Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fun on the Stairs = >> Fun in the Classroom

In the Fun Theory, Joanne Jacobs points to this youtube video of people using a staircase piano instead of the escalator ...

We see some people using the stairs instead of the escalator because it's "more fun" and immediately, everyone thought of the connection between "making the classroom fun" and learning. The comments range from gushing enthusiasm for fun in the classroom to a resigned knowledge that the next Professional Development will be centered around "Games, Games, Games!"

Interestingly, (to me at least, but I think deconstructing studies is fun) the researchers claimed that "fun" was why the people took the stairs. I tend to think they did so because they just got off the subway and for twenty seconds or so, they are mindlessly entertained by stepping on the "keys of the piano." I'm sure that many people were interested the first time, mildly interested the second, annoyed the third time and royally pissed off thereafter. "Stop repeatedly pressing that key. You're not being clever!" How many people just wished the thing would go away after three days? How many just wished that there was a staircase they could run up to avoid the "newbies" who thought it was cool? No one knows because no one asked.

How much did people learn? Nothing. What the researchers were trying to do was see if people would take the stairs rather than the escalator - a fitness and exercise question. It took teachers to make the mental leap to education. Thus is educational research performed.

The reality is that learning something new takes concentration and work on the part of the learner. There is no "Royal Road to Mathematics". A Game might spark interest, or might take the student on a temporary hiatus from their concerns, but the hard work needs to be done eventually.

Hard work is not always hateful. Several hours of shoveling a hole for a gazebo foundation can make you feel exhausted but invigorated. For me, three hours of a math contest is fun. The fun comes not from the game, but from the overcoming of a challenge. For others, it's seven straight hours practicing a snowboard trick and finally "nailing it." The ADD kid in one of my classes will spend hours practicing his guitar, fully focused and on-task. For the kid next to him, that would be torture.

As Churchill was rumored to have said, "There is nothing more exhilarating in this world than to have your enemy shoot at you ... and miss." If the "enemy" is the complicated new material, and the "miss" is your succeeding at the task in spite of a perceived "trick question" or a difficult learning process or a "difficulty with math", then the students do in fact achieve learning with that sense of exhilaration that we so often attribute to "fun activities."

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that the "fun" and the exhilaration came AFTER the success and hard work. The success was not caused by the fun.

All that you do by stressing the fun game that happens to teach math facts is to cement your place in the world as someone who is hopelessly lost, clueless and unconnected to the students.

Most of the time, the fun activity doesn't achieve anything other than to be a fun activity and save the teacher and students from working. They aren't going to learn much beyond the first gee-whiz moment. Certainly not any details or deeper understanding.

It's as simple as one blink of an eye. Take a look at these two pictures. Which kids are learning?

See what I mean?

But then I read the comments.
I loved this video! I think there is a lot of potential for making learning fun. Why assign a worksheet on multiplication facts when kids can play a game that reinforces the same concepts?
When I was a psych major in college I had a stats professor who felt that students learn best when experiencing an emotion – he chose fear, which doesn’t seem like the best choice. But why not excitement – joy? Thanks for sharing!
You can hear the ProfDev now: "Math should be fun. The kids should learn effortlessly. Video games will teach them. Why shouldn't we make shoot-em-ups that require the kids to solve math problems?"

What's wrong with this picture? For one thing, this wants to teach without working at it. "Math should be exciting, joyous?" Why does she feel this way? Perhaps it's because, for her, math isn't fun and games are the only thing she can think of. The sheet of multiplication facts might not excite you, but completing one correctly can excite a student.
...With the test in front of me, I started sweating, and my brain began buzzing, but I forced myself to calm down and keep my fingers still. Most of the problems seemed easy now, although I realized all my "shortcuts" had left me weak in long division. There were no red marks this time — I had gotten 100 percent right!
The shortcuts she's referring to are the calculator, counting on fingers, not completing certain practice drills by herself. Drill and kill. It wasn't "fun" so she "cheated."

There are plenty of puzzle-type video games. I happen to know many of them. Why don't kids play them? "Because they are BORING." The puzzles and problems are artificially inserted into the "story" and the whole thing runs counter to the reason most kids play video games. For fun, to conquer, to compete and win, to create and display, to show-off. "To solve math problems" isn't usually one of those reasons.

What happens almost immediately to kids playing a game with puzzles? If it has some fun elements, the kids will play it. If they run into a puzzle they can instantly solve, they solve it and move on. If they can't instantly solve it, they use cheat codes or look up the answer online. Then they go back to shooting monsters.

Great if you're selling a video game. Not a good model for education.


  1. I always figured math was about the endorphin rush you get when the "Aha!" moment happens ... when you see a problem in a new light and when the tiles tumble into place. Even if a million other people have figured it out before you, the joy of discovery is still there.

    I wonder if there is a physiological issue at play in learning. I remember one time my sister-in-law asked me how I could be so addicted to running that I wouldn't mind going out in the rain to do it. I told her that it probably was the buzz I got off of running that did it. She said that she never got that feeling, even during her high school track days. I had just taken it for granted that everyone experienced running in the same way.

    Is it possible that some students never experience a "eureka" moment? If so, that would explain this puzzling need by some people to "make math fun".

  2. Good point. It may be that those who choose teaching were not the best students. Since they never really "got" math and never really experienced it, they're passing on their biases to their students by focusing on the wrong aspect of it.

    One of the commenters over at the Jacobs piece wrote about how not everyone sees the intrinsic value and quoted some research to back that up. This has some merit.

    However, the constant focus on the immediate need for material and the "when am I going to use this" whine has led us to put that emphasis on everything. The problem is that most of what we teach in math is NOT "useful" for many Americans. They're doing just fine without it - witness the countless scams perpetuated on people every year.

    Additionally, I tend to think that the "fun" gets in the way of the "Aha!" moment. So we lose the "Aha" moment for some and lack any immediate relevancy for others and miss the boat for all.

    But then I've just finished a meeting that lasted until 5:30 and I'm probably not making a great deal of sense.

    I'll have to come back to this.