Friday, October 02, 2020

Fun, humour... it's place in learning...

Should all learning be fun? No one is against a bit of fun on principle but as an imperative for learning, it is an odd goal. It’s a word that rarely figures in learning theory or the psychology of learning, yet some swear by it motivational effect in games and gamification of learning through play.

One purveyor of mirth, during a keynote at a major global conference I attended, started with his usual appeal to the audience… 

Let me give you another word for fun - HA HA (that’s two words, 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.

Oh dear. This guy wanted all learning to be like Broadway. He then showed a police training video with six police officers dancing in a six-ball pool formation singing a song. Everything has to be fun? Eh… maybe not.

Icebreakers that go down like the Titanic

In practice, fun is often used to kick-start training sessions through ice-breakers. Although even here the dangers are evident. Whipping out a ukulele and singing The Jungle Book, stopping to ask for the next word is simply patronising (true story). Ice-breakers like this go down as well as the Titanic. Many dislike the touchy-feely stuff that passes for introductory fun and they can make educators and trainers seem frivolous, lightweight, even ridiculous. There’s no harm in setting the tone, and getting attention, as good trainers and facilitators do but making people squirm is not exactly the point.

Worst piece of online learning EVER?

Turning to fun in online learning, the worst example of online learning I've ever seen, was ridiculed by PewDiePie, a legend among his 100+ million YouTube followers. He lives in my home town, Brighton, and has built his reputation on videos that praise, review games. Unusually, this piece of US gamified, online learning on Cybersecurity was his target and he eviscerates it. It is a hilarious example of endless attempts at ‘fun’; condescending scenarios, special effects, awful multiple-choice questions, interspersed with screens packed with text, even a game within a game. 

It both looks and feels awful. Not sure where the art direction came from but it’s all over the place. All wacky cartoon-style learning. It tries SO hard to be engaging with 3D animated characters but they are straight out of the clichéd, clip-art, playbook. Then the animated effects that slide, whoosh and pop up like a disjointed, surreal dream. We need to sit our teams of content designers down, and scream out the simple principle – LESS IS MORE. We have decades of research showing that all of this ‘noise’ inhibits, not enhances, learning. 

It is clearly a game designed by someone who has no actual knowledge computer games, not uncommon in online learning design. So determined are they to gamify everything, they completely kill off the learning. You get a lot of this in online learning, badly executed, Pavlovian nonsense. Like one of those ‘so bad it’s good’ cult movies. It is funny but for all the wrong reasons.

How can I sum this up. It should be compulsory to show this example in ALL instructional design courses, as an example of how NOT to design learning experiences. It is so surreal that it could pass for a deliberate takedown of online learning. When online learning has come to this, you know it is time for a rethink. Enough already with the overblown cartoons, graphics and grotesque gamification. Stop. Slow down. Keep it simple. This is what used to be called edutainment but it is neither edu nor tainment, it is the ugly cul-de-sac of an industry that has abandoned learning for cheap media production. It shows the danger in over-egging ‘experiences’ forgetting that they must be ‘learning experiences’.


Humour has a useful role in life and also in learning, But again, ike the word ‘fun’ let’s not get carried away. Humour is best used sparingly, too lift things or play the role it plays in normal life. The harder, sharper term ‘humour’ is in many ways more interesting than ‘fun’. Humour plays an important role in social behaviour, cementing relationships, revealing attitudes and generally has a cohesive social effect. It can be used that way in learning. In learning it can introduce and disarm unease around sensitive concepts, grab and gain attention, lift learners when they are flagging. Jokes use incongruities, they raise arousal and depend on the fall, they provide relief. 

Yet grand theories of humour, from Plato to Freud have largely been abandoned in favour of a more detailed analysis in cognitive psychology, where it is seen as many different things in different contexts. And there’s the rub, you must be very careful with humour as its nature, how it manifests itself and value, varies from culture to culture. It is easy to come across as crass or insensitive. Then again, when the moment is right, it can have a place.

