Are we making learning a little too fun?
So as part of madanthony's day job in technology for higher ed, he occasionally goes to conferences - they are a great way to meet other people who are dealing with similar challenges in deploying technology, finding out the latest and greatest products, and scooping up a bunch of free pens from vendors. A few weeks ago, I went to one for a group that included schools ranging from grade school to higher ed, so the keynote presentation touched on elementary and high school and looked at how the Microsoft Kinect - the motion detector for the XBox 360 - could be integrated into education. Many of the ideas were actually pretty cool - using it for supplementary lessons at recess time, using it to interact with autistic kids who otherwise had trouble interacting with people, using it in gym class. But at one point they showed it being used in place of multiplication tables in a classroom, while the peppy video narrator intoned that it was the job of the teacher to engage students and make learning fun.
And that got me thinking - is it really? Now, I'll confess I'm probably completely unqualified to speak about educational technology. It's been a long time since I've been a student, I don't have kids, and I dropped out of an educational technologies master's degree program after 2 classes, mostly because I got tired of hearing the word "pedagogy".
But the grumpy old man in me wonders if we should be making learning fun, or if we're just setting kids up for disappointment in the future. After all, learning isn't always fun. At some point in their lives, they won't be able to figure out quadratic equations or try to understand Heigel with the help of an XBox 360 - they'll actually need to sit down and read a book or work out a problem on a piece of paper. And if they've never done that with the easy stuff - because their teachers have been more focused on "engaging" them than on getting them to do real work, they aren't going to be able to do the hard stuff.
Part of school is learning the stuff that you are taught. But part of learning is also about learning how to learn, and about developing a work ethic - about learning that if you want the rewards of having learned stuff, you have to do the not-always-fun work part of studying or doing homework - not just playing video games. Some economists have argued that college degrees exist more as a "signaling mechanism" than anything else - they show that a young person can buckle down, and prioritize enough on their own, to do what is necessary to get a degree. That's why there is value in degrees that don't necessarily translate to real-life skills or jobs, like Philosophy or English.
But I think the habits that get you through college come much earlier - like when you are in grade school - and that part of it is learning that life isn't always fun, that sometimes you need to do things that aren't fun - like multiplication tables. I think it's more the student's responsibility to become engaged, or at least to put up with doing the work, than it is the teacher to act like some sort of Master of Ceremonies keeping students "engaged". I think a continued emphasis on the classroom as variety show is going to lead to more kids who can't focus, who can't sit down and complete a long and unpleasant but necessary task, and who thus can't survive in the real world.