Too fun

Jay Greene, a fan of macaroni art, wonders why school can’t be more like summer camp, which his kids find enjoyable and often educational.

Forget it, responds Rory, a parent of five, at Parentalcation.

Is he crazy… my kids waste enough time at school on silly projects with no educational value.

My son’s gifted class last year was a lot like camp. The teachers idea of math enrichment was having them do some crazy number wheel..

I think camp is fun because it’s designed to be fun. If kids don’t learn Hebrew (two of Greene’s kids go to Jewish camp) or tennis or how to sprinkle the glitter on the glue, that’s OK. If they go to school and don’t learn reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, that’s not OK, no matter how much fun they had doing arts and crafts.

‘Fun and Interesting’ is overrated, writes Ken of D-Ed Reckoning. He quotes Vicki Snider, author of Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching, on the risks of overemphasizing fun activities.

First, fun activities lead to a lot of wasted instructional time. Second, activity-based instruction can make it difficult for learners to focus on what it is they are supposed to learn. Knowing what to pay attention to is called selective attention in the psychological literature and it is often a problem for young or naive learners or those with learning disabilities. Third, rather than increase motivation to learn, activities with a high entertainment value but a low content value may actually decrease the probability that a child will become a lifelong learner. Fourth, without effort and practice, individuals cannot master any intellectual or creative endeavor.

Snider also thinks that learning the basics to fluency makes further learning a lot less arduous and potentially more fun.

Many of the allegedly fun activities my daughter did in school didn’t strike me as fun at all, probably because I have no ability or interest in arts and crafts. I’m still suffering post-traumatic stress from trying to make her a George Washington wig in third grade. Cotton balls, Elmer’s Glue, no, no, no . . .

Update: Catching Sparrows defends age and experience in teaching.

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  1. and that’s the other problem: ALLEGEDLY fun activities.

    There’s an easy way to figure out what kids think if fun–you obeserve how they choose to entertain themselves when there is no grown-up around dictating what fun is.

  2. If you like to learn, learning is fun.
    If you come from a background where learning is valued, you generally respect (and often enjoy) learning.

    I enjoyed school when I was a kid. I was curious about stuff and I liked to read and to learn.

    I now teach college. I love my subject, I think it’s endlessly fascinating. I try to share that fascination with my students. The problem is, so many of the educational “experts” (even at the college level) seem to misunderstand the joy of learning….class has to be made “fun” or “relevant” or some-damn-thing.

    And the other problem is that culturally, there’s a tendency to belittle learning and people who enjoy it – “egghead,” “brainiac,” the stereotype of the nerdy kid with no social skills.

    I get really tired of meeting up with educational experts and having them respond in horror, “OMG, you LECTURE?!?!?” like I’m strapping the students to tables and shocking them with cattle-prods.

    Yes, I lecture. I teach advanced courses in biological sciences. I’m not going to spend an hour of class time each week (when we get barely 3) having the students talk about how some topic makes them “feel” or trying to do some “activity” to simulate a topic (that is what lab is for). Yes, we can discuss case-studies and the like. But I’m not going to dumb down my classes just in the name of trying to inject more “fun.”

    If students hate their major so much that they can’t stand to go to class without being entertained, they probably want to reconsider if they should be majoring in that subject.

  3. Perhaps my original post wasn’t clear enough. I was mostly interested in whether schools could be improved by imitating the staffing model of camps, not the content.

  4. Ideally, there should be a mix of stategies in any class. Even the above teacher, who lectures, has a lab section attached to the class. Lecture is least efficient when the student doesn’t have a body of knowledge that helps the lectures make sense. For high school and below, lab and hands-on activities in science are essential.

    But, that’s not just fun activities without purpose. Every lab needs to be followed by a whole-class discussion of what the lab MEANT. The teacher has to ask probing questions:

    * What is the relationship of the variables? How do you know? Show the data that leads you to that conclusion.

    * What if- questions – asking students to predict what the relationship would be if the dependent variables were doubled? tripled? squared?

    * How did you determine your math model? What does that y-intercept represent? How significant are your results? How strong is that correlation?

    All of the above are questions that high school students, with the assist of some technology, can learn to answer. This method leads to a fuller understanding of the science, and is NOT an aimless time-waster, but is necessary in giving students the background to understand readings and lectures.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    I almost posted without reading Jay’s comment and I would have said something very different. Maybe I will get to it.

    I am a veteran camper. I haven’t done the math lately, but for most of my life I totalled more summers in the woods than in the city. I have raised one well-seasoned camper (eagerly sought as a counselor) and one kid who limits his love of camping to a single one-week session in the summer.

    I have hit on the kinds of camp that Jay describes (expensive) as well as many many years at a camp where inclusion of kids without much money is a very high priority. I have experienced a whole sliding scale of staffing experiences, from a high level of experience and autonomy in every cabin, to a much more centralized planning experience that used the high enthusiasm, limited experience staffing that Greene describes. Both have points, and in fact the choice is pragmatic.

    While it may seem to teachers that camps have nothing to teach, I would personally prefer not to send my kids to a learning-optional camp (or school). The excellent camps I have experienced have teaching at their heart. Not necessarily the glittered macaroni, or how to build a campfire. These are sort of go-alongs, things that you do along the way, or that serve as vehicles for teaching some other more important things. These things have to do with how to live together and make decisions as a group, how to live wiht the consequences of choices, how to include a kid that nobody wants to be friends with.

    For many years my camping experience was about consciously filling in the holes in public education. We taught about labor unions, civil rights, the various struggles of oppressed peoples, the importance of public education, the workings of democracy, responsibilities of government, sometimes how to read, or tell time, or tie shoes.

