Monday, February 20, 2012

Ruminating on Instruction vs. Amusement

There is an abundance of myths that have a deep impact on our perception of reality. We often hear things that are little more than superstition, and because of either the power of suggestion, or our want to accept that myth, it goes unchallenged into the recesses of our brain as "fact." One such myth is that learning needs to be fun.

I have heard many people judge the successfulness of a lesson plan based on the amount of fun that transpired because of it. Certainly it is easier to learn when you are having a good time and you are engaged but how important is it that students have "fun?" Certainly I do not want my students to be miserable, but how important is entertainment?

There seems to be an insatiable desire within many teachers to amuse their students, as if the goal of the class is for the teacher to feel appreciated. "Amuse" is actually a very interesting word because when broken down it becomes a - muse. "Muse" obviously means to think or ponder, while "a" is a prefix which negates. Thus making the word amuse to literally mean "to not think." This gives me a whole new appreciation for the words "amusement park."

But is it true that if students are having fun then they are not thinking? My answer: not always. However, I think that true learning is not always fun, and if it is, or if that is our constant goal as teachers, we are doing our students a terrible disservice. Learning to ride a bike (at least in my case) was not tremendous fun. The hard pavement made sure that the learning process was difficult. Similar to the training wheels on a bike, fun enables you to get going, but it ultimately prevents you from experiencing the real thing. That is not a perfect analogy, but I hope it makes some sense.

Staying up until 1am in order to read about the life and literary career of Herman Melville is difficult, not fun. Even though he is a favorite author of mine, the learning process is not always fun. True learning can also challenge our preconceptions of the world which is a very difficult thing. If you read a piece of literature which challenges your idea of what truth is, this is not always a fun realization, and takes a significant amount of internal conflict to resolve.

The distinction between amusement and instruction is especially important when discussing the use of technology in the classroom. In my opinion teachers need to use technology where it enhances pedagogy and engages students. Yes, fun can be apart of engaging students, but it should not take priority over all else. Learning is not always fun, and we as teachers should provide students with that truth. Students I have talked to often think that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make a lesson entertaining. This puts a lot of stress on the teacher but it is also a form of disingenuousness with the students because it misrepresents how difficult and "unfun" the learning process can be.


  1. Tim, I remember briefly talking in class with you about this. I really like the way you wrote it out here; the discussion clicked with me even more. I frequently hear from my ninth grade brother (and sometimes even my parents) that I need to make sure that I make learning fun and that my classroom is not boring. I usually have grown offended by their assumption that I would not be a "fun" teacher and quickly combat with all of the ways in which I will not be boring. Certainly, I will not just stand in front of the class and lecture while assigning useless busy work. BUT, does a teacher have to always be "fun" to be engaging and efficient? I don't think so. It is important for students to have interest and motivation in learning, but the class also needs to maintain a level of respect and seriousness about the topic. "Fun" can be such a loose word to throw around when it comes to education since, as you have written here,learning is not always "fun."

    I guess I need to further consider what my teaching/classroom is going to look like and some up with some proper adjectives to go along with it.

  2. I think we could talk about your post for a long time and in many different ways. I certainly agree with you, it should not be the responsibility of the teacher to create a fun atmosphere. Sure, we design the lessons and consider how we assess the students. We decide on the method. But what I think what falls on the student is the ability to engage in that learning.

    I do not think learning is always fun, nor should it What if you replace the word "fun" with "engagement". Does that change things? I think in order for any learning to take place, there must be SOME level of engagement. I know for me that occurs when I make a personal connection. While it's not always easy to do that, I can typically find SOME way to engage.

    I truly think when people say "fun" they mean engaged. I can't imagine a classroom where everything is fun. I mean, yes, it's great when students have fun learning, but eventually students have to learn about content that doesn't interest them, and that can't be "fun."


    1. I think I would define "fun" as more teacher centered than "engagement." Fun, as I am defining it, is about the teacher being seen as an entertainer. This is something which can be important for the teacher but not necessarily the students. Fun can be an aspect of engagement, but engagement implies something intellectually stimulating. A difference between fun and engagement may be starting a class off with jokes to entertain the students before lecturing vs. telling an anecdote which relates to class activity. Both are fun, and neither are bad per se, but one adds to the lesson, and the other is vapid. Does that make sense?

  3. Yes, that does make sense. But my concern is for the teacher that's not "fun" by nature. I'm not suggesting a teacher who is boring or static, but I know plenty of teachers and educators who are more serious and would not want to open class with a joke or anecdote. Or maybe they don't feel it's appropriate or it's just not in their nature to stray from the topic. Can you still learn from them? I'm assuming so, but do you remember the "fun" ones more?