Should learning be fun? Or do we mean enjoyable?

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Much has been said about the links between enjoyment and learning, but is enjoyment the same as fun? Gerald Haigh considers how we should approach learning.

My granddaughter started year 11 in September. When I saw her before the end of the holiday she was apprehensive about what was clearly going to be a challenging time. So, after a couple of weeks I sent her a text: “How’s it going?”

Straight back came: “It’s hard work but I’m loving it so far.”

I smiled to myself. Most teachers, surely, would give a lot to have that reaction from their students. After all, in many walks of life “hard work” and “loving it” do not belong together. 

The world is full of people who, sadly, actively dislike, even hate, their work. Perhaps that’s why something of the same attitude occasionally creeps into education – a sense that lessons aren’t meant to be enjoyed.

Part of the problem, I guess, lies in overuse of the word “fun”. Over the years, we have had so many schemes and books along the lines of Maths is Fun or Fun with the Treaty of Utrecht (okay, I made that one up) that we began to make jokes about them – like that one I suppose.

The problem with that “fun” approach, I’d say, is that it starts from the assumption that learning is inherently disagreeable, and requires the addition of a layer of happy-flavoured jam. 

As a child I was given “Fenning’s Fever Cure”, medicine so dreadful – made, I now find, from creosote – that it had to be immediately followed by a spoonful of golden syrup. That “spoonful of sugar” philosophy, surely lies behind much of the “learning is fun” approach.

But “enjoyment”, surely, is different from “fun”. Often – and I know I am not alone in this – I test such ideas by reflecting on studying a musical instrument, which for many people is the most difficult learning experience they have as adults. If I work on a new piece, one on the far margin of my competence, taking it one or two bars at a time, over many months, then there is no doubt that I am working hard. I am also, however, enjoying the experience. But is it fun? I’d say not. Were I to say to my teacher, “I’m having fun with this new piece”, she would instantly recognise the irony. 

No, the enjoyment comes, not from the instant gratification of a poke from Ken Dodd’s tickling stick, but from the much deeper sense that’s best expressed simply as: “This is bloody hard, but you know what? I can do it.”

As I prepared this article, I became aware just how much has been written about the relationship between enjoyment and learning. I fought shy of actual research papers, because unless you’re prepared to explore the provenance of a piece of research you’d best be cautious about it.

I did, though, find a thoughtful blog post by Chris Hildrew, deputy head at Chew Valley School, called The Importance of Enjoyment.

In it, while making the usual disclaimers – he’s not against teaching knowledge, and accepts that some topics just have be slogged through – he says: “My point is this – children should enjoy learning. Instinctively, they do; everybody does. But this enjoyment needs to be nurtured or it will flicker and fail. Not at the expense of high expectations, but in conjunction with them.”

Mr Hildrew’s belief that all children instinctively enjoy learning is surely true. From the dawn of time, learning has been necessary for survival, with evolution settling on enjoyment as the obvious motivator. A good early years class is a good place to see the principle in action. Ten years ago I sat beside a five-year-old as he set out to write a simple sentence, intent on acquiring the necessary life-skill of literacy. He set about the task with a will, confident in the knowledge that he could succeed.

“I went to the park with my dad, and I went on the swing and the slide,” he wrote – carefully, carrying out all the checks and routines he’d been taught – then sat back with a sigh and smile, awaiting his teacher’s approval.

Is he still as keen on his writing now, at 15, I wonder? Or has enthusiasm been dampened by testing, fear of failure, and a series of classroom regimes that consecutively failed to build on that early excitement? Sadly, as we know, there’s no certainty. It could have gone either way.

At a glance, the teacher’s task appears straightforward. It is to present the child with the next step on their learning journey, saying something like: “This is what you have to do. Let’s not pretend it’s easy, because it isn’t. You’re not here to do easy stuff. But I have confidence that you can succeed. And my job is to help you through every step. Only you have to believe.”

In a fictional world of film or theatre, a visionary teacher might actually make that speech, with appropriate background music. Actually doing it, though, daily, with lots and lots of children, all ridiculously different from each other, is something else. 

The good news, though, is that there are teachers who can and do pull off what is actually a daily miracle, and my granddaughter, thankfully, seems to have encountered some of them.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1

Reference
The Importance of Enjoyment: http://chrishildrew.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/the-importance-of-enjoyment/


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