Why learning and having fun are not inimical

Of all the arguments I’ve read, from the plethora of education bloggers over the last year or so, the one I find hardest to get my head round is the supposed dichotomy between enjoyment and learning.

Learning, it seems, is a very serious business and teachers who look to make their lessons fun are committing the cardinal sin of putting their student’s enjoyment ahead of knowledge acquisition and skills development. When I first read this argument I was a little perplexed and it took me a while to unpick the different strands. In so doing, I came to the conclusion that these bloggers had a point, but that they were overstating their argument. This blog is an attempt to explain why.

The argument against making lessons fun has three connected claims:

1. “Learning is more important than having fun”

Which is true and, furthermore, is true in all circumstances, in a classroom context. It seems obvious to me the primary purpose of a lesson is for the students to end up knowing more than they did when they started (I’m using the term ‘knowing’ to encompass all dimensions of the learning process – acquisition, application, and development of knowledge, skills, and understanding) and if anything, including having fun, gets in the way of this then that makes the lesson less effective.

I’d like to propose a maxim upon which we can all agree: learning is always more important than having fun (in a classroom context).

With that sorted, we move on to the next matter…

2. “Focusing on fun can distract students from the purpose of learning”

Well, since many things can distract students from the purpose of learning – a wasp flying in the room, an empty belly, falling out with their friends – and many students do not need much to distract them, especially if the lesson is boring, then, I think we can all agree, this is also true.

However, since many things can be distracting then this is not an argument against ‘fun’ per se, but a general criticism of any teaching strategy that distracts students from the genuine purpose of the lesson.

If we follow this logic then any strategy that distracts students from the genuine purpose of the lesson is a bad strategy. Including, we must conclude, not only things that make the students enjoy the lesson, but also those things that make them not enjoy it. Including being bored and/or intimidated. There is a good chance if a student finds a lesson boring or is embarrassed by the teacher, this is what they will remember when they leave the classroom and not the intended purpose of the lesson. Of course, no teacher deliberately sets out to bore their students or to embarrass them (I hope), but these can be unintended outcomes of a teacher’s strategies.

If this logic is true of teachers who do not want to make their lessons fun, it also true of those that do. I would hope no teacher intends to distract students from learning by making a lesson really exciting, however, I suppose it might happen occasionally.

Is this reason enough not to make (or at least attempt to make) lessons fun? Not for me. I’m not a perfect teacher and I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes (far too many for comfort), but making my lessons so much fun that the kids forgot they were learning, is not amongst the ones that keep me awake at night.

Although I think the critics have a point (certainly focusing more on making a lesson fun than an effective learning experience is a serious mistake), I think making a lesson fun is only bad if the students only remember how much fun they had and can’t remember the learning intention. The argument seems to be more a warning about overcooking puddings, than an argument for not cooking puddings at all.

There are, I believe, far worse crimes perpetuated on children than trying to make lessons fun. But that is a subject for another day.

3. “Fun is frivolous and unimportant, and has no role in the classroom”

This all depends on how we define the term ‘fun’. Certainly fun in the sense of ‘messing about’ or ‘showing off’ has no place in the classroom. Neither (as I have argued) do actions from the other end of the spectrum – ‘bullying’ or ‘intimidation’. These extremes are inimical to the learning process and have no part to play in an effective learning environment.

Fun can also be interpreted as hollow and meaningless, a spinning bowtie of irrelevance, that beguiles the students, but adds nothing to the true purpose of the lesson. This is a damaging association and I have some sympathy with the argument. Certainly, as I hope I’ve established, anything that makes it less likely for the children to learn – either intentionally or unintentionally – is a bad strategy, and spinning bowties, stories that beguile, tricks, pretending, and illusions all fall into this category.

Similarly, although for different reasons, there is no place for the ‘teacher as clown’. This is showing off of a different kind. It is not our role to entertain the students and if we adopt it we deny them opportunities to contribute and to develop effective learning strategies including dealing with difficult situations. Sometimes learning can be a hard slog and doing something worth doing takes time and effort: If we spend all our time thinking of ways to entertain our students we are doing them a disservice and misinterpreting our profession. This I think might be a misunderstanding of the way we think of play and work. For some people these are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but for those that become genuinely effective learners, play and work are dimensions of the same experience. They do not see them as separate, but as complimentary and equally important.

