Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns - the OEB debate

‘All learning should be fun’ was the motion at the OEB Big Debate. No one is against a bit of fun but as an imperative for ALL learning, it’s an odd, almost ridiculous, claim. and sure enough there were some odd arguments. Elliot Masie, the purveyor of mirth, started with his usual appeal to the audience “Let me give you another word for fun - HA HA (that’s two words Elliot, but let’s not quibble)…. turn to your neighbour and say that without one letter. Some, like my neighbour, were genuinely puzzled ‘HAH?’ he said. I think it’s ‘AHA’, says I. Geddit? Oh dear. Elliot wants learning to be like Broadway. I saw him a few of weeks before show some eightball dance routine as a method for police training. 
To be fair Benjamin Doxtdator was more considered with his arguments about subversion in education and the fact that those who design learning were debating what was good not the learners – they were missing. But this was to miss the point. In deciding what treatments to give patients, one must appeal to research to show what works, not rely on the testimonies of patients.
Research matters
What was fun, was to watch anecdote and franky ‘funless’ arguments put to the sword by research. Patti Shank urged us to read Bjork, to consider the need for effort. Desirable difficulties matter and she killed the opposition with the slow drip of research. I suddenly noticed that the audience was not laughing but attentive, listening, making the effort to understand and reflect, not just react. That’s what most learning (other than Kindergarden play) is and should be. Patti Shank talked sense - research matters. Engagement and fun are proxies and the research shows that effort trumps fun every time. Learners may like 'fun' but research shows that learners are often delusional about learning strategies. What matters in the end is mastery, not just the feeling that you have mastered something but actual mastery.
On Twitter and during the audience questions, there were those who simply misread the motion, forgetting the word ‘all’. Some mistook fun for other concepts, like attention, being engrossed, gripped or immersed in a task. I have read literally thousands of books in my life and rarely chortled while reading them. Athletes learn intensely in their sports and barely register a titter. Learning requires attention, focus and effort, not a good giggle. Only those who think that ‘Happy sheets’ are a true indicator of learning adhere to the nonsense that learning should be all fun. Others made non sequiturs, claiming that those who disagree that all learning should be fun, think that all learning should be dull and boring. Just because I don’t think that all clothes should be pink, doesn’t mean I believe they should all be black! It's not that motivation, some fun and the affective side of learning don't matter, just that it is pointless motivating people to embark on learning experiences if they don't actually learn. This is not a false dichotomy, between fun and learning, it is the recognition that there are optimal learning strategies.
It is this obsession that led to the excesses of gamification, with its battery of Pavlovian techniques, which mostly distract from the effort needed to learn and retain. It’s what’s led to online learning being click-through, largely the presentation of text, graphics and video, with little in the way of effortful learning, apart from multiple-choice options. Which is why open input, effortful learning tools like WildFire result in much higher levels of retention. When designers focus relentlessly on fun they more often than not, destroy learning. There is perhaps no greater sin than presenting adults with hundreds of screens of cartoons, speech bubbles and endless clicking, in the name of ‘fun’.
A touch of humour certainly helps raise attention but learning is not stand-up comedy. In fact, we famously forget most jokes, as they don’t fit into existing knowledge schemas. Fun can be the occasional cherry on the cake but never the whole cake.
'Fun', funnily enough, is a rather sad word – it’s naive, paltry, diminishes and demeans learning and I came away from this debate with a heavy heart. There’s an emptiness at the heart of the learning game. A refusal to accept that we know a lot about learning, that research matters. The purveyors of fun, and those who think it’s all about ‘engagement’, are serving up the sort of nonsense that creates superficial, click-through, online learning. This is the dark, hollow world that lies behind the purveyors of mirth. Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns.

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