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Teaching for Fun or for Real

By Michael Griffin
Teaching for Fun or for Real

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

I follow and contribute to various social-media teacher groups. Some posts request ideas from the group to make their lessons more fun, more entertaining. The teacher will say their students get bored easily and seem to require “instant gratification” or instant results in order to enjoy their learning. “Will this be fun?” some students invariably ask.

The suggestion is that there needs to be an instant appeal. Knowing how to derive joy from everyday experiences is important, for enjoyment is an axiomatic life motivational goal. Enjoyment is more than an ephemeral feeling. It nourishes brains and bodies and fosters better interpersonal relationships.

The basic purpose of education is to broaden the potential of human intelligence and enjoyment of life. But enjoyment should not be confused with fun. Too much focus on the immediate appeal of fun can be problematic for children’s development and hinder their ability to discover the satisfaction of true enjoyment.

Enjoyment is characterised by a sense of accomplishment. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, but it is impossible to enjoy an activity unless attention is fully concentrated on that activity.
— Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

Effortful experiences that result in enjoyment build self-esteem and self-growth; pleasurable experiences without effort do not. Cognitive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi insists that “If you wish to become more interested in a subject, the rule of thumb is to give it more attention.” The more attention one gives to a topic, the more likely that topic will reveal its interest and beauty.

The key principle of Csikszentmihalyi’s renowned Flow theory is that enjoyment does not depend on what you do but how you do it, or rather how you pay attention to it. Flow—the euphoric state of self-absorption—follows focus, a heightening of attention, driving awareness into the present moment and onto present action. Attentional effort, therefore, is indispensable for the fulfilment of enjoyment. Paying attention to something—to anything—is the best way to stave off boredom, and this requires effort.

Effort is always necessary but is not always fun. Children learn about commitment by being committed to something. It might be doing household chores (preferably without being paid or bribed, for that defeats the purpose), keeping their room tidy, looking after a pet, or practising a musical instrument. As with homework, these things are not always enjoyable and some days we do not feel like doing them. But it is important to learn how to persevere with activities and chores that are not always fun or even enjoyable, as this replicates the reality of life.

On this basis, I would argue that it is unwise to always provide “fun” learning experiences; learning should deliberately include a mix of the mundane and routine. Children learn about responsibility by being responsible, not by being let off the hook when they complain. This develops the character that will serve them well in adulthood.

Herein lies a problem. Some aspects of our culture, led by mass-media marketeers, try to sell this idea that enjoyment and pleasure are one and the same, and come about from passive, do-nothing, consumerist type activities. Such experiences can contribute to enjoyment if we have prior hard work to reflect upon, but the best moments in life are reported to be enjoyable rather than pleasurable. That effort, challenge, and responsibility are the antithesis of enjoyment is a marketing falsehood.

For people who swallow this line, when something gets hard or uncomfortable, or it is no longer fun—it is time to stop or quit altogether. But nothing is fun until you are good at it, and you do not get good at anything without effort and perseverance. Likewise, to appreciate the full aesthetic and cerebral rewards that great literature and high art offer, one must pay the dues of time, effort, and perseverance.

Educators have the right to push back on an obsessive focus with fun as an educational goal. Our job is to teach students to concentrate, to give attention and application, to think better. Otherwise we serve them poorly. Our students will not learn well, nor learn enjoyably, and they will probably complain about their education in later years.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s view, the meaning of life is meaning in life. We pay attention to what is meaningful, and because we pay attention, it becomes meaningful. Responsibility, which can seem like a burden, gives purpose, and therefore becomes meaningful. Something else about boredom. When students call an activity “boring,” they often do not mean it. It is often a cover-up ego-protection word for lack of self-efficacy. Students devalue what they are not good at to save face. Also, students feel boredom because they do not apply the effort required to master that particular activity. Lack of effort results in boredom; never too much effort. Lazy people get bored easily. “Writing is boring,” a student might say. Return the challenge. “What’s boring about it?” and see if they can reason a justifiable response.

Writing is an activity that many students do not consider “fun” and complain about. I find that the students who least want to write are precisely the ones who need to do it the most. Why do many students groan at the suggestion of a writing activity? Because writing is demanding, probably the most demanding type of thinking. Thinking, and formulating an interesting thought is hard enough, but writing is an even more arduous intellectual exercise. Steven Pinker says; “Whilst speaking is instinctive, writing is and always has been, hard. No child has an instinctive tendency to write. Writing is not a natural act; it is an act of craftmanship.”

The only way to learn how to write is to write often. Multiple drafts are required for the refinement of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, let alone ideas and arguments. No serious writing gets done without drafts. If we do not require drafts at school, we send the misleading message that one should be able to furnish an assignment in one go. All serious writing requires revisions. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. Students should be reading their writing and then self-editing. This is seriously metacognitive. Writing affords an opportunity to sit and to really think things through. Writing is about the effective use of words to engage the human mind.

Students deserve to be informed about the rationale for demanding learning activities such as writing. “Why are we doing this?” is a fair and honest question. All teachers must be able to describe the purpose of educational exercises. In the case of writing: The value of writing—to engage and refine the mind—is vital. Writing is reflective. It helps you examine the subtleties and nuances of content that you cannot acquire by reading a book alone or listening to a lecture. It offers opportunities for multiple revisions of thinking, idea-formulation, and expression. It gives you a focus for exploring and consolidating the learning content.

I am pro-technology, but writing is an indispensable part of effective learning. Writing something down helps you remember it—even more so when done by hand. In almost every case, learning is enhanced with writing. Learning through writing is much harder than being given notes, or being told what to learn by the teacher, which is why we do it, and why effective teachers demand it.

Yes, students need occasional relief from the demanding and intense nature of metacognitive learning, but they must not be allowed to avoid the authentic effort-based thinking that results in genuine learning. A focus on immediate gratification and the passing fancy of pleasure results in little self-growth, no lasting enjoyment, work-pride, or satisfaction, and cultivates in children an inability for sustained concentration and perseverance. Like extrinsic reward systems, this type of classroom culture fails to satiate and results in ever-increasing demands from restless and unsatisfied learners for more of the same.

Michael Griffin is a teaching and learning specialist, author, and keynote speaker. He is the author of the online training course “Teaching for Metacognition” and seven books, including “Children and Learning: For Parents”. Michael’s website is Email [email protected].

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12/05/2020 - Lizelle
I have been instinctively feeling this for many years, and it's great to see it written by someone else. Thank you. I totally agree.