I’m a fan of stand-up comedy and attend the Edinburgh Festival every year and watch a ton a lot of comedy. But, honestly, I can barely remember a couple of jokes from the hundreds of hours I’ve ‘experienced’ at live comedy. It was fun but they were not ‘learning’ experiences. There’s a very big difference. 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.

There is a real danger in pandering to this kindergarten view of learning, where fun has to be injected into learning experiences. Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns.

Games and gamification

The massive success of online games led many to suggest that games and gamification, could be used to turbo-charge online learning. Take a little magic dust from gaming, sprinkle generously and we’ll all find it more fun, be more motivated and learn to love learning. But there’s pros and cons here, as it can both help and hinder learning. If gamification is simply scoring, bonuses and badges, the 21st century version of Pavlov's dogs, that would be a disappointment. So much gamified learning looks like a bad fruit machine. The simple stimuli, scores and rewards may keep learners going forward but it can distract from the learning, distract in the sense of encouraging the winning of the game rather than achieving learning objectives, shallow forms of engagement and the disappointment of playing astounding games at home and getting micky-mouse games in learning. The dangers is that of skating across the surface of content. It may will demand more cognitive effort, as the rules of the game and its mechanics will have to be understood and acted upon, for not much gain. The very word is off-putting for many. Don’t assume that because you like and play games that others have the same view. The danger is in taking learning back to the behaviourist era, with simple, Pavlovian, conditioned responses, or S-O-R theory. 

On the other hand, many proven, evidence-based pieces of learning theory seem to be congruent with games techniques, such as chunking, levels of performance, constructive failure, practice, doing and performance. It can be personalized when adaptive and provides specific advantages when repeated practice is necessary. Above all it has motivational qualities, although we need to be careful here as phenomena like leaderboards can have short-lived benefits.

I like the light touch gamification in Duolingo - sprints, adaptive and spaced practice. When gamification is congruent with good principles in learning theory, it has the power to increase the effectiveness of the learning.  I’m fond of the chunking, repeats and mastery but less keen on superficial scores, bonuses and badges. That’s not to say they don’t have a place but they often seem like a superfluous layer of complexity.


It is important that learners are motivated, attentive, listening, making the effort to understand and reflect, doing things, not just reacting. Audience reaction is arousal, not attention, what entertainment does. Audience focus, attention and participation is what learners do. Fun can certainly be used to raise attention, at the start of a learning experience. A list of dull learning objectives at the start of every course or module is no one’s idea of fun. Learning is about focused attention.

We should not mistake fun for other concepts, like attention, being engrossed, gripped or immersed in a task, in fact flow or being in the zone requires an absence of this type opf over-stimulation and arousal. 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 teaching is actually about performance or those whose only form of evaluation is ‘Happy sheets’, adhere to the nonsense that learning should be ALL fun. Others make non sequiturs, claiming that those who disagree that ALL learning should be fun, think that all learning should be dull and boring. No. Just because I don’t think that all clothes should be white, doesn’t mean I believe they should all be black. 

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 is what’s led to a lot of online learning being click-through cartoons, speech bubbles, largely the presentation of text, graphics and video, with little in the way of effortful learning, apart from multiple-choice options. 

It is not that 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. A touch of humour certainly helps raise attention but learning is not 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.

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 in online learning than presenting adults with hundreds of screens of cartoons, speech bubbles and endless clicking, in the name of ‘fun’.

'Fun', funnily enough, can be a rather sad word – like the children’s clown walking to the gate after a kid’s party, even tragic. It has the whiff of the kindergarden and diminishes and demeans learning. 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 a performance art, in the end tend to serve up the sort of nonsense that creates superficial, click-through, online learning. 

In truth, learning is about focus, attention, reflection (often serious introspection), retrieval, practice, application and transfer. Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns.


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