Helping Put Fun Back into Learning

Time to resurrect the blog. New year, new resolution, all that. I had the best intentions for 2013 but really got quite busy. But busy is good, because it means that work is going well. But with the new year I thought I’d opt for a new tag line. I’ve been saying it much of 2013 and have pronounced it as my mission more than once, and that is, “Learning should be fun.”

We’ve gotten far from fun in learning these days. I visit hundreds of classrooms a year, perhaps a thousand or more, and the prevailing constant across those classrooms is that kids are bored. I’m not the first to notice this. Perhaps some remember the findings of the Gates Foundation published in The Silent Epidemic (2006) about high school dropouts. In that report, the authors found that 47 percent of the dropouts in the study left school because their classes weren’t interesting and 69 percent said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard. Two-thirds of the dropouts in the study would have stayed in school “if more was demanded of them.” Sorry, folks, but much of school has gotten boring, and these numbers help support that. I want to change that, and I think many of the educators I work with do too.

The notion of a pendulum in education that swings at one end to a zenith of high control to the other of great flexibility is a common one. There has been no greater point of high control in terms of accountability than what our schools are currently facing. As well meaning as the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was (what is commonly referred to as “No Child Left Behind”), the result has been higher levels of anxiety and even fear among teachers, and ample amounts of boredom for students. But there are signs of rebellion, and so the pendulum—I hope—is on a shift.

Why New Standards Can Make Learning Fun

This may be an ironic position to many in education, but I really like the idea of standards. Standards are a vision for what my students should know and be able to do. As a teacher, they give me guidance and help me plan what I need to do with my students. But a prevailing part of that equation would be the students themselves. While the standards help me determine what students need to know and be able to do, not all of my students are at the same place in their learning. It’s like solving a puzzle. How do I get a range of students to the point I need them to be? To me, that kind of puzzle is fun. That’s the fun part of teaching.

Another reason why I think the new standards that teachers are dealing with across the country is that they are a step up from past iterations of standards. They are much more focused on “doing” the subject rather than learning facts and figures out of context. Many of them are based in the idea of providing authentic experiences for students. I was always the kid who asked, “why do I need to know this?” New standards emphasize that context.

How to Put Fun Back Into Learning

The pressures of accountability are real and there’s a direct correlation, at least to me, between the perceived negative consequences of poor test scores to the boring instruction that prevails in classrooms today. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be the case. The overwhelming result of pushing information at students through worksheets and multiple-choice tests is a somewhat misguided interpretation of what standards as students to do. The key word is do. Not just know, but do. In my work with teachers, many focus on the knowing to the detriment of the skill level to which they need to get their students to perform—to do something with the knowledge they’ve acquired.

I’ve been lucky to work with teachers across the country on several initiatives that raise the level of instruction to match the intent of standards and—very often—increase the fun factor in learning. Here are a few examples that give me hope that we can return fun to learning.

Keep it real. The reason our students go to school ultimately is to do something in the real world. They might work in healthcare, start their own business, become an artist, or design the next greatest technology. Besides getting your driver’s license, when did you last take multiple-choice test? How about fill out a worksheet? The new standards encourage much greater real-world connection, at all grade levels, and some of the most enjoyable projects I’ve done with teachers, not to mention their students, is when their students tackle problems that are relevant to them in the real world.

Address a complex problem. Problem-based learning is a phrase that has different meanings to different people, but to me, the use of the word “problem” is essential. Some folks like to talk about project-based learning, but this opens up the opportunity to conduct an activity in which no real work is completed beyond simply being active, often physically and not mentally. When students have to address a complex problem, through a project or not, they’re immediately charged with challenges that can involve analysis, evaluation, and creation. They have to analyze the situation, evaluate—sometimes conflicting—information, and create a unique solution. The real world is messy, and complex problems are too. Believe it or not, that challenge can be stimulating, and fun!

I recall the experience of one young teacher I have worked with over the past two years. Entrenched in the current pressures of accountability, I can only describe her original reaction to a problem-based approach as rebellion. As is often noted, teachers will tell me, “this is all well and good, but I have to get back to my standards-based lessons.” Meaning which handout? But with a little coaxing and nurturing, this teacher approached me this academic year with the story of a successful problem-based unit she designed on her own and presented to her students. “I didn’t know how it was going to go,” she confided, “but the kids were amazing! We were studying the Civil War, and one group of students seemed to be off task and roughhousing around their table. But when I asked them what they were doing, they noted they were trying to figure out how to illustrate a power struggle by tugging and pulling at each other.” In the end, she reported, the kids all learned far more than classes in the past and they had a lot of fun doing it. It took courage for her to take that approach, but it’s visibly recharged her career.

Use real student tools. The proliferation of devices in our schools, whether provided by schools or families, is at an all-time high. And just as our students use these devices in every other part of their lives—and will be required to use them in most occupations we’d want our kids to pursue—using them in school can be a lot of fun. Across the country, when I ask teachers to describe “their most memorable learning experience,” they often use the words “engaging” and “interactive.” The powerful digital devices populating classrooms today, whether tablets, laptops, smartphones, or other devices, provide immediate entry into engaging and interactive learning—if it is designed that way.

I’ll use as an example of a fun project (for me, at least) I’ve just completed with my friend and colleague Anita Deck. We were charged with developing an astronomy course for ninth graders that leverages the iTunes U platform. The platform allowed us to leverage the ease of incorporating a wealth of high-quality resources, many developed by the most respected STEM organizations in the world (think NASA), through a variety of media. Videos, images, real-world data, news stories, and interviews with scientists were all incorporated in what is explicitly designed to address current science standards. This was also done with the philosophy of giving students choice, making the content relevant to students, and allowing them to follow their own passions and interest to create products of their choosing that would help them demonstrate their learning. There are no multiple choice tests or worksheets in the course, but there are some guides for some of the more complex resources. This amount of flexibility, both in terms of collecting the most current information from some of the world’s most respected authorities and then giving students the opportunity to select the way they want to demonstrate their learning is unique in most classrooms I visit. But popular digital technologies make this possible, and that possibility will hopefully lead to more fun in learning.

Fun, Here we Come!

I hope so, anyway. There are more examples, but since I’m going to take this on for the year, I hope to share some of those later. I do hope that educational pendulum has maxed out and is winding its way back to fun—teaching that is fun and learning that is fun. Learning should be enjoyable, and the teachers I’ve worked with (and their students) have shown me that if we lift our sights above low-level compliance instruction, not only is learning fun but students learn more! This instruction is standards-based instruction, not completing handout 125b.5-2. And as more of that happens in our schools, perhaps more of our students will see the relevance of our education system and will meet the challenge of succeeding in school.