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.
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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