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Fun is Not a Four Letter Word

A friend and colleague of mine, Hannah Williams, told me of her experience conversing with classmates at an esteemed and unnamed east coast university. They were listing attributes of dream schools and Hannah said, “fun!” Her classmates all got slightly smirky looks on their faces, as one said (attitude intended here, folks): “Fun doesn’t sound ‘academic’ enough. We are worried people won’t take your school seriously.” Properly chagrinned, Hannah shifted her language to the now ever-present (and often nebulous) term, “engagement.

“Hmmm,” I thought. Are the terms fun and academics mutually exclusive? Isn’t fun an important aspect of engagement? A little research please….

I began by investigating the academic outcomes needed today – beyond the obvious Common Core skills – and jumped immediately onto creativity and the ability to innovate. Are they the same? “Kind of,” says Tony Wagner, Harvard innovation fellow and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People who Will Change the World. He substitutes innovation for creativity in a recipe Harvard Professor Theresa Amabile says will produce that trait: a mix of expertise, creative thinking skills (flexibility, perseverance, imagination), and motivation. But not just any kind of motivation, she claims. Creativity requires intrinsic motivation. And that, she says, comes from a sense of purpose, passion, and….play.

It’s not the “f-as-in-fun” word, but play sounds suspiciously like fun to me. I try to imagine anyone involved in play who is not having fun. I think of my child who gets himself up at the crack of dawn to collaborate with his online gaming community, brow furrowed as he perseveres to reach the next level of I-can’t-ever-figure-out-quite-what. I think of my mother who at 83 is so passionate about tennis that she went through the trauma of getting a new knee because she wanted to play more tennis. Don’t tell me she doesn’t think tennis is fun. Think of anyone you know who’s down for the count, body or brain sweating, and pushing for a breakthrough because they’re almost there…just about… And they keep going! Time stands still and when they finally look up from what they’ve been doing, they have no idea how much time has passed. Don’t tell me they’re not having their own kind of fun, although to me it sounds like they’re working hard.

Hannah confirms this. “Fun doesn’t mean there won’t be hard work involved with the learning process. Some people think it’s one or the other. But I believe that fun is an essential part of engagement. If we can create a positive experience with the content students need to learn [think f-u-n], the learning will have something to stick to. You can have fun and work hard at the same time…and you’ll probably work harder if you’re having fun.”

My neighbor works for Google. She has a Ph.D. in computer science and spends her days figuring out how Google services can be made available to people who cannot see or hear. She told me that she hates missing work. Her work, she says, is fun. We might also infer that her work is hard and, pertinent to the question at hand, involves learning. Maybe those east coast esteemed unnamed university students should visit some dream workplaces before designing some dream schools.

Hannah and I also speculated on how fun impacts the climate in a classroom and the difference between a stern “serious” classroom and one that is filled with laughter and joy (or animated curiosity, or quiet respectful thinking, or intense concentration). We talked about how laughing together builds another notch in the relationships that make purposeful collaborative learning possible. “Laughter makes people feel safe,” Hannah told me. I get that. I know how different it is when I get a group laughing, usually by poking fun at myself. The climate in the room just opens up and people relax and seem ready to learn. They act like they want to be there. Seems like something we would wish for students – to want to be at school.

Well Hannah is now back from her esteemed and unnamed east coast university, (OK, it’s Harvard), making her dream school a reality and a place that students want to be. She told me that the word “fun” is now back in her vocabulary and a driving force in her quest to spark passion-driven learning for kids, connected to ensure purpose, and active in ways that help them play with ideas as they learn essential skills, knowledge, and habits of mind. Have fun, Hannah! We know your students will.

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