Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Just say no to fun-suckers

Nicole Dodson, Dakota Jerome Solbakken and Nadine Clements, students at Quest to Learn, a New York City public school, play a game they designed.

Institutionalized prejudice against fun in the classroom works against students, teachers, and societal progress as a whole. A crippling bias in favor of traditional pedagogy, a stultifying notion that because classrooms were not fun in the past, they needn't be fun today has contributed not only to the low graduation rate in American schools but also to the low morale of educators themselves. 

Almost half of the students interviewed for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study on high school dropouts claimed they dropped out because classes weren't interesting. According to an NEA report on teacher attrition, of the 46 percent of teachers who leave the profession after only five years, 56 percent cite job dissatisfaction as their reason for leaving. That dissatisfaction is directly tied to high-stakes testing, confused administration, and lack of support and respect. In short, teaching just ain't fun anymore.

Despite the fact that fun could be the savior of education, it's under fire from all sides. Innovative school ventures such as the Quest to Learn school in New York, create stimulating, exciting, rewarding experiences for students and teachers alike. Yet the same parents who fight to have students enrolled in the school, fight equally hard to ensure that the learning becomes increasingly more traditional so that students are prepared for standardized tests (which, if I haven't mentioned this before, prepare students for absolutely nothing in the real world). Meaning, even parents who want their kids involved in more creative, relevant learning, are too afraid of standardized tests to fully support innovation.

Likewise teachers, who would benefit from fun more than anyone aside from students, are often biased in favor of more traditional pedagogy, frowning at fun with the dour affect of a Victorian schoolmarm. They say things like: Fun might mean fun for kids, but it means work for teachers. Kids who are having fun in a classroom simply aren't learning. And, my personal favorite, fun classrooms don't prepare students for the real world.

True confession time. I have told kids, "Kids, this isn't Disneyworld. It's school. It's not supposed to be fun. You're supposed to learn." I admit it. I'm not proud. But in my defense, usually those non-exhortations were direct results of exhaustion from the hundred miserable and utterly meaningless tasks assigned by supervisors appointed at the government level who have never set foot in a classroom for more than five minutes, who have done everything in their power to suck the joy out of teaching and learning.

There have been times when I felt like I was smuggling fun into my classroom, looking over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, as if that would somehow undermine my authority and credibility as a teacher. And I learned early in my career that as a general rule, fun as pedagogy should not be discussed openly as the very notion pisses a lot of people off, and it doesn't take long for the fun-suckers to start giving you the stink-eye if you're a proponent of such blackguard practices.

But here's what I've discovered over my years of teaching, short though they may be.

Fun is not more work for a teacher. Coming up with fun lesson plans is exactly the same amount of work as coming up with boring lesson plans. Implementing fun lessons is easier than implementing boring lessons. Kids enjoy it, and people commit to things they enjoy. When my kids are having fun while they're learning, they learn more and they don't fight me over it. I've had classes so fun that kids didn't even want to stop learning, and that's a score in my books.

Fun does not void learning. I'm much likelier to stick to something that I'm enjoying. I don't mind practicing something that's fun. And activities that are novel and interesting stick in my mind longer than those that are dull to the point of brain freeze. Innovative educational practices such as Smallab, or "situated multimedia art learning lab," that allow students to learn in exciting, virtual environments, interacting with material rather than having material thrown at them via lecture, have proven already to bear great promise. In a small 2009 study, at-risk ninth graders in earth sciences scored "consistently and significantly higher on content-area tests" when they had participated in Smallab exercises than those who had been subjected solely to more traditional teaching methods.

Finally, there's no reason why the real world, the world of adulthood, has to be anything less than fun. In fact, we are uniquely positioned in history to create exactly the sort of real world that we desire. There are more start-up businesses today than ever before in American history, and that means that people are crafting careers for themselves, and I can almost guarantee that entrepreneurs are not designing futures of arduous anxiety. We're building the careers that we want to have, the lives that we want to lead. Schools should most definitely be preparing students for that future.

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