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.

  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.

  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.

  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?

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