Is Learning Fun? (Part One)


At a recent education convention, I was struck by the mind-boggling array of educational materials available today. “Of the making of many books there is no end” as the Book of Proverbs says. 

In today’s world of the internet and instant printing technology, this expression has a whole new meaning. Our ability to create textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, charts, maps, tests, quizzes, audios, DVDs—literally anything we want—is astounding.

Consider the availability of resources for education one hundred years ago—few textbooks (and tiny ones at that), with no color, no workbooks, no ability to print off extra practice pages, tests, or quizzes. How did students learn anything with such a paucity of resources?

Our modern technology has enabled us to learn so much more and to be so much more effective, right? Wrong. Compare our educational achievement to that of our Founding Fathers, or to the standards at the turn of the century, or even to the years immediately preceding World War II. Yes, it is true that we educate everybody today instead of the top ten percent, but still, our technology should enable us at the very least to maintain those lofty standards for the few while offering an opportunity to work toward those same standards for everyone else.

There is a rich irony in the fact that the more educational materials we have, the less we learn. The bigger, fancier, more colorful and expensive the textbooks, the less we know.

And the more we say learning should be fun, the more our students are bored.

Where have we gone wrong? There are many underlying reasons for this problem, but I am going to focus on only one, the idea that learning should be fun. Or should it? This idea is a great defect of modern education, and it affects nearly all teachers, materials, and educational philosophies—including classical education.

Any honest appraisal of the modern textbook industry will show that the goal of modern textbooks is to entertain first and to teach second. Fragmented and random information is presented on full-color pages that are cluttered with sidebars, pictures, cartoons, and graphics. The justification for these textbooks is that students raised on TV and video games can only focus for short periods of time, and therefore information has to be presented in soundbites with lots of visuals to keep students entertained. But there is another idea at work here—the modern notion that learning should be fun. Nearly everyone buys into this premise.

Textbooks and teachers should be creative, innovative, colorful. If the kids are bored, it is because we have developed products that are dull and boring. If we are creative and innovative enough, our children will love learning, and learning will be fun!

The trouble with saying that learning should be fun is that it isn’t. It is work. Children know what fun is. Disney World, video games, cartoons, and playing with friends are fun. When you interject the word fun into learning, you have set yourself up for failure because you have created expectations that you can’t fulfill. We insult our students when we try to entertain them. They know better. They know when they are learning and when they are being entertained. And they can entertain themselves much better than we can.

What do we really mean when we say learning should be fun? The fun of learning is the feeling of satisfaction, even pleasure, we derive from knowing and understanding. Aristotle said that man is a rational being and desires to know. Because we are rational beings, learning has to appeal to reason. Knowledge that is orderly and logical appeals to the human mind. Knowledge that incorporates meaning and understanding is satisfying, fulfilling, engaging, even pleasurable. But fun? The idea that learning should be fun trivializes the important work of learning.

Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power, Sir Francis Bacon said. The feeling of power and self-esteem that comes from a growing sense of achievement is something our children want and need. The pleasure of learning increases as the skills and knowledge increase. That is why the ancients had a saying that the roots of learning are at first bitter, but the fruits are sweet.

For a textbook or educational product to be effective, it must focus on learning, not fun. To the student, the new subject is confusing and overwhelming. The goal of the textbook is to present material in a way that reveals the underlying order of the subject. Revealing the underlying order to that which appears random on the surface is what education is all about. Anything that distracts from that goal is counterproductive. It makes learning more arduous and less fun.

Let me give you an example. I wanted to learn Spanish and ordered multiple textbooks and programs, looking for a program from which I could actually learn. The pages in these modern texts were visually stimulating, but the information was presented in a random, fragmented way. What was important on each page, and what wasn’t? I couldn’t really tell. Cute cartoon characters instructed me with a bit of information here and a bit there, a bit on pronunciation here, a bit on nouns there, a bit on verbs here, a bit on culture there. But I couldn’t pull it together so I could understand and remember. Random cutesy information is not understandable, nor is it memorable.

So to learn Spanish I had to write my own text. I had to put everything in a logical, systematic order so I could retain it. For instance, I gathered all the information I needed on nouns (gender, the definite and indefinite articles, and plurals) and organized it systematically in two lessons, with visual charts to help me remember. Then I went on to the two different “to be” verbs in Spanish—which really confused me on the audios I listened to—and also the formal and informal second person.  Memory is aided by a logical presentation. Randomness is the enemy of learning and memory.

What I did with Spanish is what our students today have to do if they want to learn from modern textbooks. How many students can or will write their own orderly notes from a fragmented presentation? This is what teachers do with the texts they are given in the modern school. If students learn anything today it is because the teachers are able to create order out of the chaos of modern textbooks. God bless them. But should they have to? To make learning fun, we have made learning hard, if not impossible.

What should a textbook look like? Years ago, a flight attendant from Texas started Latin classes for homeschoolers using my first Latin text. She called me and said she had seen a used copy of Latina Christiana at a homeschool fair. I’ll never forget what she said next: “When I saw your book, I knew I could teach Latin with it.” What did she mean? Why did she know she could teach with Latina Christiana?

  • The information is presented in a logical, systematic way that reveals the underlying order of the subject.
  • The explanations are clear and concise. Clarity and conciseness, in fact, are the hallmark of a quality textbook.
  • There is an absence of extraneous content that attempts to make learning fun, but instead confuses and clutters the presentation.
  • The individual bite-size lessons build incrementally.
  • The content is age-appropriate.
  • It involves mastery learning.
 Learning is thrilling. Being entertained gets boring. In Henry V, Shakespeare said, “If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.” Why are our students bored today? They struggle to learn from materials designed to entertain. As Neil Postman says, we are “amusing ourselves to death.”

In the next article, I will discuss the role of the teacher in learning. Does the teacher need to be an entertainer? How does the teacher motivate and make learning engaging and satisfying? Notice I didn’t say fun! Stay tuned.

Continue reading: Part Two

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2013 edition.


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