The problem with fun

Getting students engaged so that they can be taught something seems much less effective than getting them engaged by teaching them something that engages them.

Dylan Wiliam

Could fun be the enemy of learning?

I’ve not always been the curmudgeonly killjoy I am today. Some years ago, I took part in a department meeting where we were asked to prioritise those qualities we most valued about teaching. We came up with all the tiresomely worthy answers you might expect, but, somewhat controversially, I insisted on including ‘fun’. The case I made went something like this: I don’t teach for the money, I do it because I enjoy it. So, having fun must be at the centre of what I do in the classroom. It wasn’t even (or just) about the kids having fun: it was all about me. And to an extent I can still just about follow this tortured logic. I mean, who doesn’t like having fun?

On reflection though, there’s a bit of a problem with fun for fun’s sake. The problem is this: what are pupils doing while they’re having all this fun? If they’re enjoying the challenge of mastering a difficult concept or new skill, then fine. But when pupils decide they’ve worked just about hard enough for one day and ask, full of pathetic hope, for a ‘fun lesson’, they’re not wanting to be challenged, they’re wanting to be entertained. And if they’re being entertained by my fun-packed lesson then they’re probably not going to paying sufficient attention to whatever it is I want them to learn. Why? Because we remember what we think about. Or as Daniel Willingham puts it rather more poetically, “memory is the residue of thought”. If we’re not careful pupils will be too busy thinking about all the fun they’re having to remember any of what they’re supposed to be learning. The priority for any lesson planning is to consider what the pupils will be thinking about. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about icing cakes or making sock puppets as long as that’s what you want them to learn. But if they’re actually a cunningly devised ‘fun’ disguise for the real topic of the lesson, then they won’t be thinking about why they’re doing those things .

Yes, great fun. But what are they learning?

Yes, great fun. But how much maths have we learned?

Another problem, as Hattie tells us, is that the hard work of learning “is not always pleasurable and easy; it requires over-learning at certain points, spiralling up and down the knowledge continuum, building a working relationship with others in grappling with challenging tasks… this is the power of deliberate practice and concentration.”

It’s also worth remembering that most kids don’t really know what they’re going to enjoy. They might think they want to fritter away lesson watching films but they’ll quickly tire of it. Often pupils find enjoyment in the most unexpected places; grammar for instance. I’m regularly surprised at just how much they seem to enjoy grasping some tricky syntactical point and then going to apply what they’ve learned. But despite this, they’ll never ask for more grammar. Kids don’t know what they’ll enjoy because they haven’t experienced all that much of the word yet and it’s up to us to expose them to things which they won’t choose to do in their own time. But not because it’s fun; because it’s new and important and will make them more knowledgeable and interesting.

So, by all means strive to enjoy your teaching, and of course, ideally your pupils will be enjoying them too. Obviously enough, a joyless lesson is not one in which much learning will take place either. But fun, and enjoyment are incidental by-products and shouldn’t be planned for. If fun is the aim of the lesson then you may well be guilty of low expectations. Instead, plan to be brilliant. Enjoy.

Related posts

Planning lessons – lessons I’ve learned from lessons I’ve taught
Fireworks teaching – why less might well be more
Easy vs Hard

18 Responses to The problem with fun

  1. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, David – it’s helpful as I consolidate my thinking after the exchange on Twitter today.

    I absolutely agree that when fun = entertainment with only a tenuous link to learning, or when, to the pupils, ‘fun’ means an easy lesson which is likely to contain a few laughs and not much work/thinking, then this is something to beware of. I also see the danger of shirking the ‘difficult stuff’ because the teacher fears the students won’t ‘enjoy’ it. But I do think the link between enjoyment and engagement, as a way of making learning memorable, is important. And much as I love the idea of ‘plan to be brilliant’ and the enjoyment will come, I disagree that enjoyment shouldn’t be deliberately planned for.

    As I said on Twitter today, I’m currently in Trinidad working, alongside a colleague from the NCTL, with a group of 40 school principals. We want them to learn from their experiences this week. We hope they will reflect, get something worthwhile from the activities we do with them, the materials we introduce them to and from their interaction with one another. We want this to have been a positive learning experience and in order to make it positive, in our planning we’re constantly looking for ways of making the learning enjoyable. The enjoyment may well come from the satisfaction of wrestling with difficult ideas and issues; it isn’t always about laughter (although there has been a fair amount of that too!) But planning for enjoyment and engagement is up there as a priority for me.

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