A peculiar American notion that’s also pernicious: Learning should always be fun

Dr. Angelika Pohl of Atlanta is founder and principal consultant at Better Testing & Evaluations. She wrote this essay in response to a recent blog about the trend to make learning fun for students.

By Dr. Angelika Pohl

I think it’s a peculiar American notion that learning should always be fun. Ask anyone who mastered a skill, whether writer, musician, carpenter, painter, or bus driver whether every step in their learning process was fun. Of course it wasn’t.

They mastered a skill because they stuck it out during difficult, probably boring stages and because they had the discipline and the imagination and the drive to work toward a goal.

I’m glad I learned correct grammar and how to spell so when I write something, the reader is not distracted from my ideas by the mechanical faults in my writing; I’m glad the pianist I go to hear has practiced and practiced again the difficult passages so that the music she makes is not marred by unintended dissonance; I’m glad I learned to do calculations in my head so I don’t have to scramble for my calculator to see if I’m being cheated in a purchase or misled by erroneous statistical claims in a popular magazine article; I’m glad I had to memorize endless French vocabulary lists when I was a middle school student in Austria because eventually I became fluent in French  — and it helped me to learn English.

Are we teaching children the importance of discipline, perservernce and practice? Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Are we teaching students the importance of discipline, perseverance and practice? (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

I am always distressed when today’s teachers claim spelling or grammar don’t matter and then promptly write something on the chalk board that is misspelled, which reinforces students’ belief that accuracy in writing (and, by implication, in anything else) is a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned notion. Too many teachers believe correcting a child — in any subject area — will harm his or her self-esteem and creativity. Such nonsense.

Ask any accomplished writer whether he didn’t survive rigorous instruction at some point — and is thankful for it. Ask any accomplished artist whether she didn’t get terribly frustrated at times and almost gave up but decided the effort to improve was worth all the pain. Beethoven is said to have had his fingers rapped by his father when he made mistakes in his playing.

Too many of today’s teachers, when faced with a minor math “problem” — in or outside the  classroom — will proudly announce “I don’t do math,” sort of like saying “I don’t do shrimp.” Even the word arithmetic has gone out of fashion because students are supposed to “understand” mathematical procedures, rather than be able to perform them.

In my Austrian elementary schooling I learned wonderfully useful mental as well as written arithmetic tricks to quickly do sums or division or whatever my daily life requires. My favorite app is my brain, not the calculator that I can’t locate quickly. I’ll never forget when soft drinks were sold at some charitable event for 50 cents (no tax), but when the electronic cash register went on the fritz they stopped selling drinks because the clerk declared himself unable to do the math.

In too many of today’s schools I see a lack of emphasis on precision. I hear students — and teachers! — read text aloud that is only approximate, with words left out and words introduced that aren’t there. That is supposed to be good enough. And we wonder why our students don’t succeed in science. And maybe I’m not surprised when merchants get my order wrong, when mail is delivered to the wrong address, and when the wrong leg or arm is amputated.

Paying close attention is somehow out of fashion, somehow not cool. Students learn to guess at the meaning in texts rather than to read what’s actually there; they learn to estimate math results, which they do poorly since they haven’t developed enough math understanding to judge whether their estimate makes any sense; and they are encouraged to make up their own creative interpretations of literature with little regard to what the text actually says.

Ironically and unfortunately, the good jobs in our new Internet economy require more accuracy than ever. A comma in the wrong place in a computer program can cause a fatal glitch. Our students are not being prepared for this new world requiring hyper-vigilance to accuracy and precision. And apart from the computer world, the mundane everyday world also suffers. Physical things go wrong around us all the time because someone didn’t pay close attention, because someone wasn’t taught that accuracy matters, because someone never learned to do the hard but essential part of getting it right the first time.

 

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78 comments
dcdcdc
dcdcdc

Reminds me of boring preachers who bemoan that their congregation "wants to be entertained".  When what the congregation wants is just to not be bored to death.  But developing an interesting and compelling message is MUCH harder than a boring one - so much easier to just blame the congregation.


Meanwhile, preachers who put the work into a more interesting message have churches that are exploding in growth.


Perhaps the eduacracy could try the same thing.  Work to develop a set of "messages" (daily lessons) that are interesting and compelling - and can be delivered by a normal teacher.  Use video game technology, or whatever works and is available.


