The new school year is now fully underway, and classes and teachers are settling into the familiar rhythm of school life. So much of teachers’ time and effort during these first weeks is devoted to creating an effective classroom ethos, building a community of learners that together will achieve great things in the months to come.
But what exactly should that classroom ethos be? Many teachers go all out with interactive lessons, engaging wall displays and reward-laden behaviour management systems designed to entice even the most sullen child to turn their frown upside down. This all-singing, all-dancing approach sends the message loud and clear: learning is fun!
Is it, though?
Think about the last time you learned something new. Can you honestly say it was fun? Because learning is actually really hard. It is frustrating. It involves an immense amount of failure.
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Consider learning to drive. Do you remember exiting the car post-lesson, perhaps on shaky legs, with palms sweating? The intense pressure headache and wave of tiredness brought on by concentrating so hard? Would you describe the process of learning to drive as fun? I wouldn’t.
Think about a toddler learning to walk. How many times does he or she fall, cry and then get up to try again, only to fall again? Every parent knows that heart-in-mouth feeling of watching their tiny child step teeteringly away from the baby walker again and again, knowing that another tumble may be imminent. Does this sound like fun? Not to me.
For something to be fun, the person experiencing it needs to be relaxed, able to enjoy what is happening. Fun is what happens when you are off the clock, kicking back your heels and wallowing in the familiar and comfortable. There is no expectation put upon you by others or by yourself. Your only job is to do whatever feels good. Fun things do not require effort or endurance, practice or perseverance. Fun things don’t require you to get a little uncomfortable, push at your own boundaries, test what you are truly capable of.
Learning is not fun.
Now, none of this is to say that learning isn’t satisfying. Of course it is: it is deeply and addictively satisfying. The feeling of accomplishment when you finally master a new skill, be that making it to Daddy’s arms without falling over or finally nailing a three-point turn, is as intense a rush as you are ever likely to experience. But to get to those soaring highs you have got to plod through the muddy lows.
You have got to keep going when you feel like giving up and push hard through crippling bouts of self-doubt, when you feel like everyone can do it except you. You need to stay the course and put in the hours and hours of practice necessary to gain automation with this new skill, and then take even longer to integrate it within what you can already do before you feel the real benefit. All of this is deeply challenging for us as adults, so imagine what it must be like to be like for a five-year-old learning to read.
Kidding children on that learning is fun is unfair and deeply counterproductive to creating a classroom ethos in which learners can thrive. Why would we signal to our children that we expect them to find a deeply challenging process easy? Not only easy, but actually fun?
If you want your children to succeed, be honest with them about how tough learning can be. Don’t take on the role of ringmaster, promising the greatest show on earth. Instead make it clear that learning is hard work but it is so very, very worth it and that you will support them every difficult step of the way.
Tone down the fun and invite your learners to struggle a little instead – the results will speak for themselves.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30