Fun in education is important! We hear this opinion a lot, and yesterday I saw a tweet from “Richard Feynman”* and this made me think about how bad of an idea this is.
But is is a very prevalent idea among people that talk about teaching, especially in programming:
In programming, it probably has something to do with the fact that many people (of my generation) taught themselves programming which they thought of as fun. As soon as a teacher enters this space, there is the worry of the fun being ‘sucked out’. Because explanation and memorization are the arch enemies of fun. Fun is learning by yourself, entirely driven by your own curiosity, right?
The ‘tyranny of fun’ impacts how we teach programming and math a lot. In early August, an excellent piece was written in the New York Times, explaining how, especially for girls, practice is important, since practice brings confidence.
A great piece backed-up with research showing that clear instruction and practice helps learners with less confidence like girls and minority students. Convincing? Nah… in come the fun-fans:
What is fun anyway?
It feels so natural and logical right, learning should be fun. Who doesn’t like FUN? Who are you, the Grinch? This sadly muddles the debate a lot because what even is fun? There are different funs and we shouldn’t confuse them.
An evening hanging out with friends in the sun and chatting all night is fun, and does not require any special skill apart from language skills. It is fun that come with not doing anything that requires practice, is it zero-effort fun. Psychologists call this type-1 fun or Sociability**.
Organizing a dinner and have all food come out perfect, because we use a skill that we already have is fun, in a certain way. It is the fun that comes with knowing you can do something, it is zero-improvement fun.
Running a 10k and breaking a personal record in fun in a different way. The process it not fun, you will literally be in pain. The leadup is not fun either, it will require pushups and interval training and dieting. Not fun! But finishing, man that is amazing! This is delayed fun. Psychologists call this type-3 fun or Achievement**.
The opposite of fun isn’t boredom, it’s confusion
The fun that fun-in-learning-fans most often mean is a different type of fun entirely. It is the fun of self-actualization. The ‘ahhh now I get it!’ type of fun. They argue that children can and should learn by a long sequence of ‘now I get it’s. And sure, of course it is an amazing experience to be fully engaged in learning, driven by nothing but your own curiosity and some nudges from a teacher or other adults. This is how many people my age learned programming, by reading programming books by themselves and trying, trying, trying. And this memory contrasts a lot with the memory of boring memorization in for example math class, which drove many students to hate maths.
But… discovery learning, under which the technique of maximizing ‘ahhh now I get it!’ moments can be gathered, has some downsides too.
Exploring topics driven by curiosity is known to induce misconceptions, incorrect assumptions about materials. Imagine having children explore what angle is needed to make a certain figure. After some playing, they see that setting an angle to 120 makes a triangle and 90 makes a square. From this you might conclude that subtracting 30 degrees will get you one edge more, and 60 makes a pentagon (while it in fact creates a hexagon, since 6 * 60 = 360)
You might experience the fun of the discovery, but then you will suffer the frustration of being confused. When a teacher does not systematically evaluate understand with tests (also: not fun!) these misconceptions can linger for a long time. This effect is known to hold especially for minority kids, since they are less likely to have high language skills and general knowledge about things, so it is harder ‘connect’ new knowledge to things they know (what Piaget calls assimilation).
Learning, like all things, is not all fun
I love the analogy between running (or any sport) and learning a lot. Like exercise, learning can be fun; the moments where we get it, where we self-actualize by solving a difficult puzzle or break a PR. But there is lots of boring rote stuff needed before that. We need to practice all letters and all numbers before we can even read a puzzle. We need to know about tail division and carrying the ones and we just learn those things by doing them a lot. Fun, maybe not (although I do remember some rote memorization like the tables of multiplication to induce some fun, not just the achievement, but also the chanting the numbers over and over as a group in class gave me some type-1 fun feelings!) but it is needed to achieve bigger fun later. Like the 36 pushups my trainer makes me do in track & field training. I hate them, they hurt like hell! But I love them for making me stronger and faster. And I love them for creating a group feeling with the members of my club.
* A dubious role model in other respects too btw known for open misogyny.
** “Fun, Fun, Fun”: Types of Fun, Attitudes to Fun, and their Relation to Personality and Biographical Factors I. C. McManus, Adrian Furnham (pdf)