But we get it - much easier just to keep teaching as if it's still the 1950s, and just "blame the kids", than to do the hard work of changing how the info is delivered.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@dcdcdc The best laid plans are fluff in a school full of reprobate students disinterested in learning.  Furthermore, just like the 1950's, you have many still not on the roster, or dropping out and that will only get worse under OSD.  The students need some skin in the game- the work for planning falls on the teacher, however, the students must step up to the plate to learn- there is only so much edutainment- I'm sorry, inspiration that any school can provide.  


When the OSD is fully functional, the first thing they will do is enforce the rules that they discourage districts from enforcing. Attrition in student populations and select demographics should be monitored closely, as the rate of student turnover could be a tell tell sign of exclusionary practices in CMO's.

Quidocetdiscit
Quidocetdiscit

@dcdcdc


I think it interesting that you assume that teachers are teaching the same way they did  in the 1950's...I am sure you are correct about a few teachers out there, but most of us are doing all we can to use current technology (if it is available in our schools)  and "whatever works and is available" to make our teaching engaging.  


However, some things still require good old fashioned stick to it ness (which students in general seem to be lacking these days) and rote, repetitive style memorization... and you can only do so much to "dress" up such skills in shiny packages.  Furthermore, children today are used to being constantly entertained with computer games, movies, interactive electronics, online gaming, videos etc.  They demand constant stimulation, and teachers simply cannot compete with that kind of bombardment of stimuli. 


Too few of our students these days are able to engage in sustained learning... and in general, great breakthroughs or discoveries in science, mathematics, engineering etc, tend to arise from sustained effort - not from a three ring circus type approach.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@dcdcdc These kids have been babysat by technology for so long, that they have no clue how to engage in learning without it. They also have difficulty coming up with their own ideas without rifling through that which is on the internet.  I suppose we can thank technology, or the overuse of it, for that. School is not an arcade.

gactzn2
gactzn2

The overemphasis on fun when students are not prepared to take ownership of their own education- coupled with those students who prevent you from being a resource to other students- creates such instability in schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students.  The job requirements associated with working in these schools, while more pay, is often at odds with the expectations of administrators, capabilities of the students, and support of the parents.  The paperwork and processes in place that create more pressure and work on teachers to justify why these students are truant, disruptive, and disinterested in the learning process,  create burnout and teacher turnover- all while being fully accountable to TKES standards.  Despite the broken system, teachers must create these fun and engaging lessons in the midst of the chaos.  These are the schools that have become prime candidates for the opportunity school district.  Until they fully address disciplinary issues (and processes), nothing will change and we will leave another legion of children behind. 

Enoch19
Enoch19

The emphasis on making learning "fun" reminds me of the new look of the AJC.  Scroll through the articles selected by the editors and consider why?  

jezel
jezel

When schools try to be everything for everybody....they become nothing to anybody. Schools are to train the mind...athletics are to train the body....homes are to teach manners and values...churches are to teach religion.


The idea that learning should be fun is a "cop out"...pure and simple.

EastAtlanta
EastAtlanta

Everybody gets a trophy, no one learns anything. The American public school system. Yes, a broad statement, but I'll stand by it.

SV23
SV23

One admires Ms. Pohl's dedication in the face of all the silliness going on in education. Increased accountability and choice will however one day grant her side victory.

But only after every wrongheaded notion has had its day in the sun?

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Redweather: “That's why I have students ‘teach the class’ on a topic of their choice.”

Perhaps one will appreciate the words the late Russell Ackoff speaks in conversation with the late W. Edwards Deming during the last 43 seconds of this 14:43 video…

http://blog.deming.org/2012/10/dr-deming-video-a-theory-of-a-system-for-educators-and-managers/

Some folk here may recognize the guy narrating the video is journalist Lloyd Dobyns, former NBC News anchor who went over to “the Deming Way.”  A quote of his: “Continual improvement is an unending journey.”

Notice the video also features David P. Langford.  True to what Dobyns said, the Leander ISD, near Austin, has for more than a decade been on an unending journey of continual improvement, helped by Langford.  Leaners of all ages in the Leander school district speak of being in “Happyville.”

An aside:  Need it be said Leander ISD exemplifies an alternative to Deal’s OSD?  That is exemplifies an alternative to turning APS into a Charter System?  Of course it does.  So let it never be said Deal did not have an alternative, that the APS superintendent Meria Carstarphen and her school board did not have an alternative.

Now, here is a test:  Which one of the following is Leander ISD’s purpose statement and which is APS’ mission statement?

“Students will exit our system with the same passion for learning they had when they entered, without economics determining success.”

“With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.”

Seriously, which statement goes with which school district, and why do you say so?

redweather
redweather

@EdJohnson How do those ISD boundary lines get drawn?  Some of the districts are very large, and some have very high percentages of economically disadvantaged students.  

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@redweather  I hear you, so please consider:  Neither percentage of economically disadvantaged students nor percentage of economically advantaged students is neither a limiting factor nor a requisite factor for any school district (or school or classroom or even student) to start a never-ending journey of continual improvement. 

The barrier to starting a never-ending journey of continual improvement is but a way of thinking, which is the usual status quo, win-lose, bell curve, competition-based, “the way the real world works” way of thinking.   Such thinking mistakenly assumes “joy” means “fun,” that “to experience joy” means “to be entertained or amused.”  Thus such thinking often gets expressed as the derisive “everybody who shows up gets a trophy” and the dismissive “learning should be fun is a ‘cop out’.”  On the one hand, such thinking is comfortable, even gleeful, with destroying some children’s ability to experience joy in learning.  On the other hand, such thinking is uncomfortable, hence will work against doing anything that might help preserve all children’s ability to experience joy in learning.  And that is so sad.

readcritic
readcritic

The words "engaging" and "entertaining" mean the same thing to the evaluator. Administrators want to see Cirque du Soleil every time they evaluate. It is unrealistic. I had to call home to document and submit reports on why the students were absent after every 3 and 6 absences for my 180+ high school student load. Many replies were "Incarcerated." Some students attended class once a week or once a month. Try to engage and/or entertain those who are rarely there and don't care about grades or much of anything else. Many are on drugs, third-time repeaters, failing all classes, suspended frequently, home baby-sitting or otherwise working in the family business, etc. Despite such troubled class combinations, the evaluation is done just as critically or even more harshly than for those teachers who have small classes of Honors, AP, or IB students. TEAKS is too subjective and allows the evaluator carte blanche.  With six large class sizes (35+ students added and dropped constantly) of troubled and behavior-disordered, below grade-level, absentee, second-language learners, and special ed students all lumped into one small classroom, it is a challenge for the teacher to "perform." Administrators expect to see differentiation that entertains despite the cramped classroom space, the students' readiness/ ability ranges and the interest levels, and family support system. The teacher is no longer considered the authority in the classroom. Everyone else knows best!  

jerryeads
jerryeads

Yes, heaven help us if kids actually liked learning. Pohl apparently isn't enough of a teacher to both challenge kids and make learning interesting. "Fun" doesn't have to be just "play."

redweather
redweather

It's tough to stand before a classroom of young people, knowing that more than a few of them have little interest in the lesson.  That's why I have students "teach the class" on a topic of their choice.  For ten minutes during the semester each must do what I must do all semester long.  I don't turn this into a big object lesson.  I just hope some of them gain a slightly better understandong of how difficult teaching can be.  It sure isn't fun most of the time.

Obzervr
Obzervr

One of the most worrisome aspects of this insistence on making learning "fun" is that it tends to promote the inane over the essential. Because after all, some subject matter lends itself much more readily to a fun teaching approach -- even if the knowledge passed on is useless.

But on a happier note, Ms. Pohl obviously wasn't made for life in a politically correct world (among the greatest of compliments these days).

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“It is the birthright of every child to encounter the cosmos anew, in every culture, at every age.  When this happens to us, we experience a deep sense of wonder.  The most fortunate among us are guided by teachers who channel this exhilaration. We are born to delight in the world.  We are taught to distinguish our preconceptions from the truth.  Then, new worlds are discovered, as we decipher the mysteries of the cosmos.”  --Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode XIII


Why would anyone still want to deny any children their birthright?

teachermom4
teachermom4

I couldn't agree more. However, many people confuse engagement with entertainment, including administrators who want to see fun and games every time they enter the room. Our kids don't know basic math facts because drill has been labeled the work of the devil. Teachers are discouraged from having students complete exercises in memorization unless it's through a song, a game, or something else that keeps them happy and entertained while they do it. Most teachers see the value of the of instruction described in this piece, but they are evaluated in a way that penalizes them if they employ those practices.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Look at the best students - the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans - they are the ones who get down and work and spend long hours practicing the academics.  Do they hate it?  Maybe - but they know it will be worth it in the end.

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

Awesome post!  I'm always amazed at my students who are willing to put in hours and hours of sports practice, but claim that they are just not good in academic endeavors when they never practice those!


Apparently sports is supposed to take work if you want to be good, but with academics you either "get it" or "don't get it"?  

liberal4life
liberal4life

@gactzn2 @class80olddog @liberal4life 

Preparation for administrators is one of the biggest problem in US education system. Good leadership cannot completely overcome incompetent teaching, but incompetent leadership will sure to produce ineffective schooling.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@class80olddog @liberal4life Today- teachers are required to engage in edutainment exercises WHILE running a three ring circus in the classroom for higher ups when these efforts are truly just "acts of learning". If the students are ENGAGED (ie having a good time) then they are learning.  Where did this crap come from?

