Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Learning is Not Fun

I had coffee with a professor of engineering this week and the subject of teaching came up.  The man across from me, with far more experience in education than I, said something that stopped me in my tracks: "Learning is not fun."  From his point of view, I must have looked like a deer in headlights.  After careful consideration though, I now agree with this simple statement.

Interestingly, when children enter the education system, we tell them just the opposite.  Experts in education proudly chant, "Learning is fun!"  But, it's a lie.

Learning is a lot of things.  It is empowering.  It is possibly the greatest investment one can make in oneself.  But when someone tells you that learning is fun, they do not speak for the majority of people.

Consider a person who wishes to play the drums.  They think, "It would be fun to play the drums at a high level."  While this is true, the process one must undertake to transform oneself into a professional musician is arduous.  One must focus for countless hours to train the body and mind through repetitive exercises.  Learning is hard work, and hard work is not enjoyable for most people.  In this context, the joy of life may well be the destination and not the journey.

This is a hard pill for me to swallow.

I spend hours every week introducing and reinforcing fundamental physics principles to students; I try to make the process animated and thought-provoking.  My feeling has always been that if I find these fundamentals interesting (and I do) and deliver them with enthusiasm, then students will feed off of that and possibly agree that the subject is fascinating.  Now, this is still true.  However, the process of synthesizing information is not rainbows and lollipops.

The thought-provoking aspects, the real-world applications, the paying job at the end of the road - all of these things are motivators.  But none of these, in and of themselves, will help a student learn.  What will?  Time.  Reflection.  Practice.  Repeat.  Sound like fun?  Didn't think so.  If we educators are to be honest with our students and ourselves, this may be a good place to start.  If students wish to be successful, they must focus on what it is they control, and that is their attitude towards learning.

In an effort to bring truth to the 'learning is fun' mantra, some school systems have moved towards project-based learning and away from the basics.  Educators must be careful not to prioritize fun projects.  While they may allow students to utilize some of the fundamentals within a given discipline, they are not a replacement for the basic drills that hammer home what is absolutely necessary.  As with most things, a healthy balance is required here.  

I am not advocating a bland teaching style.  I am simply stating that if a student is to process information for him or herself, he or she must realize that it involves dedication above all else.  Do not believe the advertisement for an exercise system that requires no effort.  Exercise does not exist without a concerted effort and neither does education.

Learning is difficult, much like anything else that is worthwhile.  I think this will be my new mantra.

No comments: