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Learning at its Best

Why Didn’t I Listen to the Kids?

When asked about meaningful learning, I can easily rattle off a few characteristics:

vital to one’s existence

A few years ago, I would have avoided including “fun.” To me, fun was a byproduct, conjuring up images of whipped cream and cotton candy and juggling clowns. It was the bane of education – the way we so often try to spice up meaningless learning by making it fun. It was Reading Rabbit and golden stickers and songs to learn the Periodic Table of Elements.

“It’s the icing on the cake,” I would explain in the most cliche way possible. Except, that phrase itself spoke volumes about my understanding of meaning. Cake is useless without icing. Without icing, it’s a muffin. Just some sweet bread. The icing is the very thing that makes cake work.

I used to mock fun.

Then I had children of my own and I rediscovered the deeper meaning of fun.

Case in point: Joel decides to make a game with a set of old marbles, some blocks, an old egg carton, a bubble wand and a plastic bottle. Christy helps him with the hot glue gun, but the general design is all his concept. It isn’t existential. It isn’t personal (at least in an emotional way). It isn’t practical. It isn’t vital to his existence.

However, it’s fun. I watch him dropping the marbles and aiming them toward the styrofoam pouches. I listen to him giggle when he sees that it works. Then I watch him patiently show his younger brother the way to make it work. And it strikes me that it is deeply personal and practical and vital to his existence, not in spite of the fact that it’s fun, but because it’s fun. My son is helping reminding me of the power of fun in learning.  He’s helping me to see that it’s a deeply human need.

It also leaves me with a more humbling thought: If I claim to be student-centered, why didn’t I listen to students when they told me that learning needed to be fun?

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


5 thoughts on “Why Didn’t I Listen to the Kids?

  1. listening. ah.
    listening deeply.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 5, 2011, 1:57 am
  2. So interesting to hear some one else talk about how their philosophy of teaching and learning has changed after having children of their own. Maybe you didn’t listen at first because you are a little older now and some of the brash confidence of youth has been replaced by a willingness to be wrong. Thanks for the post and the reminder.

    Posted by Christopher Rogers | July 5, 2011, 7:32 am
  3. Sometimes we don’t listen because we’re not ready to hear the message. We need to strip everything away until we get to its core and then we can listen. Fun and learning can go hand in hand. Teachers often don’t know how to mesh the two but in fact separate them and an unnatural dichotomy is created. Why do kids like to work with a partner? Because it’s safe and it’s fun. Yes partners learn from each other but this is a teacher goal that we can share with children but it is not part of why they would prefer to work with a partner vs. working alone. It’s not what motivates students. Lately, I’ve noticed that even children as young as grade 2 will sometimes hesitate to say that they like something in the classroom because it’s fun. Maybe they too think that school and fun don’t go together? Is it time for a new word? A word that hasn’t been vilified or revered to the same extent that “fun” has. Any ideas?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | July 5, 2011, 9:19 am
  4. I do think fun is personally meaningful – we need fun like we need freedom – all the time, albeit in context and in compromise with our other needs and the needs’ of others.

    Earlier in my career, I would try to design fun the same way I designed lessons – with all of my preconceptions and assumptions about what my students should be doing. Now I ask each student what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Fun – or flow, if not fun – is an important part of our co-learning. Learning that doesn’t fulfill a need is seldom valued.

    How do think you’ll make room for this in your work?

    Nice post, John,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 5, 2011, 6:45 pm
  5. John,

    It’s like the difference between a clown and a talented stand-up comedian. Clowns don’t make you think, but they make you chuckle. Stand-up comedians don’t always make you chuckle, but they usually make you think.

    I too went through the same sort of pendulum swing. My face is red just thinking about all the ways I tried to make my classroom “fun”, but really just spent a lot of time doing the design equivalent of adding lots of sugar and cream to 7-11 coffee (which I’m drinking black right now…and regretting it).

    The underlying assumptions behind the learning needed to be addressed before I could move to having students design their own interactions with thought.

    It’s great that you were able to see something in “non-school” life that will influence the way you conduct school. Rather than conference exhibition floors and trade magazines, the way for us all to move forward is to learn how to apply the best of our everyday experiences to our profession.

    Transfer, extend and create: that’s what we want our kids to be able to do when they’re older anyways.

    Posted by mrsenorhill | July 7, 2011, 12:52 pm

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