Perhaps ‘fun’ is not the right word to describe the commitment, effort, and time it takes to learn something difficult and complex. Would Andy Murray describe his close-season training sessions in Miami as ‘fun’? It seems unlikely, but he would probably say they are enjoyable and important. ‘Fun’ is a word children use, especially young children, and we shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. However, unfortunately, it is laced with connotations of frivolousness, which make it difficult to use seriously. I suggest we substitute ‘fun’ with ‘enjoyable’ but not in a passive sense, like being entertained, but in an active participatory sense, where the learner finds enjoyment from the activity of learning, even (perhaps especially) if the learning is difficult. This is a point made by Matthew Syed in ‘Bounce’:

“It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision to devote himself to whatever field of expertise… where the motivation is internalized, children tend to regard practice not as gruelling but as fun” (P.83 Kindle)

He further illustrates this point by quoting Serena Williams, “It felt like a blessing to practice because we had so much fun.”

The point being: learning does not have to be boring, nor does it have to entertaining, but it does have to mean something to the learner. This, I think, is the nuance that is missing from the ‘anti-fun’ argument. Of course it is bad practice to make lessons vacuous or so distracting the students forget what they are learning. Just as much as it is bad practice to make lessons so tedious and boring they lose the will to live. But there is no reason at all not to try to make learning enjoyable, to make the context interesting and attractive to the learners, to offer them a way in and to give some opportunities to contribute and be heard.

I’ll finish by sharing a heuristic from a teacher who understood the importance of really listening to students and using their ideas to create genuinely interesting and enjoyable learning experiences, Dorothy Heathcote. I use this continuum all the time in my teaching to try and gauge where I think my class are, individually and collectively, in regards to the context we are studying. Notice it doesn’t mention ‘fun’.

continuum of engagement


Leave a comment
  1. bt0558 October 10, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Well said Tim.

    I imagine when these funbashers are doing a little independent learning, they make their own lives a misery. Because they must.

  2. Sue Cowley October 10, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    This is very interesting Tim and I agree with pretty much everything you say here – I love that Dorothy Heathcote diagram.

    When I teach teachers, I get them to think about how, when I throw in something that’s a bit fun (a joke, a light-hearted volunteer task), they laugh, and then they RELAX. And that to me is the key – if I feel comfortable in a teacher’s presence, I am far more likely to engage, and focus and work hard for them. If I’m tensed up all the time as a learner it just makes me less likely to take risks or put myself on the line for the teacher. As you say, intimidation is going to freeze up learning – it certainly did for me when I was a child.

    I think we’ve got ourselves so bound up with progress, and outcomes, and Ofsted that we have maybe lost sight of the fact that not every minute of every lesson is about children learning. (Indeed I can remember vast tracts of time at school when I learned very little.) Some of the time school should be about boosting relationships and feeling enjoyment and warmth and fascination. Bizarrely it has started to feel like heresy to even say that.

    It’s all in the balance, surely, and actually I’m not totally convinced that messing around doesn’t have a place in the classroom, because in the arts subjects that ‘messing around’ is often the key to the creative process.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    • Tim Taylor October 12, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      Thank you Sue
      I certainly agree feeling relaxed is a much more productive state than feeling tense, and using humour and laughter is a very good way to help that happen. I also work with adults and demo teach classes of children I don’t know and it is certainly true that building a rapport in the first few minutes is very important. I use drama a great deal, although I’m not a drama teacher, and it is crucial people feel relaxed enough to have a go. Having been on the ‘wrong’ side of horrible drama experiences I’m well aware of how awful it can be if the participants do not feel sufficiently relaxed and protected. This is as true of children, as it is of adults.

