The Trouble With Fun

I’ve written about how we can use fun – play and games – to learn important skills. Some school subjects are fun to learn, at least for some students. And many teachers are fabulous at bringing fun into the classroom. It has even been discovered that positive emotions make learning easier and promote hard work.1

But associating fun with learning can bring trouble if we take it too far. Learning isn’t always fun, and students need to figure out how to deal with that. In fact, learning is often boring, tedious work, and sometimes, learning is downright painful. By the time they reach middle school, most students are not having fun with most of their learning. If they’ve bought into the idea that learning should always be fun, they’ll have a hard time succeeding.

Here’s Dr. Barbara Oakley’s take from a recent New York Times column:

“All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — ‘fun.’ Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. It’s why we have them practice moves in dance and soccer, memorize vocabulary while learning a new language and internalize the multiplication tables. In fact, the more we try to make all learning fun, the more we do a disservice to children’s abilities to grapple with and learn difficult topics. … Some learning just plain requires effortful practice, especially in the initial stages. Practice and, yes, even some memorization are what allow the neural patterns of learning to take form.” 2

She also points out the essential role that “rote” practice has in mastering any domain, explaining that “becoming an expert at anything requires the development of neural patterns that are acquired through much practice and repetition.”2 The trouble is, of course, that rote practice isn’t fun. It’s boring and tedious, so schools have mostly done away with it. But the need for rote practice remains, and some parents have recognized this need, so they send their children to institutions like Kumon.

In parallel, schools have come to prioritize understanding over mastery. This is especially true in math class, where a new topic is presented each day until most of the students “get it,” and then the class moves on to a different topic the next day. A single homework assignment is all the practice students are ever asked to complete with each topic. If the students are going to move beyond understanding and form long-term memories by walking the mastery path, they’ll have to choose to engage in spaced repetition. Given the underdeveloped executive function of most children and teenagers, this is unlikely to happen.

Here’s Dr. Oakley again:

“Understanding is part of acquiring expertise, but it certainly isn’t all. But today’s ‘understanding-centered’ approach to learning math, combined with efforts to make the subject more ‘fun’ by avoiding drill and practice, shortchanges children of the essential process of instilling the neural patterns they need to be successful.”2

And guess what happens if you never do the un-fun work of rote practice? Math becomes more and more difficult. And if learning is supposed to be fun, you’ve got a prime excuse to avoid engaging with math. Echoing my description of the downward spiral of math avoidance, Dr. Oakley writes: “You can begin to avoid practicing it, because to your mind, that practice is more painful than learning what comes more easily. Not practicing, in turn, transforms what started out as a mere aversion into a genuine lack of competence.”2

The only way out of this downward spiral is diligently working on math skills, despite the fact that such work isn’t any fun.

I certainly try to bring fun to the table in my coaching sessions with students, mostly by being a complete goofball, but I don’t pretend that hard work is play, I don’t pretend to love Shakespeare, and I don’t shy away from asking students to get started on work they don’t feel like doing. I know that they’ll eventually seek out a career they love, but I also know that succeeding in that career will entail doing a great deal of work that isn’t fun. And I would be saddened to see anyone allow un-fun but totally necessary work get in the way of pursuing their dreams.

(For more on the topic of creating a career you love, check out my post why you have to work your way into a calling rather than discover it through self-reflection.)

1 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.

2 Oakley, Barbara. “Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.” The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2018.

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