Fun, Joy and Flow: The Unloved Words in Education
by National Hall of Fame teacher Alan Haskvitz

There is little doubt that fun and education standards are mutually exclusive terms. The demands for teachers to produce students with higher test standards is universal. Indeed, Common Core is built on that premise. Better marks mean better students. Better students mean a richer nation. All this is well and good for some, but the real keys to student learning are three fold. First, the goal should be to teach the students how to learn. Secondly, to develop questioning skills and thus create citizens not easily swayed by propaganda, false advertising, and the cult of looks or personality. Finally, to promote a joy and love of learning.

Acres of forests land has been denuded to produce research on how students should learn. Everything from the types of learning to testing to insure learning to classifications for those who don’t learn well have been documented. Critical thinking is the common core of Common Core. Despite research that points out that brain growth in children would make critical thinking next to impossible for younger children. Regardless, it is always good to get students to ponder.

What I am rallying for is to retain, promote, and insist upon keeping the fun in education, and I don’t mean having class parties. Fun is the real backbone of learning. It does not have to be formal or take the form of a computer game. What it does have to have is for the ability of the child to be able to learn creatively in a manner that creates a flow or zone learning opportunities.

Brain research has shown that long term memory can be enhanced by fun activities. Many of you readers can’t remember a teacher’s name, but the field trip stays with you. Judy Willis writes that the fun of having students discover the answer encourages enthusiasm for the subject. I have often seen teachers use a “sponge” activity to start a lesson, but not many were imbued with fun. When I teach my students mnemonic devises I stress silly ones. They retain them better and are eager to share ones that they have created with others. Having students apply their learning skills trying to write out a line or two from a short story that would show the character was using propaganda and having them share it makes students more eager to read the story and research the types of propaganda that could be used in the created passage. This type of fun activity makes for a positive emotional state and the personalization of the material wakes up the student. Such fun based learning activities also reduce stress and high levels of stress can actually reduce the size of the hippocampus and thus impair memory. You can easily see that when an unsure student is asked a question and “freezes.”

Fun makes learning relevant to students. It is no longer a meaningless event, but one in which they enjoy putting their personal stamp on and sharing it with others thus building cooperation. By no means does that mean that every lesson must be fun reliant, but it does mean that having fun activities, as almost all teachers know, creates a better atmosphere for learning. Creativity surges during play related activities and makes the lessons more pleasurable and stimulating.
The fun lessons could extend to all classes and to assignments at home. For example, the student could read about a character in history and explain it to his parent or guardian and have them write a note explaining why this historical person was absent from class. Sure, the answers might be simple: I am dead. But the lesson about the person should be long lasting for all involved. And asking the students to share could bring about additional learning possibilities.

Having fun and working do not have to be opposites in the classroom or in life. Someone in charge, or a rich person who thinks being rich qualifies him or her to influence decisions about education, should be given a remedial class on the benefits of play on the human body and mind and learning. Why not have students create their own games for physical education classes? In science class how about having students studying the periodic element table create comic books about their element? In Language Arts class use as a sponge activity to enhance the student’s imagination with real life stories.

The point is that having fun in class contributes to the essence of low in learning and can be a positive way to reinforce lessons, encourage learning, and to reduce stress. Every college teaching preparation program should have at least one section on how to make fun lessons. At schools across the country the principal should ask the teachers to share their fun lessons and encourage them to develop new ones. Administration reviews should also include a comment on the flow of the lesson placing the emphasis on the way the students reacted to the lesson and appeared to be motivated by it.

Above all it must be remembered that fun does not mean party time or joke telling. Fun and enjoyment of a lesson must result in learning and offers students intrinsic motivation. It means having some lessons that provide learning in a fun way. University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and found the fun is not easy to define, but he listed some attributes. Among his findings was that there is a difference between pleasure and enjoyment and that the latter is far longer lasting and needs more skill. Enjoyment is relaxing and can result in a situation where time is no longer an element of consideration. Lessons that find the class so involved in a fun learning activity that the end of the period finds them scurrying to find their book bags with some reluctance is something most teachers can relate to and is evidence that a fun lesson need not include laughter.

The bottom line is that learning should provide pleasure regardless of the topic. The motivation must come from within, but the teacher needs to find the lesson that will push this motivation into a product without undue coercion. Preparing for a test by reviewing may result in short term learning, but having the students creating their own questions to give to others makes the learning more enjoyable with a myriad of ways to provide longer lasting retention.
Learn by doing is an excellent way to instill this flow into a lesson. For example, the students read a chapter of a book and teams are chosen to rewrite the chapter from another viewpoint and all of the narration must be written in one syllable words. I have found that the best way to improve flow is to have the students create something tangible to share. It does require higher level thinking skills and thus promotes critical thinking, but for many students the lessons needed to create the item become more ingrained and the experience becomes more pleasurable.

Fun, joy and flow are as related as peanut butter and jam. They go together. Yes, they can be separated, but they aren’t as good. When a student has fun learning it turns to joy and is the best reward of all, intrinsic. That fun and joy result in a flow of pride, enjoyment and appreciation of learning, and long term changes in attitude. Every subject needs to be rethought. Common Core does supply the basics, it is the creative teacher that needs to supply the student centered learning that achieves the goal.

Finally, don’ t reinvent the wheel. There is an abundance of lessons that can be customized to fit your needs after some fine tuning. Sharing what you have done with others also can provide feedback to improve your lesson. Above all, make learning fun even if it figuratively kills your old lessons.