      Does this mean there is a place for laughter and a bit of ‘messing about’? Absolutely. But, and this I think is the point I’m trying to make in the blog, having a good time is not the main purpose of a lesson, even if it does mean the main purpose of the lesson is more effectively achieved.

      The criticism of ‘fun’ is that it either becomes the main purpose of the lesson or it overwhelms and is all the learners remember. I think these are serious criticisms and dangers we should be aware of.

      Your point about the role of ‘messing around’ in the creative process is more contentious. I mentioned ‘Bounce’ in the blog and the main argument of the author is expertise and genuine creativity comes from purposeful sustained practice over many years, with quality feedback, by internally motivated participants, who are prepared to constantly push the boundaries of what they do. I have to say I find this thesis compelling. There is not much mention of ‘messing about’ by those that become really successful, including experts from the arts. For me, messing about is not part of the creative process, although experimentation and imagination certainly are. The arts, just like sports, science and any other fields, require discipline, in the sense of being ‘self disciplined’, absorbed and committed to the form, rather than externally disciplined by an overbearing master. There is of course still a part for ‘play’ and ‘playfulness’ but within a conscious project of development and improvement.

      • Sue Cowley October 12, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

        Hi Tim

        Many thanks for your reply.

        When I say ‘messing around’, what I actually mean is the experimentation part of creative pursuits (such as writing, or choreography, both of which I have done to a professional level). So, I think we are both saying almost the same thing, but just using different terminology (I reckon this happens on the internet, and on Twitter an awful lot). As a writer, it often takes quite a bit of what I would call ‘messing around’ with ideas to get to the point where I am ready bring the discipline of writing into play. Similarly this is how I approached choreography when I was a dancer.

        This first bit of the creative process can look very messy (which is why I call it ‘messing around’) and often might have no relation to the final creative product. It’s the scribbled ideas late at night, or the sudden insight or idea that strikes apparently from nowhere. For me this messy bit feels like both a freeing up of creative ideas, and also a way of getting to those intuitive and subconscious aspects of creativity that I cannot access in any other way. My ‘messy thinking’ can look really, well, messy – scribbles, arrows, doodles, lots of apparently random ideas that eventually coalesce.

        For me the ‘messy’ bit can take quite a while but if I let it happen eventually everything crystallises and a book almost seems to write itself. Some writers would talk about this as channeling a ‘muse’: for me it is the point at which you allow creativity to be expressed via discipline. If the discipline bit is second nature, then it doesn’t get in the way of the creativity.

        I hope that makes some kind of sense. Thanks for prompting a very interesting discussion here.

        • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

          Thanks again Sue

          I suppose some might say, you are an expert in your fields and, therefore, your ‘messing about’ is entirely different to the ‘messing about’ of novices, who don’t have the necessary knowledge, skills, and experiences to make their ‘messing about’ meaningful.

          This is the point made by Willingham in “Why don’t children like school” and has become the main justification among those who would start with a much larger emphasis on knowledge acquisition, before students are given the opportunity to start expert ‘messing about’ (which would be called experimentation). The novice ‘messing about’, they argue, is nothing more than a waste of time and distracts children from the true purpose of early education.

          Although there is some truth in this view, it is, in fact a very selective and self-serving interpretation of Willingham’s argument, which is much more complex and nuanced and includes the use of play, dialogue, and stories to build and develop children’s knowledge , skills, and understanding http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2013/07/all-it-is-cracked-up-to-be-some-notes-on-daniel-willinghams-why-dont-students-like-school/

          I agree, much of what constitutes argument on Twitter is really people disagreeing about terms. However, I do think there is also a very big difference between teachers who work predominately in primary education and those that work in Secondary. It is almost a completely different job.

          • Jill Berry October 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

            There’s another blog opportunity right there, Tim. Teaching in primary/teaching in secondary “is almost a completely different job”. Don’t know the answer but I’d find the debate very interesting.

            • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

              You’re right. I have done a bit of teaching in Secondary (and Special Schools) and have just started a new position as a governor in my own children’s secondary school. Hoping to learn a lot and get a new perspective.

