“How can we make learning fun?”
Does this question sound familiar? Policymakers, parents, teachers and politicians ask it constantly. How can we make learning engaging? How can we make lessons relevant to students? How can we get kids to pay attention and make an effort? It’s not like no one’s been trying to fix this problem–so why does it persist? Easy: because we’re trying to answer the wrong question. When we ask how to make learning fun, we’re begging the question: learning doesn’t need to be made fun, it already is! Instead of asking “how can we make learning fun,” what we should be asking is “why do we believe that learning can’t be its own reward?” In other words: how are we sabotaging the natural learning process, and what can we do to support it instead?
It may seem that the idea of a “natural” educational process is itself a contradiction. Institutionalized, authoritarian schooling is taken for granted in our culture–how could we have education without it? Yet for hundreds of thousands of years, our ancestors’ children educated themselves, learning the same way infants and toddlers still do–through exploration, socialization, and self-guided play. They had no teachers, no subjects, no classrooms, and no desks. They were not told to behave or keep in line any more than adults were–and often, a great deal less. In fact, they were rarely made to do anything at all–so what motivation did they have to learn? The only kind that matters, of course: intrinsic motivation. Children need no coercion or encouragement to learn, because the learning process is inherently rewarding.
Hang on a second–children now are learning completely different things than children back then! You can’t expect them to learn it all the same way hunter-gatherers learned to kill deer and dig up roots. Some subjects simply have to be taught.
Says who? True, the topics learned today are superficially very different than the ones our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned, but there’s no reason to believe that the way we learn things has changed one iota. Our brains can learn all sorts of different subjects, do they really need a different method for each one? Of course not! Our brains are useful precisely because their learning process is so flexible. Our brains are very efficient: they wouldn’t use ten different methods when one single, flexible one would do just as well. Why should our educations be any different?
Okay, so we haven’t changed biologically in the last hundred thousand years, but the things we need to learn have gotten much more complicated! Mathematics, science, written language, computers–none of that existed back then! Is it so unreasonable to think that we may need to learn these subjects differently?
Yes! For one thing, it simply does not follow that the more complicated a subject becomes, the more necessary schooling is–if it were, we would have to put infants in school. In our first few years we learn some of the most complicated subjects of our lives–language, ethics, social customs and norms, practical physics, and fine motor control–all without any directed schooling whatsoever. Even if we were to excuse this problem by saying that infants (but not older children) are somehow “hardwired” to learn these subjects (but not others), it still doesn’t explain how we could expect anyone to become an “expert” in advanced fields. If it can’t be through self-directed experience, then it could only be by sitting in a classroom in front of a more knowledgeable teacher–but how does the teacher learn?
Even supposing we set all this aside, there’s still no reason to believe that subjects like astrophysics and evolutionary biology are intrinsically more complex than the skills a hunter-gatherer had to learn. Our ancestors were not simpletons; their raw biological computing power was just as great as ours. Nor were their lives simple–being an effective hunter-gatherer required learning not only what to eat and what not to eat, but also where to find it, how to recognize it, what other uses it might have, how it could be prepared, and how valuable it was. They had to learn all this for hundreds or thousands of different plant and animal species, in addition to having to know how to build shelters, find water, predict the weather, and be familiar with foraging terrain that could span hundreds of miles or more. Add to this the rich cultural framework all members of society participated in daily–traditions both spoken and unspoken, complex social dynamics, stories and histories, dances, songs, rituals, and more–and it should be clear our ancestors were at least as intellectually stimulated as we are. There is simply no evidence to support the idea that the best way to learn modern, complex subjects is by sitting still and taking notes, any more than it would be for learning how to prepare and cook a complex meal or perform a ritual dance. Now, as ever, the best teachers are natural curiosity and direct experience.
Well if that’s the case, why do we even have schools? If learning is naturally rewarding, why don’t children study all these advanced topics on their own?
Why, indeed? It’s not that children can’t learn advanced subjects on their own, with no external motivation–examples such as the Sudbury Valley School prove that. Indeed, if anything the Sudbury Valley system demonstrates that, given no outside interference, children will actively seek out new knowledge, experiences, and ideas–the very opposite of the question-begging hypothesis embodied in the title of this essay. So why don’t children in traditional schools? The answer is as obvious as it is difficult to accept: our school system is not merely failing to engage children in real learning, it is actively discouraging them from it.