    Greene is right. In the process, camp is hard–for the campers, for the counselors–but at the end, the take-aways are enormous. Certainly the ability to harness the enthusiasm of youth is an incredible piece of the mix, and could be utilized well in schools (and schools such as KIPP seem to have a handle on this) with appropriate structure and supervision. Imagine a path to teaching that required an intensive two year residency under the supervision of a master teacher. During that time the resident might work to organize the anarchy that is recess and eat lunch with students, observe teachers in classrooms and provide small group instruction. A cluster of residents might extend the school day by providing after-school program, or run the Saturday school. Imagine a substantial cluster of these residents at every school. It seems as though the teaching professions would be enriched, as well as the education of all students.

  6. I was interested in Linda F’s comment about the importance of hands-on labs. In my experience (as a high school student, as a college science student, and as a TA or community college instructor) there is nothing more frustrating that trying to do a lab without having a thorough understanding of the material from lecture (or the textbook). Depending on the lab, they often don’t work well enough (due to equipment or student error) to draw conclusions, but can be useful in showing how a concept that is already known would be used ‘in real life’.

    Despite doing pretty well in college and going on to do successful research in graduate school, there were very few labs that I actually thought were useful as an undergraduate. The best of them were great training for research and let us see how the techniques that we understood theoretically actually worked.

  7. Between Linda’s and lu-lu’s differing perspectives on science labs I’m definitely with lu-lu. Indeed I would go so far as to say that most conventional wisdom about labs is either shallow, or misleading, or misapplied, or just plain wrong. I have expanded my thoughts here .

  8. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I always found that the most educational part of a high school lab was NOT the lab itself. It was the writing of the dreaded lab-report after the fact.

    Actually, this might be a big help for schools that didn’t have the resources to have 2 or 3 labs a week (like my AP chem class did)

    Students could read an account of someone doing the lab, and then WRITE THE LAB REPORT for the lab……

    Though there are some lab experiences you can’t get in a book…. like watching a concoction explode and hit the ceiling from overheating— or watching an outlet start shooting sparks…. or jumping back and screaming when you spill a highly corrosive substance on yourself— only to learn that if you had paid attention to the LECTURE you’d know that the strong acide and strong base had miraculously changed into Salt Water and heat!

  9. SuperSub says:

    I have to disagree on the effectiveness of lectures in novel topics…
    I see (and use) lectures as a way to convey basic knowledge to prepare my students for lab activities. That way, when they perform an experiment, they are better able to predict the results and understand their observations.
    Without prior knowledge, the students have little chance of understanding what the lab meant.

  10. ucladavid says:

    When I was in school and in college, I enjoyed the classes where the teacher was interesting and enthusiastic about the topic. A good teacher through their lesson and enthusiasm can make any subject interesting. A bad teacher can make any subject boring. Students can see through an unmotivated teacher very quickly.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that what is intersting for me may not be interesting for you and vice versa. When you got 30-40 kids in a class especially in middle/high school, few activities will make all of the students interested. Likewise, not all teachers can make all of the students all of the time. Even the activities where most of the class enjoys like playing games and doing philosophical chairs will not please everyone.

  11. Yeah, Mary Poppins had some good advice. A little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down!


  12. To be fair Jay P. Greene posted on my blog and this one that he was talking about the staffing model, so while we have valid complaints against the idea to much camp activities in school, Jay isn’t a perpetrator.

    I will add that the staffing of summer camps appears to be arbitrary. The key difference is that summer camp counselers aren’t held accountable, and summer camps rarely have expected outcomes. If you learn it great, if not, at least you had fun trying.

  13. Independent George says:

    In high school, labs generally consisted repeating the procedures outlined in the lab manual by rote with little-to-no understanding of exactly what the experiment was trying to test, getting questionable results, then reverse engineering what the results ‘should’ be, and finally fudging the data on the lab report so that our reported data was within 15% of the ‘correct’ values.

    I suppose the reverse-engineering phase is pretty useful for learning the material, but everybody inevitibly the entire copied that from the smart kids who actually understood the lesson, thereby limiting what little benefit there was to the few kids in the class who really didn’t need it.

    Labs up through the 200-level in college were much, much better. We faithfully reported our shoddy results before reverse-engineereing what they were supposed to be, and then explained in detail why we couldn’t get those results in the lab report.

    I changed majors before I got to the 300-level classes, so I can’t relate what those were like.

  14. Unfortunately, one of the messages kids get when schools work too hard to “make learning fun”, is “well, of course, we all know that learning is not *really* fun”. What a great way to set kids up to be “life long learners”…

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading the various reactions to the “fun and fluff” issue and believe we’re all saying something similar, but in different words. It hits on my passion for motivating gifted kids to feel an inner desire to work to their maximum performance. Sometimes we use techniques to keep that spark alive without jeopardizing the depth of unerstanding that persists by getting to a substantive end result. Ohio teachers of the gifted should be following the same Ohio Standards that every teacher uses, with a push for higher expectations which are commensurate with the level of ability. That means acceleration of content. There should be rewards for excellence and this could well be one of the areas we could address. I would love to see the spotlight on various districts to “show” their knowledge to other districts who have a similar interest. We highlight sports events to the max. Why not highlight brilliance in a similar way. But regardless, that spotlight exists in every classroom where teachers can recognize talent and assist in demonstrating it according to the student’s motivational preference. I’m giving a keynote in Mississippi at their state gifted conference in Sept. Read the book Motivation Breakthrough by Richard Lavoi. If teachers take the Ohio Standards, break them down by indicators,accelerate, and let their district’s curriculum maps assist, we would definitely put meat to our programs and that, my friends, is what the politicians want. No more “fluff,”…..just motivational strategies to get to the highest content level.

  16. this makes me think of howard gardner’s writings on how children learn at museum programs.