The Tyranny of Fun

Marshal Laughs all the way to the Notional Curriculum

No Bugger Would Publish This, 2004

I've just read, in it's usual casual way, and in a government document not a sales brochure, that 'children learn best when they're having fun'. This seems to have become one of those fundamental pieces of received wisdom that is guiding the thinking, or lack of it, of too damned many movers and shakers in education. I want to question it; I want to know where it came from, why so many people accept it, and take it to pieces to find out if there's any substance to it at all. Let's start with the words that are being used.

Children learn best...; What's the basis for this - is it only children that learn best through 'fun', or does that apply to adults too? If it does, then I'm not sure why every university's applied particle physics department doesn't ring to the sound of rib aching hilarity, why people in the philosophy department aren't wearing funny noses to discuss Plato and why the LSE places so few of its graduates on the Edinburgh fringe. If it is only children that learn best when having fun, then at what point do they stop being children for the purpose of this assertion? Should laughter stop, say, at year 5 (SATs already do a good job of ensuring this) with older students looking back nostalgically from their quadratic equations to the time in their lives when they'd be shown how to complete them by The Little Mermaid?

Children learn...; This is a biggy - so big that by comparison bigness itself seems small. What exactly do we mean by learn? Is this the behaviourists learning based on the actions of pigeons and some seriously suspect research, the experientialists learning by osmosis or the constructivist learning with metaphors drawn from Balfor Beaty? This is actually the nub of it - we have got ourselves a little confused about What Experts Know. When a physicist, especially one with their own TV series and glossy book, tells us the gravity tends to draw things together we tend to believe it. And so we probably should, our physicists speaks on a subject that their predecessors have been needling at for 3000 years. Even with that kind of research-in-depth, we're still discovering new stuff in the realms of the quantum. So, how long have we been studying the cognitive process that is, or might be, learning? Being generous we might say 150 years; right now we're at about the same level as astrology - we've observed some stuff, named it and begun to notice and document links between one phenomenon and another. It's therefore hardly surprising that there's currently around 50 competing theories of learning - pop along to http://tip.psychology.org/theories.html on a damp Sunday afternoon and you may begin to wonder how The Powers That Be can be quite so confident in handing down minute-by-minute instructions on how we teach. Interestingly, very few of those theories of learning dwell on the importance of fun.

...having fun. That suggests to me something light hearted, maybe joyful, probably trivial. It evokes smiles and the sound of laughter. Let's take the statement at face value for a moment and ask if it's possible to have fun learning everything. What, for instance, might be the 'fun' element in a project on AIDS or the Holocaust? If the statement is true, then we actually have a problem with huge areas of the curriculum. Not just the obviously un-funny stuff but lots of the dreary stuff. When you look at many of these 'fun' resources, you'll soon see that the fun isn't something innate within the nature of the knowledge, attitudes or skills being taught (though not necessarily learned), it's some bolted on element like division-as-space-invaders. The thing about that is that Children Notice, they See Through It; but they're clever - they'll get all they can of the fun before growing board and wandering off. It often seems to me that they are capable of sucking all the sugar coating off and spitting out the pill.

So where has this come from - what drives it? I have some suggestions, you knew I did. Learning has always had the potential to involve a positive experience and we might venture that we should try our small best to make sure that learners feel some kind of warm-fuzzy from the activities we set them; the organism repeats the pleasurable experience. What we're talking about is the ways in which we motivate learners.

However - it's easier to provide warm-fuzzies in some areas of learning than others and it's also often easier to bolt on fun than to seek other motivational drivers from within the content. Fun is much easier to establish than, say, feelings of self-respect, a sense of achievement, a positive attitude toward learning as an end in itself. Note that these (possibly) more powerful motivations are intrinsic, where as I'd argue that fun is extrinsic - a carrot added in the same way as we add 'work hard and you'll get a good job'. These intrinsic motivations are long-term, developing and nurturing them is to do with the ethos of the school and our education system as a whole. Is it possible that because we spend so much time pointing out to kids where they're failing and giving them the feeling that the purpose of education is to get good SATs scores, that these deeper, less tangible but higher value attributes get sidelined? Do we have to make learning fun because we can no longer make it feel relevant, exciting and meaningful to a child? Has the content, method and measurement of what we expect children to learn become so disconnected from their individual needs that the only way we can engage them with it is by making it look like something else?

