Is 'Fun' an Ideal Teaching Goal?
I get frustrated when teachers are encouraged to make school "fun". Go ahead and debate me, but I think "fun" is a term better used for the playground than the classroom. Teachers who promise to make school fun are like parents who want to be friends with their children. Sure, I am all for fun (and friends), but in the appropriate context. Learning can and should be engaging, exciting, compelling, stimulating, satisfying, inspiring, imaginative and even pleasurable. But fun? A teacher's main job is to help students become more competent, confident and curious. Fun rarely delivers on those goals. Words matter. The word "fun" can trivialize the serious work related to learning and confuse teaching with entertaining.
Just to be clear, I want my students to enjoy school as much as any other teacher and I do not believe that teachers should try to convert every moment into a measurable learning opportunity. I believe in the importance of play during the school day. Likewise, being creative, passionate and enthusiastic about our teaching certainly helps to make it more effective. But the word fun aptly describes recess, end-of-day dance parties, Jeopardy quizzes, field games, and holiday celebrations -- things that punctuate and support learning, but do not define it.
Let's admit it, learning is sometimes uncomfortable. That is okay. Teachers do not need to apologize for discomfort akin to a fitness challenge, wince-worthy in the moment but often relished and fondly reflected upon later because of the growth that it fostered and the confidence it inspired. We all know that if students were asked if they would rather learn how to write an essay or have a class party, most of them would choose the party. But those same students would later thank us for empowering them with new skills, even if they were complaining or uncomfortable at the time. Everyone knows that learning does not feel fun in the middle of the stretch. If growth is our teaching goal, then fun should not be our aspired adjective.
Obviously, it is important to match challenge with support. There is no virtue in creating challenge for the sake of challenge. We achieve nothing by watching our students flounder or flail. Finding the sweet spot, where our students are being stretched but not frustrated, can be complicated at times, and even with the best intentions we can miss our mark. But grappling to find the ideal challenge zone will serve our students more than retreating into the safety zone of fun.
Ultimately, when it comes to challenge, adults are no different from children. If asked to reflect upon our favorite experiences, most of us will name accomplishments that were hardly fun in the moment. They involved elements of "just right" challenge or discomfort, but resulted in personal growth or a feeling of pride or achievement. We do students a disservice and set them up with unrealistic expectations when we communicate that school should be fun. There is more appropriate language to describe and guide what we do. While learning is often characterized by pleasure, even joy, it does not have to be fun.
Photo taken by Clara Greisman