Learning doesn’t have to be fun. I’ve never considered this a particularly controversial statement, although there’s an open goal here if you want to make an easy joke about fun and us secondary physics teachers.
Fun is a desirable byproduct of learning, but it is not something to explicitly aim for in the planning. “How can I make this fun?” is a question we should never ask ourselves when conceiving schemes of work.
My wife (herself a teacher, obviously) and I were in the same A-level maths class and neither of us can remember any aspect of it being any fun at all. I did, however, find the pure maths element deeply satisfying. Conversely, I hated every second of the applied maths course because I rarely, if ever, felt like I was getting anywhere with it.
Learning doesn’t have to be fun, but it does need to be satisfying, fulfilling and rewarding.
I bring this up as I’ve recently seen numerous variations of “make learning fun” posited as a solution for children with behavioural issues in schools and it concerns me. It suggests that the underlying reason for the behavioural problems described was simply boredom or lack of engagement. But that’s rarely, if ever, the case.
Grappling with learning
A classroom has to feel like a safe place to be if a child knows that when they do struggle – and the best classrooms I know are where students have to grapple with their learning – they will be met with unstinting support. As I’m used to saying “We’re here to catch you, not catch you out.”
Conversely, a classroom can feel like an unsafe place to be – or a place to escape from or avoid – if children convince themselves that getting something wrong, needing help or failing to understand something instantly will be met with a withering look from the teacher or, worse, some kind of sanction or punishment.
Making learning fun is not a solution to behaviour problems. Helping children feel that their efforts are bearing fruit is an effective solution to some behaviour problems that can arise out of frustration with learning.
As Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds noted in Effective Teaching: evidence and practice, “The effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on achievement.”
Put simply, it is achievement, success or progress that drives children’s motivation, not the other way round. It is not simply a matter of changing the child’s attitude or mindset.
Jarlath O’Brien is director for schools at The Eden Academy. His book Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers will be published by Sage in 2018