              I know Debbie Kidd, Hywel Roberts and Luke Abbott, are all Secondary teachers who have taught in primary. My views on the divide are based on talking to them and the conversations i’ve had on Twitter and through blogging.

              My hunch, not at all scientific, is it has a lot to do with timetables and working with many more children in a week. In a primary setting I work with the same 30 children for a year, in a Secondary it might be hundreds in a week.

              • Jill Berry October 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

                So relationships may be different, but does that make it a completely different job? Would be interested to know what Debra, Hywel & Luke think.

                • Jill Berry October 13, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

                  (Sorry – I know this is getting off your original subject, Tim, but I do think it’s interesting. I was deputy of a 4-18 school and head of a 7-18 school and I loved the contact with the younger children, and VERY occasionally had teaching contact with them, but I’m a secondary specialist and accept this isn’t something I know a huge amount about.)

                • Debra Kidd October 13, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

                  Hi Jill,

                  It’s not completely different – you’re still working with people who are learning, but so much harder to really get to know children if you see them for one hour per week. Our new KS3 curriculum goes some way to addressing that – giving kids 10 hours with the same teacher and having double lessons, but not all subjects get that. Then of course, there’s puberty to deal with. Year 9s are notoriously hard to teach, though I have to say I love it – makes me laugh a lot seeing them shoot up, voices yoyoing and so on. But it’s not cute and you have to accept that there are many more distractions competing for your attention. I do think through schools are a great thing – wish there were more of them.

                  But as far as the ‘fun’ thing goes, I think Tim’s points are universally applicable across both settings. It’s about purpose, engagement and context. That’s important for everyone.

                  • Jill Berry October 13, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

                    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Debra – interesting.

                    I agree re all-through schools – SO many benefits (eg for Y6/Y7 transition, role models and leadership opportunities for older students) and great for staff to work across sectors.

                    And re: Year 9 – I absolutely know what you’re talking about, but when I think back over my career I reckon some of my most memorable lessons were with Year 9 groups – they’re old enough to have some mature discussions with, but not constrained by GCSE syllabus/pressures.

          • Sue Cowley October 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

            I don’t get that argument at all (not yours, but that of those who say experimentation is pointless without skills/knowledge). Even when I was tiny, I can remember my dance teachers putting on a piece of music and encouraging us to react instinctively. We didn’t have the skill/discipline base, but the creative instinct was there already. Allowing us to tap into that ability gave us confidence in our creativity, and also a reason to want to build our skills.

            As teachers I think our role is to scaffold and guide this experimental phase, for instance through the use of sustained shared thinking in EY, or through providing an interesting range of resources for creative play. Our main aim I reckon needs to be to avoid limiting or directing this early creativity too much from our adult perspective.

            I think you are absolutely right that there is a definite primary/secondary split here. I also think there’s a subject split hiding itself behind many of the comments that are made. I don’t claim to understand how best to teach maths but I reckon I know a thing or two about the creative process.

            Great inspiration for thinking and discussion, thanks Tim!

            • Chris Chivers October 13, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

              What seems to be being discussed is the difference between didactic teaching and the teacher in mentoring/coaching mode, which in reality is much of the teacher or parenting approach, reacting to children in activity, free-flow or play.

              To watch a child, offer positive feedback and guide the possible next steps, is a form of coaching. Picking them up and moving them forward can be mentoring, which could be any outside expert. This links with @headteacherguru and his skateboarding analogy, where learners try out things, reflect and get advice and feedback before having another go. There are sporting links- Jonny Wilkinson and his kicking coach. In fact, this probably applies to a wide range of learning situations. Informed feedback, discussion, reflection and retry/change.

              • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 5:30 pm #


                Yes, indeed. I think there is a consensus building over the ‘process’ of how people learn, the various different elements of knowledge acquisition, purposeful practice, repetitive drilling, feedback loops, challenge, teacher coaching/mentoring/mediation, student ‘mind-set’ etc etc.

                What remains more contentious is the teaching methods and the time we spend dedicated to each element in the process.

