Is fun a bad word in education? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, fun comes from the late 17th century English, likely related to the word “fon” (“to make a fool or be a fool of”). The OED also points out that we often use the word today as an adjective, and we typically use it as a synonym for “enjoyable.” With that in mind, is it a worthwhile goal for us to strive to make schools and learning spaces enjoyable?
In the state of Wisconsin, a typical primary or secondary student goes to school around 175 days a year. For the sake of this example, let’s say that the typical school day is about 8 hours long (not counting before and after school activities). That is 1400 hours of school a year, or 18,200 hours of school from Kindergarten through year 12. Note that this does not even include all the work outside of class. Let’s say that the student chooses to go on for a bachelor’s degree. A typical undergraduate degree in the United States consists of about 120 credit hours of work. Historically, the Carnegie credit hour was supposed to end up requiring about 45 hours of work over a semester. So, that is an extra 5,400 hours of work for a bachelor’s degree. Very conservatively, that brings us to 23,600 hours of school work by the time someone is ready to head into the full-time workforce. Of course, once you get into the workforce, most jobs require on the job training and/or ongoing professional development. My point is simply that we spend many hours of our lives in “school.”
If young people are spending the equivalent of a full-time job each week in a school building, why not strive to make it an enjoyable experience? What do we gain from making it a less pleasant and enjoyable place? Why not make it fun? This doesn’t mean watering things down or lowering standards. It doesn’t mean that we don’t seek to make it a place that is rich with hard work. It does, however, mean that we think about how we might help the learners create or discover enjoyment in the experiences. It also means throwing out some strategies and methods and replacing them with others that are more likely to engage and help the learners find enjoyment. This might mean selecting high-interest resources related to the topic, adding some humor to lessons, or even learning from the world of games, sport, and recreation. What if we took some of the methods and principles from those contexts and added more of them to the school day? Many schools or teachers do this for a few events or five or six “special lessons” during a semester course. What if we flipped that and had five or six ordinary lessons and the rest were high-impact, high-interest, highly enjoyable learning experiences?
More and more educators are beginning to ask these sorts of questions, and the answers are resulting in some fascinating and promising models for schooling related to game-based learning. Consider the following five examples of how game-based learning is impacting education (in the broadest sense) today.
- Quest to Learn, the game-based school in New York City, recreated school by leverage a diverse team of people, including game designers.
- Even Universities are exploring ways to use games to create high-impact learning experiences.
- Several MOOCs have emerged that promise to help participants experience and explore the role of games in learning, including the one that inspired this post, Game Elements for Learning, hosted at Canvas.net.
- The power and potential of games for learning is even impacting fields like healthcare.
- Bringing Game-based Learning to Scale: The Business Challenges of Serious Games – Educational change is not easy, and there are significant hurdles (including economic ones) to the wide scale adoption of game-based learning in schooling, but good work happening, including this 2009 essay that proposes some possibilities for helping with a large-scale adoption of serious games in education.
I’m not arguing that we turn every learning experience into a game, but there is no question the field of education could learn some valuable lessons from the world of games, lessons that might just help us create learning spaces that are more enjoyable…yes, more fun. In fact, this is not a new concept. The 16th century theologian and reformer, Martin Luther, saw the wisdom of this when he wrote the following in his Large Catechism.
“Behold, thus we might train our youth, in a childlike way and playfully in the fear and honor of God, so that the First and Second Commandments might be well observed and in constant practise, then some good might take root, spring up and bear fruit, and men grow up whom an entire land might relish and enjoy. Moreover, this would be the true way to bring up children well as long as they can become trained with kindness and delight. For what must be enforced with rods and blows only will not develop into a good breed, and at best they will remain godly under such treatment no longer than while the rod is upon their back.”
From this perspective, making learning fun and playful is not just important for the learners. It has real and important benefits for society.