Though there are many practical reasons how and why our current system of education came to be, the Puritan ethic under which it was founded in America is arguably its strongest remaining influence–not just in our schools, but throughout our whole culture. In particular, there seems to be a pervasive attitude, especially evident in our schools, that virtuous behavior is by definition unpleasant. This attitude, along with its converse (pleasure is bad), has helped shape our entire society. It’s easy to find, despite the seeming contradiction it embodies–indeed, the contradiction is often the giveaway. Consider, for instance, our relationship towards the two extremes of guilt and indulgence. Profit-seeking corporations, politicians, celebrities–anyone with an agenda will readily play on both ends of this spectrum to persuade us to their point of view. Our relationships with the prime vices of food and sex are particularly love-hate: we are encouraged to either diet on lettuce or feast on fast food; to repress all hints of sexuality or flaunt them as outrageously as possible. Ironically, as a result it often seems as though many of us never really eat food or have sex at all: we go on a diet at one extreme, and inhale edible “foodlike” products on the other; we treat sexuality as something shameful and lock down our impulses at one end, and on the other we indulge our appetites with pornography as far removed from real sex as is abstinence.
In many ways this implicit internal contradiction is the heart of the issue, because it’s the assumption that leads to the question-begging “problem” of making education fun and engaging in the first place. We implicitly “understand” that if students are genuinely enjoying themselves, they’re not really learning.
Hang on, that’s not fair. Great teachers can make just about any subject enjoyable. I think we can all recognize that it’s possible for children to be learning and having fun–isn’t that what the question “how can we make learning fun” implies? We wouldn’t be asking if we didn’t think it was possible!
Sure, we all understand that learning and fun can happen in parallel. We can probably all remember at least one teacher who made their subject enjoyable–maybe they taught the students silly songs to help them remember chemical compounds or mathematical formulas, or perhaps they used examples from Disney movies to help illustrate events from history or concepts in physics. But in most cases, that teacher was still trying to make learning fun, rather than letting it be. It’s like putting peanut butter on celery sticks: it might taste pretty good, but everyone knows it’d taste even better if you just took out the celery. If you really think learning can be enjoyable, ask yourself this: can you picture a group of students enjoying learning so much that there is nothing else they would rather be doing? If you can, congratulations: you’ve taken the first step toward a sustainable model of education. If you can’t, don’t worry–it just means you’re normal. Teachers, politicians, and especially the students themselves have trouble imagining it, too.
Ask yourself this: where have you gotten your best ideas from? Where were your most vivid memories formed? Chances are good it wasn’t in a classroom, sitting at a desk–more likely all your best memories and ideas have come from exploring new places, meeting and talking with new people, having new experiences, and taking new risks–exactly the sort of conditions that traditional classrooms specifically discourage. Yet what is learning if not the formation of new memories and the inspiration of new ideas? Traditional education isn’t just failing to “make learning fun,” it’s deliberately stifling it–and if that weren’t enough, it’s making our children miserable in the process! It’s no coincidence that your most vivid memories and best ideas are likely to be from your happiest experiences: not only do you learn best when you’re happy, learning itself is intrinsically rewarding. We don’t just learn the most when we’re happy, we’re happiest when we’re learning!
We need to stop asking our students to “work harder” for an education that deliberately fights against them. We need to stop expecting them to “engage” with a curriculum that actively discourages engagement. Our students and teachers are already working hard and craving engagement–it is our school system which is slacking off, and it is our attitudes towards work and education that are to blame. Unless we stop thinking of education and learning as a problem that needs to be solved, and start thinking of them as a natural and enjoyable part of everyday life, then our school system is doomed to certain failure.
 Of course, this isn’t usually the teacher’s fault–the standards all public schools must adhere to make it difficult to impossible to allow students any real freedom. Teaching was never an easy job, but our current system makes it even more difficult to do well, and all too easy to do very badly.
 The obvious exception is traumatic or difficult experiences, which can form memories at least as vivid as those of our happiest times. However, they are vivid for the same reasons: it’s when our brains have learned the most.