                Some, it seems, want to develop certain elements sequentially, others in combination. I see the discussion as an important dialogic process and not a battle of wills. Others have different ways of seeing it, using the emotive (and unhelpful) language of conflict and blame.

                • Chris Chivers October 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

                  It might be reaching a stage where there is articulation of different interventions to move the learner on at different stages in the process. Even within a coaching situation it is possible to use didactic approaches, supported, in sporting situations, by direct modelling, allowing the learner to visualise for themselves and then have a go.

                  Some want to overcomplicate in an attempt to simplify an argument. “Best approach”, to me, is what is best at the time, never either or.
                  Broad teacher toolkit.

                  • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

                    And we have reached a synergy of agreement.

            • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

              I agree entirely that experimentation (messing about) is important at all levels of education for a number of different reasons (feels like the subject of another blog), most importantly because learning at any level requires more than being told or shown. To develop an understanding of a subject also involves practice, participation, and experimentation with the form. Its like learning to play football, without being allowed to kick a ball or play an informal match until you have developed all the necessary KSU to an expert level. Crazy and not what Willingham is saying at all.

              I’m of the view that drilling and practice are very important elements of the learning process. But (and this is the argument made by ED Hirsch) only for a very limited time every day AND with other opportunities to use and apply those skills in (what he calls) ‘implicit’ learning activities.

              But (for me) the most importantly element of all, is the development of the learner’s own ‘internal’ motivation. In short, love of learning. Without that, we are trying to grow flowers on rocky soil.

  3. Jill Berry October 10, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    I enjoyed this too, Tim, and it crystallizes some of the things I’ve been thinking about the fun/serious learning debate. I know one of the ‘anti-fun’ arguments is that fun can be a distraction and so detract from memorable learning, but I agree with Sue’s point above about the link between fun/humour and relaxation, and the link between relaxation and receptivity to learning.

    Like Sue, I work with groups of staff in training situations – I’ve worked with three different groups this week and have a fourth group tomorrow – all aspiring middle leaders or senior leaders. I’m not there to entertain them and I want them to learn as much as possible (often through opportunities for reflection) but I do want them to feel this has been an enjoyable experience too. The learning is paramount, not the enjoyment, but the enjoyment is still important. As Sue says, developing positive relationships has to be an important part of any human interaction.

    • Tim Taylor October 12, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

      Thanks Jill

      I agree entirely, it is both/and not either/or. If we discount the role of enjoyment in the process of learning then we are making a serious mistake. Not because enjoyment is more important then learning, but because enjoyment makes the learning more effective. I can’t draw on masses of research to prove this statement, but I can draw on twenty years teaching experience and (nearly) fifty years as a learner. People who are bored disengage. I do it all the time and I’m a high motivated adult learner, children who might have much less intrinsic motivation or sense of belonging, are even more likely to do the same.

  4. Chris Chivers October 11, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    Well argued post Tim,
    I think of fun as the child word and have always been happy after a good lesson for learning when children said that they had had fun. Maintaining engagement over time is, for me, the greater good, not obsession for a while then stop, nor inattention because the activity is either uninteresting or not within the learner ability to accommodate the new information.

    Teaching and learning will always be a fine balance and the teacher awareness of the learner audience is an essential element. To think along with learners and adapt to their needs is the essence of fine tuning, with an accompanying humour to cajole as needed. We need every tool in the armoury.

    Will be interesting to see the responses.

    • Tim Taylor October 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

      Thank you Chris

      It was your tweet that made me rethink my use of the word ‘fun’. I was beginning to think it wasn’t the right word, but you reminded me that it is exactly the word children use and we adults should not discount it so easily.

      When children say a lesson is ‘fun’ (which I think they use in a very wide way) they are not saying it was pointless or frivolous, but that it was something they enjoyed and might like to do again. This, I think, is something important and not easy to discount. As I say in the blog, it is not our role to entertain children or give them a good time, but it is our role to make the curriculum and the learning process attractive enough that students will want to engage with it and put their energy and time into mastering. To my mind, teachers who ignore or argue against this, are arguing for a kind of pedagogy that is less effective and less useful.

