For years, I joked with my classes that I didn’t like any “unnecessary fun”. The implication being, of course, that when we took part in Comic Relief or an inflatable assault course, that I was doing so purely out of duty and would much rather have been indoors, marking a test or some such.
Occasionally, one or two of them might even have believed me. Certainly, many more went along with the joke, sympathising with me when I was “forced” to join in with enjoyable activities. It was all part of the relationship I built with my classes, and one of the things I miss greatly about not having a class of my own.
It also served to indicate something else about my take on lessons. I’ve done my time trying to make lessons fun, and I learned early on that not only did it not always turn out to be as fun as I’d hoped, but also the children learned less than they might otherwise have done. The Britain's Got Talent-style video I made to introduce the events of 1066 was a great gimmick on first playing, but when it came to it, writing the detail of the various claims to the throne didn’t quite carry with it the excitement that accompanies Ant and Dec wherever they go.
Hence my aversion to “unnecessary fun”. But that doesn’t automatically mean anyone need evoke the story of Jack and his “all work and no play” approach. I just think we need to stop conflating the two things.
For a long time, it felt like every minute of every day must be accounted for with some learning intention. Perhaps it was Ofsted’s fault, perhaps not, but it certainly became hard to justify any activity that couldn’t be directly linked to a national curriculum outcome. And so we began to sap the joy out of teaching.
It wasn’t because lessons became less fun; it was that we stopped being allowed to have fun for fun’s sake. Often teachers will bring out the adage that our fondest memories of our own school days are the times we had fun, and then make the leap to thinking that we should therefore “make learning fun”. But I don’t have recollections of fun lessons. I have memories of fun we had around the learning.
I’ve no idea what outcome could be attached to the clearing of the local ditch when I was in the third year of middle school. I don’t suppose that any teachers really thought that the staff vs leavers rounders match was really a clever opportunity to better our fielding skills. And I’m absolutely certain that the secret messages my class and I passed down through the pipework to the class below served no educational purpose.
And all of that’s OK. It did serve the purpose of bringing us together as a class. It made us a community. It made getting through the drudgery of having to edit writing more bearable. (Nobody, surely, can pretend that proofreading is ever “fun”?)
Lessons can be engaging, absolutely. Great ones can even be enjoyable. Sometimes, the content genuinely brings excitement. But rather than trying to sneak fun in under the radar, can’t we just let it out in the open?
“Work hard, play hard” has got to be a better approach. Let lessons be challenging, enthralling, difficult – even dreary sometimes. But let’s also let schools have a spirit of fun about them. Let’s sometimes just do things, not because we could learn something, but because having fun together is what makes any workplace or school a better place to be.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979