to ‘roll’ down a slide. All pupils were involved in the experimenting – even those who had minimal mobility.”
    West Lea School, Edmonton (inspected December 2013, published Jan 2014)

  18. […] endorsement of a learning strategy.”  This led to many people misinterpreting David’s words (see his wonderful blog for details).  In my opinion learning should be enjoyable, but ‘enjoyable’ is not necessarily synonymous […]

  19. […] cognitive tasks (at times I did not know whether to laugh or cry when reading  from David Didau that potatoes were hid around the classroom to enhance understanding of the life of  Irish […]

  20. […] if we stopped making the same mistakes? “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for […]

  21. Ian Lynch says:

    I think exciting should be banned along with other hyperbolics 😉 Interesting perhaps but not often exciting.

  22. Bryn Goodman says:

    I loved this post, David. I couldn’t agree more. Surely, what do I want the children to learn has to be a teacher’s first question when planning lessons. Only once that is decided, should teachers devise strategies that will work best for that particular class in enabling them to achieve the desired outcome. If you choose the right activities then maybe you will take ‘enjoyment’ along with you on the journey to acquiring new learning. If ‘enjoyment’ wants to stay at home and the children learn loads then so what?

    • This is such garbage. As a parent and foster carer want I want is for teachers to ENGAGE my children in the process of learning. Once you achieve that, they will learn easily BECAUSE they want to learn. The biggest threat to education is the alienation of children from the process of learning. Of course harde work is required and some healthy degree of stress is good for all o0f us, but without that ongoing and VOLUNTARY engagelemt you might as well be talking to a brick wall. Ediucation as with the rest of public service has an unhealthy obsession with management by objectives. The number one priority is that kids feel confident and motivated to learn. The rest is easy.

      • David Didau says:

        As a parent what I want is for teachers to teach not entertain. Any idea that this presupposes they should alienate children in the process is garbage.

        • Ian Lynch says:

          As a parent I wanted my kids to be happy at school. Some bullying incidents were far more a concern than anything related to boring or entertaining lessons. I think the portrayal of entertainment being undesirable on its own and at the expense of learning is a bit of an obvious no brainer. But it seems to convey a message that some level of entertainment is not only unimportant but undesirable. This flies in the face of the evidence. Two of the BBC’s roles are to entertain and educate and it does that effectively without having to separate the two. The most memorable lessons tend to be entertaining, like it or not. Of course the BBC has more resources to use and so it is easy to see why an expectation of entertainment as well as learning would be seen as a threat by many teachers. Yet another difficult to achieve expectation. I guess a dyslexic child being expected to get GCSE English might experience similar anxiety.

    • Ian Lynch says:

      On the other hand wanting children to learn and achieving it has a conduit in motivation. If we make the implicit inference that teachers are teaching content that is generally accepted as important eg in a National Curriculum or qualification syllabus then motivation becomes a key factor. Enjoyment is simply a key motivator.

    • Ian Lynch says:

      BOOLEAN LOGIC

      1. Learn AND Enjoy

      2. Learn OR Enjoy

      3. Learn XOR Enjoy

      As a teacher my aim would be 1 because it would be most likely to optimise the result. If you enjoy this post you are more likely to learn from it 😉

  23. DM Crosby says:

    I read this and couldn’t have agreed more. If (and this is slightly extreme) they absolutely loathe a lesson but it helps
    them make great progress then I will still teach that lesson.
    But then (with a bit of a cringe) I realised that I’ve recently tweeted the merits of your Slow Writing by stating, ‘the kids loved it!’ This got me thinking.
    My goal is that my children find fun in seeing themselves become better at something. Whenever I announce that today we’ll be doing slow writing, a few excited ‘yessss’s’ always follow from children that clearly enjoy the activity. Why? Because past experiences have taught them that in this lesson they’re going to produce some high quality writing and they’re going to learn things.
    That, in a nutshell, is the ‘fun’ I want to see in my lessons. They enjoy it because they know it’s going to help them get better and ultimately improve their life chances. I see it as our job to help them see that.
    But if we can’t convince them then we should still teach it because sometimes learning and, as I often tell them, life, is just hard work!

    • David Didau says:

      I don’t think I’ve tweeted anything of the kind in recent memory. The original Slow Writing post was written in 2011 and may well contain such a benighted phrase, but I stand by all I say: if children happen to enjoy an activity then great. But this should never be our aim.

  24. […] So how can you plan lessons to get kids to behave? By entertaining them. By pandering to their preferences. By lowering expectations. By being an ‘engaging’ teacher. This has been the prevailing wisdom ever since I started teaching back in the late 90s; kids only misbehave when they’re bored, so good teaching needs to excite, entertain and, above all, engage. If it’s too hard, children will misbehave. If it’s too unfamiliar, it’s not relevant and children will misbehave. If it expects children to master difficult skills, it’s too boring and children will misbehave. The criteria by which successful teaching is judged is whether or not the “kids absolutely love it!” […]

  25. […] no matter its worth. I’ve written about some of my issues with this way of thinking here, here and here. But in summary, my main objection that what is engaging is often distracting and cause […]

  26. Ben says:

    Insightful article and wholly agree with this. Focus on fun = learning is up there with ‘the kids love Miss/Mr x’ = Miss/Mr x is a good teacher. If students like you then a bonus but first and foremost you must build a relationship of respect and build expectations.

    Great to see this debate of ‘fun’ being publically addressed and debated. Absolutely key for all teachers – particularly new teachers – to see that fun should not and cannot be the main focus. Engaging, inspiring and thought provoking, challenging and providing opportunities for growth all vastly more important.

  27. […] So how can you plan lessons to get kids to behave? By entertaining them. By pandering to their preferences. By lowering expectations. By being an ‘engaging’ teacher. This has been the prevailing wisdom ever since I started teaching back in the late 90s; kids only misbehave when they’re bored, so good teaching needs to excite, entertain and, above all, engage. If it’s too hard, children will misbehave. If it’s too unfamiliar, it’s not relevant and children will misbehave. If it expects children to master difficult skills, it’s too boring and children will misbehave. The main criterion by which successful teaching is judged is whether or not the “kids absolutely love it!” […]

  28. […] The implication is clear: framing statements negatively has a powerful effect on our perception. Which brings up to No Pens Day. For those of you who don’t know yesterday was No Pens Wednesday. The Communications Trust are responsible for this initiative in which schools are encouraged to instruct pupils to ‘put down their pens’ and ‘pick up their language’. Guess what? The kids absolutely love it! […]

  29. […] kids to do something they’ll think is fun. I outlined the problem with prioritising fun here. Essentially, it’s not that students enjoying lessons is a bad thing – of course it […]

  30. […] lessons, but to make fun the object is, I think, a betrayal of what they really need. I argued here that children having fun is a poor reason for selecting an activity, and here I suggested that some […]

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