  5. peter October 11, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    I think you have many of the important points identified in your blog. BUT, the choice is not between fun and no fun, it is between planning for fun or planning for learning. It is about holding fast to that which children need to learn compared to avoiding some parts of what they need to learn because they might find that boring. One does not set out to plan boredom. That would be silly but one does plan to allow the learning to happen in,as you say, an environment with an many of the distractions removed. If one has a proper understanding of that then you will plan appropriately.

    If you think about two different ways to get a child to learn, two different activities if your first thought is about which one will enable better learning, I know that is up-for-a-challenge term, than you are thinking properly. If you choose one that works but will be fun, for either teacher or child, then you are thinking incorrectly.

    • Tim Taylor October 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

      Thank you Peter

      I think we are in almost total agreement, although I suppose we might disagree with what constitutes a distraction.

  6. Gary October 11, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    Great post.  

    As this BBC link makes clear, ‘play’ is an essential part of early years education, and it’s through play that young children learn concepts and skills, including social skills, physical skills and language skills:   http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24302481  

    Why would anyone object to children having fun when they ‘play’?  

    Similarly, children taking part in drama, dance, drawing, painting, model-making, athletics, rounders, science investigations, mathematical inquiry, problem-solving, debating, researching, word-processing and scores of other activities will often describe their experiences as ‘fun’.  

    As you point out in this post we should be concerned first and foremost with whether children are learning. If they enjoy learning and enjoy school then the chances are they will want to do more learning, and will look forward to going to school. If they think learning and school are fun, then that’s a great bonus.  

    It’s a pity we have to defend the idea of children having fun at school, but it seems as though we need to when various Gradgrinds denounce teachers who celebrate their success in making schools places where children experience delight, wonder, excitement, pleasure and indeed fun. No teacher I’ve ever met saw their primary role as being an entertainer or creating ‘fun’.

    Is it possible for children to have ‘fun’ when learning the skills, concepts and knowledge needed to do well in high-stakes timed tests and exams? Perhaps the question ought to be – do we actually need those high-stakes tests and exams at 11+ and 16+? And how can we ensure children learn better and learn more through greater personalisation and co-creation of their learning, whether or not it’s preparation for tests and exams?

    • Tim Taylor October 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      Thank you Gary

      You make several important points.

      Play is another one of those terms that often gets a bashing. It is easy to interpret children’s play as frivolous or only for Early Years, however, play or playfulness, is an important element in the development of learning. This is well understood in early childhood development, but often gets ignored, forgotten, or disparaged as children grow older. Becoming almost anathema for some in Secondary education.

      Ken Robinson has become a bit of a bete noire recently, as the reactionary backlash gathers full momentum, however, I still find his definition of creativity in “All Our Futures” very useful. Especially, the importance he gives to playfulness, the role of imagination, and the application of learnt knowledge and skills. As we keep saying there is not a dichotomy between play and learning, but rather a complex combination of both. Those that would deny teachers the opportunity to use play (and fun) in their teaching, would deny them the full range of available effective strategies.

  7. peter October 12, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    Ok. Hopefully some clarification. When you plan a lesson what do you plan? If you say engagement, or fun or anything other than challenge being at the forefront of your planning thinking then you will be planning for learning that is somewhat less effective than it might have been.

    For any learning the key theory is about working memory, which includes two critical factors. One is that there is a limit on how many chunks of information plus the space needed to process that information. Anything else is a distraction. If we have to think about something the only way to do that is to process it in working memory. So don’t add any distractions.

    Attention is a feature of working memory and if we distract that attention the learning may not get into working memory to then be processed.

    • Tim Taylor October 12, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

      Sorry Peter I forgot what you were saying at the beginning before I got to the end. Or at least I would have if that was all memory (learning) was. However, it is clearly much more sophisticated than that, having a lot to do with context, environment, prior experience, tacit knowledge, level of engagement, motivation, teacher expertise, feedback and (as you say) challenge. I sense you are using the term ‘distraction’ to reference anything other than explicit instruction from teacher to students in ‘bite size chunks of 7 pieces of information +/-2. But, I maybe wrong.

