Why We Need Fun Schools & How Games Can Help

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.

  1. Quest to Learn, the game-based school in New York City, recreated school by leverage a diverse team of people, including game designers.
  2. Even Universities are exploring ways to use games to create high-impact learning experiences.
  3. 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.
  4. The power and potential of games for learning is even impacting fields like healthcare.
  5. 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.

5 Replies to “Why We Need Fun Schools & How Games Can Help”

  1. Wendy Greve

    That is why I think it is important to find balance. Right now I know my students find it fun to use the smartboard, the iPad and various other forms of technology. (I remember my grandmother telling me what fun they had when a REAL blackboard with REAL chalk was installed in their one-room Lutheran schoolhouse). On the other hand, they also find that it is fun to write a narrative based on wordless picture books or when I read a picture book to model a certain writing skill we are focusing on. Reviewing with a jeopardy game is more fun than a study guide – especially when THEY make the game.. But I find if I use the game without the “boring study guide”, retention is less likely to happen.
    Then there is balancing time. There are many ways to learn and certainly incorporating games is ONE way and can actually be used as an assessment. Designing games is a great way to problem solve and analyze strategies. This takes quite a bit of time. But how does one balance this against what is expected to be covered in a year’s time? On a personal level, I teach eight different middle school preps. Enough said? I don’t disagree with the premise that students need to find learning fun, but to make gaming a main method of teaching does not seem to be a practical way of teaching life skills.(“What if we flipped that and had five or six ordinary lessons and the rest were high-impact, high-interest, highly enjoyable learning experiences?”) Is there a place for this? Most definitely. But again, we need to find balance in time, practicality, and life skills.

  2. Bernard Bull

    This is a great and important question. I think that part of the task is helping students learn how to find enjoyment in various parts of life. For example, as a runner, I found great joy in running 20 miles. It was hard, painful…even miserable…but fun. How did it happen that I got to a point where I could call running 20 miles fun? Similarly, sitting through an entire baseball game used to be miserable for me. I would have much rather changed 100 diapers. And yet, I found a way to ask questions and enjoy the “fellowship” around games and now I can honestly say that I can “enjoy” a full baseball game. Perhaps this relates to my post the other day about how it is not just about playing games, but helping students learn to create games, how to analyze games, etc…and to enjoy such activities.

    • David Black

      So part of the answer seems to be helping students find joy in activities rather than feeling duty is the primary motivation. So then the next question is how one gets to enjoying the 20 miles, the ballgame, the work expectations, etc. more often?

      • Bernard Bull Post author

        Exactly. This is the challenge. We can design fun and enjoyable learning experiences, but what if we find ways to help students “gamify” aspects of their own life. My mom, for example, was very good at that. Consider the way many parents help their kids to turn “borning” long road trips into adventures rich with family games, sing-a-longs, etc. So, as I mentioned in the previous post, there is a real danger is simply having students play the role of “passive player.” If we are going to prepare them for “the real world”, then there is need to help them learn to design “games.” Of course, I am using games very broadly here, to the point where it probably isn’t technically a game. This gets me thinking about another idea that I might blog about once I refine my thinking about it…along the lines of connections between game-based learning, positive education, and the critical role of things like cultivating a growth mindset (Dweck) and helping learners develop resilience. This is partly what Super Better did. It blended game design with key elements of positive psychology (namely the PERMA model). This is a great example of a game that prepaers people for those seemingly mundane parts of life.

  3. David Black

    I completely agree with everything written here, but I have one lingering question with which I have been wrestling. Let’s say that there is a much more intense movement toward gamification in schools and that this movement is successful in improving engagement, achievement, etc. What happens to our students when they graduate, enter the world of work, and work activities are not enjoyable in the same way? In other words, how do we help our students persevere in all environments, and does this movement take away from their ability to see through tasks that are not seen as pleasurable?

    Part of life is being faithful to the tasks in which we are called even if they aren’t pleasurable. I can’t think of anyone who enjoys changing a dirty diaper on a child, but we see through those tasks because they are an important part of a parent’s calling. How do we continue to emphasize the importance of seeing through tasks such as these in an increasingly gamified environment?


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