At Online Educa in Berlin, they apparently had a debate on fun in learning. The proposition was “all learning should be fun”. And while the answer is obviously ‘no’, I think that it’s too simplistic of a question. So I want to dig a bit deeper into fun, engagement, and learning, how the right alignment is ‘hard fun’.
Donald Clark weighs in with a summary of the debate and the point he thought was the winner. He lauds Patti Shank, who pointed out that research talks about ‘desirable difficulty’. And I can’t argue with this (besides, Patti’s usually spot-on). He goes on to cite how you read books that aren’t funny, and that how athletes train isn’t particularly giggle-inducing. All of which I agree with, except this “Engagement and fun are proxies and the research shows that effort trumps fun every time.” And I think tying engagement and fun together is a mistake.
There is the trivial notion of fun, to be fair. The notion that it’s breezily entertaining. But I want to make a distinction between such trivial attention and engagement. For instance, I would argue that a movie like Schindler’s List is wholly engaging, but I’m not sure I would consider it ‘fun’. And even ‘entertaining’ is a stretch. But I think it’s compelling. Similarly with even reading books for entertainment: many aren’t ‘fun’ in the sense of light entertainment and humor, but are hard to put down. So what’s going on here?
I think that cognitive (and emotional) immersion is also ‘engagement’. That is, you find the story gripping, the action compelling, or the required performance to be a challenge, but you persist because you find it engaging in a deeper sense.
Raph Koster wrote A Theory of Fun about game design, but the underlying premise was that why games were ‘fun’ is that they were about learning. The continually increasing challenge, set in a world that you find compelling (we don’t all like the same games), is what makes a game fun. Similarly, I’ve written about engagement as a far more complex notion than just a trivial view of fun.
The elements of the alignment between effective education practice and engaging experiences demonstrate that learning can, and should, be hard fun. This isn’t the trivial sort of ‘fun’ that apparently is what Donald and Patti were concerned about. It is all about ‘desirable difficulty’, having a challenge in the zone that’s Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.
I agree that just making it fun (just as putting high production values on under-designed content dump) isn’t the answer. But just making it ‘work’ doesn’t help either. You want people to see the connection between what they’re doing and their goals. Learners should have a level of challenge that helps them know that they’re working toward that goal. You want them to recognize that the tasks are for achieving that goal. It’s about integrating the cognitive elements of learning with the emotional components of engagement in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The synergy is what is needed.
I think fun and engagement aren’t the same thing. So while I agree with the premise that learning shouldn’t be the trivial sense of fun, I think the more rigorous sense should be the goal of learning. We want learning to be a transformation, not just a trudge nor a treat. I’ll argue that the athletes and the readers and the others who are learning are engaged, just not amused. And that’s the important distinction. This is, to me, what Learning Experience Design should be, designing hard fun. And I think we can do this; my upcoming workshop at Learning Solutions is about doing just that. Hope to see you there!