    • Sue Cowley October 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      My take on this is that of course you plan for learning first, but within the context of the specific class, i.e. you ask yourself ‘how can I best teach this to *ensure* that they learn?’ If behaviour is difficult, then engagement is a part of planning for learning or the teacher is ignoring a vital factor in promoting good learning. I don’t think you can take that out of the equation unless your children behave well anyway. This stance may be as a result of some of the schools that I have taught in where engagement had to happen for there to be any hope of learning possibly taking place.

      • Jill Berry October 12, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

        And for adults, perhaps substitute the idea of ‘concentration’/’focus’ for behaviour, here, Sue. I haven’t been involved in any staff training where adults haven’t behaved (yet!) but I think enjoyment/engagement encourages focus and presents them ‘drifting’. I take Tim’s point above that what I’ve been thinking about is engagement as a way of making learning effective which is slightly different from the focus of his original post.

        • Sue Cowley October 12, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

          That’s absolutely it, Jill, it’s about wanting whoever is learning with you to really focus on everything you say and do together. And that’s my job as well as theirs. It’s not enough to say ‘I’m only here for your learning’, the focus bit is what lets that happen.

  8. S Cavadino October 12, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    Hey guys, I’ve just read this post and comments with great interest. There are a lot of things here I agree with, especially around enjoyment leading to improved learning, as opposed to distracting from it.I have previously blogged about here:http://wp.me/p2z9Lp-24 if you are interested.

  9. David Didau (@LearningSpy) October 13, 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    1. “Learning is more important than having fun”- yep! Happy to go along with you on this
    2. “Focusing on fun can distract students from the purpose of learning” – not following your logic here at all. The point I have tried to make as an ‘anti-fun’ blogger is that kids remember what they think about. Often ‘fun’ occupies kids’ thoughts to that the extent that they fail to remember what the fun was for. I recently saw a lesson where the teacher want students to learn about the plight of Irish peasants during the potato famine. To engage them she hid potatoes around the room. The kids loved it and were completely engaged. They thought a lot about where the teacher might have hidden the potatoes and learned a lot about the hiding places for potatoes in a classroom. They did not think much about how Irish peasants might have dealt with starvation. Consequently they didn’t learn much about this.
    3 “Fun is frivolous and unimportant, and has no role in the classroom” – this not a position I have ever taken. Sounds a bit like a straw man.

    Thanks, David

    • Tim Taylor October 14, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      Thanks for your comment David

      1. Glad we’re in agreement, not really controversial in my opinion.

      2. The example you give here is a perfect illustration of what I think is wrong with a lesson that concentrates more on the students having fun, than learning anything worth learning. Hiding potatoes around the classroom has nothing to do with the Irish potato famine, therefore this is a very bad lesson. However, it does not follow that all lessons where the children enjoy themselves are bad. As I’m sure you would agree, and this is my point. Bad teaching is bad teaching, whether the children have fun or not. But it is perfectly possible to plan and teach a lesson about the Irish Potato famine where the students learn the salient knowledge and enjoy themselves while doing it. In my opinion. it is just as bad practice to bore the students to death, with some tedious lecture for example, with the effect that they switch off and learn nothing, other than history is boring and not worth doing.

      This is not the same as saying lectures are a bad way to teach, just that bad lectures = bad teaching. Its the same argument.

      3. I hope this is a strawman. I included it because I wanted to make the definition between frivolousness and enjoyment. My point is, a lesson that is ‘fun’ (meaning frivolous) and ‘fun’ (meaning enjoyable) are different things, if we are prepared to make that distinction. My aim was to clarify some of the language.

      On a wider matter, this blog was not meant as a direct answer to your blog on fun, although I had it in mind, but a wider response to an amalgam of different blogs and tweets I have read recently on the subject. On reflection I think the tag ‘anti-fun blogger’ was a mistake, I meant it as short-hand for, “bloggers who are making arguments that teaching lessons that are fun is not the same as teaching lessons where the students learn something”. But, now I see it does sound derogatory and is unnecessarily combative. I have changed it in the text. Lesson learnt.

