Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Why ‘making learning fun’ doesn’t wow me

Why did I think Vicky Kuo’s understanding of teaching and learning was so exceptional?

It was exceptional because there were no frills.
Each lesson learned highlighted an essential aspect of excellent instruction.

I’ve listened to teachers from all over the world talk about their approach to teaching and more often than not I am struck by what’s missing.

Many experienced teacher candidates I interview tell me all about how they make learning fun, how they use a wide range of methods and activities like the 5Es, debates, projects, mock trials…

And each time my face puckers up with a cringe. But before I too hastily plan an exit strategy I give candidates the benefit of the doubt… Perhaps underneath all that razzle dazzle, they DO understand the essentials!

So I ask, thinking about ONE of the classes you’ve taught…
a. What was the ultimate goal of that class? What was it exactly that students were getting better and better at, as a result of your class?
b. How did you track their growth?
c. How did you know when they’ve achieved the ultimate goal?

More often than not, candidates are stumped.
They’ll say, “Wow, great question.” pause. Then they’ll go on a tangent about how it really all depends on the topic or the unit or the kid… they’ll cite every possible variable as an obstacle to being able to answer my questions.

It’s as if they think
my questions are good questions in theory
but not in practice.

I believe that any teacher of any human for any discipline,
should be able to articulate the answers to my questions.

But the essentials
are almost always missing.

Vicky Kuo nailed the essentials.
That’s what makes her exceptional.

1. What are some examples of the clear essentials that every teacher should be able to articulate?

I recently started training for a half marathon with my bff, Beefy.
a. My ultimate goal is to be able to run 13.1 miles without stopping.
b. Each week that I train, I’m able to run farther and farther without stopping.
I track my growth by writing down the number of miles I run each Saturday for my long run.  So far I’ve progressed from being able to run 6 to 7 to 8 to 9 miles without stopping.
c. I’ll know I’ve achieved my goal if on May 15th I run the Newburyport Half Marathon without stopping.

I used to teach 7th grade social studies.
a. The ultimate goal was for my kids to be able to write an essay proving one single argument using clear reasoning and evidence from multiple sources.
b. For the first two units, I tracked their growth by evaluating their ability to write a single paragraph that simply included: one argument, two pieces of evidence & reasoning, and one closing sentence.  Everyone had to master following that basic structure first. Then, for the last four units of the school year I tracked their growth by evaluating their ability to write an essay that proved a single argument, using clear reasoning and evidence from multiple sources.
c. I knew they’d achieved the ultimate goal if they scored a 5/7 or higher on their final independent research paper.

2. What’s so bad then about making learning fun?

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with fun!

For example, what’s fun about training for a half marathon?  Every Saturday morning when Beefy and I meet up, we chit chat while we stretch.  That’s fun. Listening to podcasts and enjoying the beautiful daffodils that line the Charles River. That’s fun. When I get home from my run and I’m able to say “Wow, today I ran farther than I’ve ever run before.” That’s fun too.

But do you see how the fun there is merely a byproduct of the repeated practice designed to achieve my ultimate goal?

The teachers I interview who talk about making learning fun sound to me like,

“Every Saturday I chit chat with my bff! I listen to podcasts and admire the daffodils!”

And so then I ask, what’s your ultimate goal and how do you track progress toward it?

And they say, well it just depends you know? It depends on whether you’re talking about training for a half marathon or teaching 7th grade social studies. It depends on whether you’re talking about EAL/ESL/ELL kids or SPED kids or gifted kids or poor kids or poor-gifted kids or a well resourced school or an under-resourced school… it all just depends.

But it DOESN’T depend.

That’s what Vicky Kuo revealed in her journey across so many disciplines.

It doesn’t depend!

What is unchanging and common to teaching all disciplines everywhere is being able to articulate: what is the ultimate goal? what exactly will you get better and better at? how will you track progress toward the ultimate goal and how will you know when you achieve it?

Your context – your discipline, your kids, your school – should absolutely inform your answers to those questions.
But you should have answers none the less.

LEARNING! Its very definition is to acquire new knowledge or a new skill and
TRAINING! is learning a behavior or skill by practicing over time.

3. So what’s wrong with using a wide variety of activities?

It’s impossible to get better and better at something if you don’t do it more than once.

My first day back to running I couldn’t go 5 minutes without stopping.
5 minutes, people!
It was a terrible performance.

If you only run or write an argument essay or do a mock trial once – how will you ever get better at it?

If every semester at a teacher training college, you are studying a wide range of topics and doing a wide range of activities – how will you ever get better at the essentials of good teaching?

Doing one-off activities means setting people up for a terrible performance.
Do that activity three times and at least you have the opportunity to see improvement.

There are endless examples of the lack of repeated, deliberate practice in both teacher training and general schooling.

Why have other disciplines like music, drama and sports figured this out – the value of repeated and deliberate practice – but we haven’t?

I think it’s because teachers and training programs skip over CLEARLY defining the essentials.

What is the ultimate goal?
What exactly will students get better and better at and how will you track their progress?
How will you know when they achieved the ultimate goal?

The essentials are SO boring. No frills. No razzle dazzle. No fun.

But when I met Vicky Kuo,
I didn’t walk out of there thinking BORRRINNGGG,
I walked out of there thinking



5 comments on “Why ‘making learning fun’ doesn’t wow me

  1. Lonnie Rich
    April 10, 2016

    Memorizing is one of those repeated activities by which I know when I have learned the poem.

  2. Sally
    April 11, 2016

    I was struck by your example of how you taught students to write essays. I was not taught how to do that until my first semester in college, but I had lots of fun in high school 🤓

  3. Ryan
    April 11, 2016

    So great. You speak the truth.

  4. Sel
    April 11, 2016

    Great post!

  5. robertmbok
    April 12, 2016

    This is a great piece that should be read by everyone interested in learning. Your comparison to sports is very articulate, I am left thinking deep how I need to repeat actions to get results in all my strives and better still I need to track my progress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on April 10, 2016 by in Uncategorized.
%d bloggers like this: