Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Should learning be fun?

Note:  I started this post about a year ago.  Here I am finally getting around to finishing it.  I hope the links still work.

A few days ago I saw an email from a Math teacher with whom I have previously worked. She was pointing her colleagues to an article about the riots in Vancouver after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The article, by Naomi Lakritz (one of my least favourite newspaper columnists), is critical of how teachers and society deal with children and teenagers. The author of the article is critical of, among other things, the idea that learning should be fun. She makes fun of an article by Larry Williams where he puts forward some good ideas about the value of fun in creating motivation and the value of motivation to help people learn.

A quote from Lakritz: "But learning cannot always be fun; it often requires long hours of mental effort, perseverance and hard slogging. Insisting that learning must be fun teaches children to expect that everything in life must be fun, that they are always entitled to fun, and that if something isn’t fun, they don’t need to bother with it."

I think Lakritz is missing the point about learning. For example, she is a writer and learning to be a good writer (I dislike Ms. Lakritz's opinions, but I can find no fault with the technical aspects of her writing) can certainly involve "long hours of mental effort, perserverance and hard slogging". But I would be willing to bet any amount of money that writing for Lakritz involves elements of joy and/or satisfaction. I am sure that she felt happy and satisfied that her column about the Vancouver riots was picked up as a guest column for the Sports section of canada.com. It would have been positive feelings like those that sustained her though all the "hard slogging" of many years of learning the technical skills of a good writer.

And the fun/excitement/joy satisfaction of doing something well is what motivates anyone to keep working and learning at a skill. As an example, every year, thousands of amateur athletes make massive sacrifices of time, money and energy to compete in sports that our nation pays attention to only at Olympic time. Do those athletes do it to get rich, to be famous? No, they do it because they love their sports and they love doing those sports and they love the challenge of trying to be the best in the world. In other words, they have fun and they enjoy what they are doing. I doubt they enjoy every minute of what they are doing. Working at being a world-class athlete demands a level of "hard slogging" that most of us cannot even contemplate, let alone do.

But the fun, the joy is there.  Clara Hughes has been one of Canada's most successful Olympic athletes ever. I remember her winning medals at the Atlanta Summer games in cycling.  Then she won multiples medals in long distance speed skating.  She has been through more hard slogging so far than the vast majority of humans.  But here are some of Clara's comments about it all.   From August 21, 2007 "With all of this fun, it’s easy to forget the pain and work that this job entails." From March 2005 "...it was so beautiful to go and skate ‘just for the fun of it’."  How about this one from June 21, 2011? "...why the heck I am still doing this sport thing. I realized the reason is exactly that. Joy. The potential as a human being to experience the sensation of joy has been possible for me because of sport. Because of competing. It is my form of self-expression and beyond any satisfaction, any success, well beyond those moments of winning or perfecting performance…the emotion that has lifted me up and urged me time and again to return to the arena of competition is joy."

So, maybe if students found learning as fun as Clara Hughes finds distance cycling and skating, then maybe learning wouldn't be such hard slogging after all.

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