  10. Stuart Lock (@StuartLock) October 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Tim, I think you’re writing here agrees with those bloggers you call anti-fun. I think people take the position of “I wouldn’t make it deliberately boring, but I’m not interested in whether it’s fun or not” rather than being anti-fun. Maximising learning, including where necessary, at the expense of fun.

    I suppose the argument is around the “where necessary” above. I suspect you think it’s necessary to be at the expense of fun far less often than I do (or others)?

    Incidentally I had a conversation on Friday with an ex-colleague. His position was that students “like those we serve” won’t learn anything unless we make it fun.

    • Tim Taylor October 14, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

      I agree with much of what you say Stuart. I’ve changes my stance on the ‘anti-fun’ tag and agree with your statement: [we should] “Maximising learning, including where necessary, at the expense of fun.”

      I also agree that much of this argument revolves around educator’s different notions of “where necessary”. This seems to me a much more constructive place for the discussion than the dichotomy of ‘for or against’ fun. So thanks for pointing that out.

      I guess where we part is over your other statement: “I wouldn’t make it deliberately boring, but I’m not interested in whether it’s fun or not”. My own view is making learning ‘fun’ (in the sense of enjoyable) is a very important part of the teaching process. Not at the expense of learning, but as a means of engaging students in the meaning, purpose, and work of learning. Therefore, *I am* interested in making learning enjoyable where possible, because I think that can be a more effective strategy.

      This is not to say we shouldn’t teach children that occasionally learning *just is* hard work, and that’s OK – an important lesson in itself.

      I can’t really comment on your ex-colleague’s position, since I don’t know the context. You’re much better placed to judge the credibility or otherwise of his views.

      • Stuart Lock (@StuartLock) October 14, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

        I accept what you say in general. I just think that once one takes a view that “I am interested in making learning enjoyable where possible” one lays oneself open to compromising the aims – ie taking into account how fun the learning is necessarily compromises choosing the best method or content of lessons.

        Like most of these debates, the actual debate is more nuanced than the polarised positions differing sides ascribe to each other, but I think that’s it.

        In my opinion, “where necessary” is “nearly always” – because I can always make my lesson more fun if I am willing to sacrifice content. Therefore the flipside must apply – by not sacrificing content, there is an opportunity cost. ie the amount of “fun”.

  11. Hywel Roberts October 15, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    Hi Tim
    Sorry I’m late to this. Story of my life! Just watched the football and it’s been fun, stressful, engaging and weighed down with high expectations. Bit like me teaching Y2 and then Y5 last week. I like the post and agree with what you say. I understand the position of those who question it, but I’d say that ‘fun’ might just be in the eye of the beholder. And it is never at the cost of learning integrity and the needs of the children.

    Pass me a tree and I’ll hug it.


  12. Chad March 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    What if you don’t even have attention. I believe this continuum does not represent the full spectrum. Basically, there needs to be something in there which is the opposite of obsession and attention is not it.


  1. Education, Imagination and Enjoyment | 3D Eye - October 12, 2013

    […] Please read the rest of this post by clicking here […]

  2. A Spinnin’ Safari | Blog | Sparky Teaching - October 26, 2013

    […] There’s a false dichotomy between ‘learning’ and ‘fun’, but those of us who do relish the challenge of hooking students into subjects do need to be clear that what we’re doing is effective. As we discussed here, student interest can be piqued without what our present Education Secretary in the UK would consider a dumbing down of subject matter. In reality, every single teacher is a spin doctor of sorts. Everybody makes a conscious decision how to present the information that needs to be taught in order to convey it in a way that we hope will stick. One teacher will choose to use text books to teach science history, another will go for the rap option. We’re not trying to suggest which is more effective (although you can guess which we’d go for!), we’re just trying to point out that re-framing information is something we all do, all the time. For a robust and logical walk through the idea of fun, learning and the combination of the two, @imagineinquiry’s blog post will give you something to chew over here. […]

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