Friday, November 16, 2012

On Whether Learning Should Be Fun

There's been quite a bit of debate in recent years over whether teachers should make their classes fun. A criminally brief synopsis of the sides, which I will label using a frosted shredded wheat metaphor:
  • The unfrosted, shredded-wheat side argues that fun is a distraction and that many important subjects don't lend themselves well to fun: Teaching students how to document research and cite sources is difficult to make fun, but it's certainly critical stuff. The unfrosted side is also skeptical about whether students who are having fun are learning anything.
  • The sugary, frosted side argues that bored students don't learn. Bored students eventually may even disregard or drop out of school if they have too many shredded wheat teachers. Students aren't paying attention unless school is fun, and if they're not paying attention, they can't be learning. To the Frosties, fun is a precondition of learning. 
In a recent seminar I was running on how to teach writing, this subject came up. I ended up writing the following in response to one teacher's discussion board post, and thought I'd repost it here. 
Lessons don't need to be exciting, or funny, or hip, or loaded with pop culture or high energy to not be boring.  
When students are learning something, really learning it, they aren't bored. They might not find the material exciting, but that's not the same thing as finding it boring. "Boring" is an unusual word in that it has many opposites: fun, yes; but also puzzling, curiousterrifying, hypnotic, stressful, soothing, illuminating, thought-provoking, alarming, relaxing, eye-opening, provocative, disturbing. You're not bored when your brain has something to play with.  
"Boring" is a warning signal. It says what you're doing isn't even stimulating students enough for them to learn. It doesn't mean to add clown shoes and funny noises. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wisdom of Children

Folk wisdom is often far too quick to praise children as wiser than adults, as though all we need to do to improve international relations or the economy is to listen to 8-year-olds. "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" hasn't helped. But it sounds mean to remind people that children are still new to the world and aren't as smart now as they will be later, or to point out that there's a good reason it's against the law for parents to abandon them.

Because of this faith in child wisdom, I sometimes receive withering glares from people when, as an educator, I use my own beloved children as examples of how ignorance or incompetence works. But they're young. They don't have the background knowledge of an adult. Their incompetence is a fact of childhood, not their fault, and temporary.

However, every once in a while, I see one of my children do something that reveals there are some ways in which children can be smarter than adults. My eldest son, age 7, pulled off one of them today.

He has been playing with an inflated beach ball on which a picture of the globe has been placed. It's essentially an inflated mock-up of Earth. My wife asked him at dinner today, as he was holding it, whether he knew which country was the largest. Well, he's looking right at the thing. He gets this one right: "Russia." Lots of adults would get that one right, too, but my wife wasn't done with her questions.

"And where is Russia?" she asked. 

He said, without looking at the globe, "It's right next to the United States."

Judging from stats on American geographical knowledge, most Americans would tell him he's wrong. One adult in the room at the time started to "Umm" toward a gentle correction before I cut her off. 

See, he isn't wrong. He's right. 

Imagine looking down at the same ball he's holding. Russia is huge, dominating the Northern hemisphere and appearing to form a kind of "C" around the North Pole. Not only does Russia come very close to Alaska, which is colored green like the continental United States, it's right across the North Pole from us. Back in the Cold War, many people imagined a nuclear war would involve nuclear missiles crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, because on a flat map, that looks like the only way to do it. But the strategic planners in both countries had all of their radars facing north -- because the nukes were going to come over the North Pole. Santa Claus would look up from his home and see them criss-crossing through the sky like a screen from Missile Command. Going over the North Pole was the shortest distance for the ICBMs. 

So here's a question that most adults would get wrong, because they've spent too long with the sort of flat, horizontal maps you find in books, while the kid with the beach ball can remember -- without even glancing down -- that the two countries are practically touching. 

That's the sort of thing a kid can do better than an adult. When the models adults have in their heads distort the truth or contain inaccuracies while the correct answer is available to simple observation, a child will kick the adult's butt. 

Here's another question adults often get wrong, but a kid with a map or globe will handle just fine: Which city is further North, New York City or Rome, Italy? 

The answer is Rome, but if you've spent too much time watching footage of chilly New York winters and temperate, glowing, Mediterranean Rome, you're likely to get it wrong. (London, meanwhile, is about as far North as the bottom of Alaska. All of Europe is further North than Americans tend to imagine it is.) 

A child doesn't have all of those cold and hot associations for those cities, though. She'll just glance down at the world depicted in front of her and draw a line. An adult who corrects her when she gives her answer is doing damage and should listen carefully. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Quiet Rant, Just to Get It out of the System

My 3-year-old son sees me and my wife typing at keyboards. Both of us are writers. Both of us type quickly. When he wants the computer to do something, he smacks his hands against the keyboard, flattening dozens of keys at a time. He probably thinks he’s doing the same thing we are.

In much the same way, novices often misunderstand what experts are doing, and in trying to imitate them do so too bluntly to achieve the same results. I am not infantilizing novices here. Everyone's a novice at something. When I attempt new activities, I make the same kind of error.

But when it comes to teaching writing, a subject I am good at, I often do feel as I observe students like I am watching my toddler pound on the keyboard. I give the typing students high grades and the key-flattening students low grades. The key-flattening students look alarmed: “But I slapped the keys just like those other guys did!” They don’t see the differences, and chalk up the different grades to brown-nosing, or other students using big words, or me playing favorites.

Nothing I say makes a difference: If you can’t tell typing and key-flattening apart, no explanation will illuminate the situation. If you can’t tell the difference between posses and possess, or between idea and ideology, or between the verbs question and ask, or between a rhetorical question and an actual question, or between satire and a point meant earnestly, or between a run-on derailing sentence and a complicated sentence using parallel subordination, or between a Wikipedia article and a scholarly publication, or between figurative and literal language, or between summary of an opponent’s position and the summarizer’s own position, then you’re a bit like the caterwauling dreamers who can’t get on to American Idol -- you just don’t know how bad off you are, even though everyone else can tell.

There. Rant over. Deep breath, and back to work.