Moderate_line
Moderate_line

PASI SAHLBERG: Well, you know, we have been working for this current situation for the last 30 or 40 years - very systematically starting from 1970s - and I think one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done. And now we know, also through the OECD data and research, that the equity is the one that is also bringing excellence - just like this, not only Finland, but also Canada and Korea, for example, are the same. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.


FINNISH DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF EDUCATION


http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-28/highly-educated-teachers-the-key-to-success/3858612


-Does Finland have national standards for classes? No.  "Exactly, and I think the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework."


-Does Finland subsidize private schools or have school choice? No. "This is often seen as the two sides of the same coin - that you either emphasise choice, school choice for parents, or the parents can choose the school - or then you put in place policies that make sure that all the schools are good. And this is what we have been, as I said, doing for the last 30 or 40 years, actually. Trying to make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers, so that this would minimise the need for parents to choose the school, and we are exactly in this situation today."


-Does Finland use testing to measure school performance? NO.  "Anywhere where these types of things had put in place, teachers have started to focus more on teaching to the test, and curriculum has narrowed. If the test data is only collected through two or three subjects - like is often done measuring literacy and mathematics - this means that these subjects will become the most important things in a school. And the other thing is that these knowledge tests often measure only the things that can be measured and not, for example, problem solving or creativity to the extent that they should be, and this leads teachers and schools to focus on these things more than they could do otherwise.


We know very well that the inequality that our students have through the parents' socioeconomic background is a very strong factor that is explaining their performance. And in many cases, this is far beyond the teacher's control."




living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

@Moderate_line I'm a big proponent of the Finnish model, but one thing we need to keep in mind:   Finland has a much smaller, much more homogeneous population than the United States.   Doesn't mean we shouldn't be taking best practices, but it does mean that there will be some things that just won't work here given the systemic challenges and wide income gap.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@living-in-outdated-ed @Moderate_line I would like to see Finnish teachers take over Douglass High School in APS for two years and see what effects there would be.  My money is on very slight to no improvement.

(can great teachers teach kids who are not there?  That WOULD be a great teacher.)

anothercomment
anothercomment

Finland does not have the ridiculous black races baiting culture. The Jessie Jacksons and the Al Sharptons of our country who make their living keeping raisin alive.

I recently had a three hour long phone conversation with a black woman who I met at a funeral this Summer. Her husband is mid 50's bi racial grew up In Finland the product of a white Finish Mother and a Black man. The black man was a military child and grew up on military bases in Europe. She met her husband when she was in the Army. Her husband works at the Pentagon.

The long and short of the three hour conversation, her husband and her think that this whole "black lives" the current motto of the current professional race batters is just stiffiling to the black community. She said coming back to the black funeral in Georgia was just stiffiling. Which is why she sat in the pew and at the table of the professional whites who were friends and business associates of the educated son.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@Wascatlady @class80olddog @living-in-outdated-ed @Moderate_line I believe the argument was that the Finnish EDUCATIONAL model was what we should copy, so, yes, but not the Finnish GOVERNMENT model.  So outside support such as social services outside of education does not count.  And of course, they have to deal with AMERICAN students of all races, languages, and classes.  But you would also have to include parts of the Finnish system such as vocational/academic tracking after 16.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MD3 @Moderate_line The article referenced did not say ONE WORD about testing!  What it said was that some kids don't like school when the subject matter is perceived as too hard or too easy.  It could be too easy because of the presence of socially promoted students so the teacher has to slow down the entire class to their level.  Alternately, it could be that the material is too hard because the student was socially promoted without having the background to adequately understand the new material.  Also, kids may hate school because of the presence of bullies and other disciplinary problems in the classroom that are not being addressed effectively.

From what I have heard, there IS too much testing (and scheduled at the wrong time), so some trimming should take place (how much of that testing is required to fulfill mandates from the Federal DOE in exchange for the federal bucks?) One test - the ITBS, could be used in place of all the testing.

Of course, you also have to understand that if teachers' had not been inflating grades, this testing craze probably would have never come about.

bu2
bu2

@class80olddog @MD3 @Moderate_line 


Yes, and what MD3 describes and all the rote work was done much more in the past.  Teachers do innovative things now they wouldn't have considered in the 60s and 70s.

