A Focus On Learning, Not Fun

Recently I’ve become more concerned with the ties among three words and their use in the classroom: fun, engagement, and learning. I see more and more teachers comment on creating fun lessons that engage students. I don’t know that there’s anything too terribly wrong with that premise, as long as learning remains the focus.  I fear, however, that upon reflection of a lesson, fun becomes the measuring stick of the lesson’s success and learning takes a backseat or becomes almost an option for the lesson.

Think about how a lesson is planned. I believe you should start with an end goal in mind. Hopefully, it centers around students gaining some amount of knowledge…introducing them (most days) to some information they may have never encountered or worked with before. Once that is identified, one should consider how best to impart that information and further plan from there. No matter what is done after that point, though, the main focus remains the acquisition and application of the new information. That target does not really move and all other actions only lead the student closer to the objective. Can that include ‘fun’ activities? Certainly. Does it have to? Absolutely not.

Again, I fear that the goal of the lesson for some in today’s classroom is shifting from knowledge acquisition to fun. But are the students engaged and having fun? What a terrible proxy for learning. Whose is at fault for this shift to fun? I think the blame should be placed on the following:

  • Teacher evaluations looking for engagement as a measuring stick for an effective lesson.
  • Companies producing products capitalizing on engagement/fun, but not learning.
  • Districts/schools buying those company’s products without doing their research.
  • Posts on social media praising engagement/fun, but not learning.
  • Professional learning/professional development focusing on engagement/fun, but not learning.

Sensing a trend here? If there’s a focus on the engagement of fun and not learning, you’re part of the problem.

Well, how do I know if my students were focused on the fun or the information? They looked engaged.

I believe assessment is the best answer here. Assessment allows teachers to know whether their students are properly engaged with the learning. Can that look like students producing some product? Yes. Can it be a conversation with a student about the information? Yes. Can it be an answer to a writing prompt? Yes. Can it be a multiple-choice assessment? Yes.

Without going into engagement too much (I’ve written about it much more here), engagement can be quite tricky to see. A student can appear to be reading a text, writing about a passage, or working collaboratively, but really be thinking about something completely off task, writing about something totally different, or ‘collaborating’ about weekend plans. How many times have you read a paragraph only to finish it and think that you have no idea what your eyes just scanned because you were thinking about something else? Similarly, a student may appear to be engaged in learning, but only cognitively engage in the fun aspects of the work and completely miss the actual information or application of information that should be the main goal.

Am I saying fun should be banished from the classroom or that teachers should go out of their way to make lessons boring or uninteresting?

Of course not. But I will say that if educators are striving to make all lessons fun and believe students should only engage in a lesson when they feel intrinsically motivated (This was proposed recently by an educator on twitter), we are missing the mark and I’m not sure we’re painting a clear picture of real life. Sometimes you’ve got to know stuff because it leads to understanding other stuff. You may find this extremely interesting or you may not, but it could point you in the direction of other material which you do find interesting. Maybe you wouldn’t understand the interesting stuff without understanding of the boring stuff. Again, the focus of the lesson is acquisition of information for further application, not fun.

What strategies do you use when planning to stay continually focused on the learning?

19 comments

  1. I agree to some extent. Being passionate amd showing your enjoyment is different from trying to entertain. Saying to Ss that the stuff they are about to learn is difficult and boring but will do them good is a bit of an excuse not to make the material relevant. I try to keep in my head when planning a lesson: what will they ‘do’ today and what ‘skill’ will they walk out with?

  2. Ahhhh….this is often seen in science. We must teach hands-on right? Hands-on is usually fun but we must remember that hands on helps students gain experiences which then helps them make connections which then increases the likely hood of being able to retrieve and apply the information later. I always follow hands-on with minds-on. AND both can be “fun”. Which then brings me to the subjective word “fun”. Amusement parks are fun for some but they are also a source of anxiety for others. You won’t see me on any ride that spins=not fun, but I will go on any roller coaster–except for those that go backwards–those are NOT fun.

  3. Fun is ephemeral, satisfaction endures. Satisfaction is the result of concentration, perseverance, and successful effort.

    At least in middle school and beyond, the focus should be on creating lessons that result in satisfying learning experiences for students.

  4. I love this post. We shouldn’t confuse our goal with something that is often a good step to attaining the goal. When students are having fun, they are engaged. Fun is a great way to bring students that are tuned out back to the conversation. But the goal is learning and that also requires the conversation/activity to have a point. About a year ago I read an amazing post somewhere about Aztec pot activities. Just because students are “doing” doesn’t mean they are being productive.

    And for the record, I get criticized more often for having too much fun in class rather than not enough fun.

  5. We know by the Dale cone of experience that students remember things better when they are engaged in active learning and not just passive learning. When teachers construct active learning activities they should consider how they will build in other 4C skills like respectful communication and collaboration. You want them to gain knowledge which is needed to build on future studies. Not all school can be fun but fun and engagement certainly help make the day go by faster.

    1. Dale’s cone of experience doesn’t actually exist other than he had this idea, some time ago, based upon experience and no actual research. He even himself said that he didn’t think it held much relevance despite its popular take up.

  6. The biggest problem with focusing on fun is the opportunity cost for the teacher. Planning fun activities takes a lot of time and energy that could be focused on stuff that matters more, such as planning how to implement effective retrieval practice.

    For the students, the information density of fun activities is often low. There really needs to be a big impact to justify the time spent and I suspect there often isn’t.

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