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Should Learning Be Fun?

As a new Grammar School Teacher, I was requested to make any handouts that I gave seem “fun.” A so-called happy font and a Microsoft Word-generated border would trick any child into thinking work was fun. After all, what shining-faced schoolboy was not moved to rapturous delight over practicing grammatical concepts once he caught a glimpse of a worksheet in Comic Sans font? No one was fooled; I would have been well advised not to use handouts at all.

I have remained skeptical of any attempt to make learning fun. On the one hand, I observed that “fun activities” were a thinly veiled attempt for a teacher to opt out of her actual job and put her feet up for a while. On the other extreme was a time-consuming attempt to be a more engaging teacher. For example, I spent hours with colored cardstock and a paper cutter, clipping colored paper into small squares so that students could create Byzantine-style mosaics out of paper. There is nothing wrong with paper mosaics in the abstract but, like many crafts, it violates an important law of teaching: the teacher should not be doing all the work. And, as I recall, students were more interested in making mosaic Minecraft depictions than participating in an embodied engagement with Byzantine art.

The attempt to make learning fun, though well-intended, is often condescending, offering a cheap imitation of the real thing: delight. In fact, it is a shortcut out of delight. It tells the student that grammar is boring. There is nothing innately good, true, or beautiful about grammar to be desired or delighted in. So, the only way to trick the student into doing the work is to put some fun sprinkles on top. Whether the subject is grammar, geography, or geometry, “making it fun” teaches the student that there is nothing innately delightful in the material itself.

The answer is not a stiff-upper-lip sort of drudgery. In fact, it is the opposite—finding the truth, goodness, and beauty, and teaching that. It is finding delight in these things and modeling this delight for our students. For example, I happen to like grammar. A lot. I will not claim that every grammar lesson that I teach is a bounty of joy. I have learned that grammar lessons can, at times, be delightful. I can play with the language and the students through the words and sentences that I choose. Choosing not to fabricate fun creates space for students to have the opportunity to truly play with truth, goodness, and beauty.

I have recently found a model for this kind of delighted, playful approach to learning: Bear Grylls. Bear is a former SAS officer who set a record (since broken) as the youngest person to climb Mount Everest. The British adventurer is best known for his popular TV show, Man vs. Wild. Man vs. Wild has become a household staple; Bear knows his audience and plays to it with flair. There is an endless diet of breathtaking landscapes, death-defying stunts, and creepy-crawly suppers. What is impressive to me is not hanging from precipices or jumping from waterfalls—it is his fierce love of learning.

Bear exhibits unparalleled delight in learning about the natural world. He is not “making survival fun”; he often explicitly states how not-fun it is to say, spend an evening in a Transylvanian cave, keeping an ear out for bears. Hard work—like free climbing fifty feet up a crumbling precipice—is often not fun, but it might still be delightful. He is a brilliant example of an adult at work-play. You can watch his mind whir as he looks light-heartedly about to find a solution to the predicament of the moment. Bear realizes that the world is too wild and wonderful to be sold short and repackaged as “fun.”

Respecting our students as persons includes the realization that students can be taught to love what is good without manipulation. The transcendentals do not need a veneer of cuteness to make them appealing. However, the line between desirable delight and manufactured fun can be subtle. Here are the questions for the teacher. Does what I am doing submit to what is good, true, and beautiful? Or does it supersede them, trying to make them seem more attractive?

Recently, I sat in the pew of a local church during my children’s violin dress rehearsal, when a discordant note caused me to look up from my work. On stage, the teacher was conducting wearing an imitation eighteenth-century powdered wig. The class was rehearsing a portion of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. My son told me later that the class was constantly trying to play the piece too fast. Their Suzuki-trained teacher, who has an admirably quirky sense of humor, would tell the class that they had to play slowly so that their imaginary wigs wouldn’t fall off. This is an excellent example of surrendering to the beauty of the music in a way that invited students into delight. It was playful without becoming a conjuror’s trick, and these young musicians were able to perform brilliantly at the concert—even without sheet music printed in Comic Sans.

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