ATLPeach
ATLPeach

@class80olddog @MD3 @Moderate_line  Grades were "inflated" due to pressure from administrators. When I was in school, you got the grade you earned. When I started teaching, I was told to give them a "C" so they can move on.


gactzn2
gactzn2

@MD3 @Moderate_line Schools are bending over backwards to make lies look like the truth.  This is the predicament we are in.  When we decide to get down to brass tacks with administrative support- only then will the public see the changes that we want to see.  It is not fair that we are forced to work within a narrow set of parameters with the ultimate interest in others perceptions of what is happening in your classroom sans administrative support for discipline matters.  When students see the SCHOOL or DISTRICT is serious- only then when they fall in line and get serious about their own education.  A teacher should not have to "cook the books" to make children appear as if they are passing (conjunct with administrative pressures). When does it stop?

MD3
MD3

@Moderate_line Thanks for the link. That's exactly what I think is happening in schools today. The joy of childhood is being wiped out, one bubble sheet at a time. And I don't think it's the teachers who are doing it. All of my child's teachers have told us that they are forced by school and district administrators to do so much testing. The insanity needs to stop.

living-in-outdated-ed
living-in-outdated-ed

Dr. Pohl is missing the point here.   Learning should be fun, especially at the outset.   Intrinsic motivation matters.   Once you instill enjoyment  and spark interest in a subject area, then a student will WANT to put in the extra time and effort as the work gets less fun.  Of course learning isn't always fun, but her analogy in the first paragraph misses the point completely.


We know that to achieve excellence in any craft, it takes hard word.  Sometimes it won't be fun, but by this point, the student has gotten so passionate that they are prepared to do what it takes to succeed and improve their skills.  Ask Serena Williams about whether tennis is fun - she at least claims publicly that it is fun, even when we know how much time and effort she puts into her preparation.


So I suspect Dr. Pohl came from the European style of education, which is to push real hard, force the effort, and go with the "ends justifies the means" approach to learning.   Maybe it worked for her and for many families around the world, but that doesn't have to be the way forward.   Discipline comes after you spark interest and passion.    So at the outset, make learning fun - that's how this generation behaves itself.


My kids have a teacher who sounds a lot like Dr, Pohl.  She was the most disliked teacher in the school, and I give her probably one more year before she's no longer teaching at this school.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@living-in-outdated-ed That does not mean that the teacher is ineffective.  Being "LIKED" by KIDS is not a prerequisite to being a sound and effective teacher.  It does not mean that the teacher should be rude or demoralizing, however, kids like you one day and hate you the next.  Just ask their parents:) I am sure they would understand.

gactzn2
gactzn2

@Moderate_line The study must consider the intentions that the student brought with them to the learning community (play sports, sports scholarships, join a sorority, obtain their MRS)- what ever the reason, it does not necessarily connote there is an issue with the instructional practices or managing styles.  While it could be, a closer examination would be required.  Just look at the schools that are doing poorly and who is typically at the helm.  Principals are not truly leaders, they are there to manage the district's agenda (YES men (and women)).

jarvis1975
jarvis1975

Where are your kids not getting multiplication tables? Mine go to public school and do.


They've had spelling tests since first grade, and in middle school my daughter has vocabulary tests that also include spelling the words correctly.


Grammar and punctuation have also been taught throughout. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@jarvis1975 Do you believe it is like that in the 141 schools slated for takeover?  Do you think that mastery of those skills is enforced in those schools?  What school system did your kids go to?

straker
straker

Lee - "certain demographics"


All too true, unfortunately.


I've worked in a number of places where women belonging to those "certain demographics" would yak on the phone all day to their friends.


When I complained to my boss, I was told nothing can be done because they are those certain demographics.

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

Nothing worth having is ever easily attained.  Unfortunately, our kids do not believe this when parents grant every wish immediately upon its speaking by the child. 


The movement that learning should be fun started with the notion that fun was the only way to engage students that are interested only in immediate gratification not the promise of a reward later.  I can truthfully say that during my teaching career, students had fun some days and other days they were bored to tears...exactly as it happens in real life. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

One change I have seen in education is the notion that since "everyone" has immediate access to a calculator, it is not necessary for students to memorize the multiplication tables.  Then, as Dr. Pohl says, when the electronics fail (battery dead?) the students are completely helpless. 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@class80olddog

Ah yes, I remember multiplication tables and having to write each one hundreds, if not thousands, of times.  But now, forty something years later, i don't even have to think about an answer when confronted with a multiplication problem, I just "know" the answer.  Very helpful when calculating a tip for a waitress or to verify sales tax was charged correctly.