The area that is most guilty of invoking fun as a Unique Selling Point is ICT. We're awash with jolly little aliens, cartoon animals and Tom & Jerry sound effects. This has been the way of it since the Commadore Pet; we've seen two parallel developments of software. One set is the software as fun stuff produced in the 80's by such notable educational establishments as Good Housekeeping and The Daily Mirror. The other was the deeply worthy stuff often produced by LEAs - packages like Hijack and Grass which stuck to the learning and left the teacher and the nature of the activity/content to provide the motivation. For a while there was a middle way with ex-teacher-lead companies putting the effort into the learning potential of IT but realising that stuff could be made attractive to kids (and teachers) whilst keeping the educational value uppermost in the design. This thread of development still exists, but you need to look hard for it - even if you know what it looks like.

Unfortunately we seem to have moved over mostly to the school of eye-candy and special effects. There's a lot of factors that have taken us there - the dreariness of the curriculum, lack of teacher training and time, the development of authoring tools like Flash. It's not a conspiracy - it's a reaction to The Way Things Are.

A recent (re-) development in this area is the Games-For-Learning movement which brings together (again) several superficially attractive notions. Children seem to enjoy computer games, computer games make suitable environments for learning therefore we should close down schools and have kids play Tomb Raider XX, The Quest For Pythagoras' Theorem. Many games provide rich learning experiences - some of the Sim series provide especially good examples - but is it just fun that drives kids to play games? Isn't it as much to do with some serious intrinsic motivations like enthusiasm, the satisfaction of solving a problem and the desire to complete a challenging task? In other words, rather than try to import education wholesale into games, why not find out what kids like about games and import that (back) into education? Bound up with this is the Production Values Myth; children will only engage with the latest 3D immersive games environment and will discard the old in favour of the latest. This holds no water at all - not all children engage with computer games by any means, and there's plenty of non-computer activities children will willingly engage in despite low levels of technology - ask Ms Rowling. Any attempt to keep up with X-Box production values would put educational software into a cost spiral that would, probably, defeat even the biggest corporation's development budget.

I know that in a sense all this makes me sound like Victor Meldrew - I've no problem with children having fun learning; I think it's a great thing. But I feel that the fun needs to come out of the learning, not be something bolted on as an afterthought. If the only way to make children engage with a particular bit of learning is to disguise it, then maybe we should be looking at why we're making them engage with that learning at all. If it's unavoidable, some basic building block toward engagement with higher levels of knowledge and skill then we can make a case for fun as part of our approach - but it makes a very poor starting point.

No one knows how children, or adults, learn best and I'm not about to argue that fun isn't one of the tools we have for getting kids engaged - especially with some of the fundamental building blocks of their educational life where repetition and long periods of practice are the only methods that seem to work. However, I've not been convinced that children learn best through fun, and I'm deeply concerned that other modes of motivation might be pushed aside because fun is easy. The problem with fun is that it's transitory, it applies at the moment of learning and I'd suggest that the positive feeling that comes from a fun learning experience is the fun and not the learning. This might mean that children will begin to believe that the learning has less value than the fun, it may turn them off those areas of learning that don't involve fun and cause education to enter some desperate spiral of frivolity ending with something like DeathCamp! - How many inmates can you save from the Wacky Commandant? Don't laugh - it could happen.

For further thought-food read the chapter on education in Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" Also visit www.paxwarrior.com and www.food-force.com/

Here's a side-splitting excursion into the WW1 trenches: watch out for that pesky mustard gas. http://www.learningcurve.gov.uk/greatwar/g3/game/default.htm

Take a look at 'A Theory of Fun for Games Design' by Raph Koster for a different and much better worked out view of fun and learning. Website is at: www.theoryoffun.com

Here's an interesting take on the research that drives a lot of the 'fun' learning: www.digra.org/hardcore/hc13/