Have Fun!

On the first day of Inquiry Science Institute’s Introduction to Inquiry, ISI faculty member Jim Effinger lists five things that participants will learn and do during the course of the week, promising that on the last day he will stand on exactly the same spot and run through the list to check whether or not we’ve accomplished what we set out to do. The last item on that list, but far from the least, is “to have fun.”

Jim Effinger Having Fun Teaching Science

Jim Effinger Having Fun Teaching Science

How many times have you heard that learning should be fun? Jim is certainly not the first to link the two. There are, for example, hundreds of Pinterest boards that have the words “Learning Fun” in their titles, several of which have thousands of pins. So, if you’re one of those people like me who believe in connecting those two ideas, you’re definitely not alone.

But visit schools in the U.S. today, and I would bet that you will find quite a few where fun is conspicuous by its overall absence. That’s not to say that American children aren’t having any fun in schools. It’s just that the importance of connecting fun with learning isn’t as clear as it once was. It’s certainly not on the top of anyone’s assessment checklist (except Jim’s).

In fact, in the entire Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument, the word fun appears exactly once — in an example of something a teacher might say at the Distinguished level of practice on Component 2b “Establishing a Culture for Learning.” The “Distinguisted” teacher might say, “It’s really fun to find the patterns for factoring polynomials.” Yep, that sounds like fun to me too.

With all due respect to Charlotte Danielson and her rubric, and I do sincerely respect both, we need to start talking again about fun as an essential element in learning. Are kids having fun in our classrooms? Are we having fun as we facilitate their learning?

In researching the connection between fun and learning, I ran across an excellent blog post by Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the ASCD. The essay, “Why Fun is Important in Learning” ties together research presented in three books that sound like must reads: Judy Willis, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher (ASCD, 2006); Laura Erlauer, The Brain-Compatible Classroom: Using What We Know about Learning to Improve Teaching (ASCD, 2003); and Eric Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind (ASCD, 2005). I strongly recommend that you read Slade’s article. It will give you ammunition should anyone complain that your students are having too much fun in your classroom.

Sean Slade says, “So fun actually seems to promote learning. It increases dopamine, endorphins, and oxygen!” That’s his claim. His evidence is drawn from scientific research via Judy Willis’s book.

“The human brain and body respond positively to laughter with the release of endorphin, epinephrine (adrenaline), and dopamine, and with increased breathing volume (more oxygen). When a lesson starts with humor, there is more alerting, and the subsequent information is attached to the positive emotional event as an event or flashbulb memory.”

In other words, having fun helps kids remember more of what you want them to learn. It gives them a flashbulb memory.

But the opposite is also true. Children who are afraid and under stress do not learn as well. Quoting Linda Erlauer, Slade says, “High levels of cortisol produced by long-term stress caused shrinkage of the hippocampus, resulting in memory impairment.”  Could some of that long-term stress come from too much high-stakes testing starting in early childhood?

Sounds like we might be shooting ourselves in the foot by taking the fun out of learning and by over-testing and thereby over-stressing, students. It makes me wonder, “Would student achievement in the U.S. rebound by the simple measures of restoring the powerful positive connection between fun and learning and reducing stress (and boredom)?”

Everything we know about human physiology, not to mention child development, says “Yes!” And that’s why ISI will always make sure that teachers have fun on their way to becoming inquiry-based practitioners. We want them to do the same for their students!

Here’s a portrait of teachers having fun learning.

Matrina Eno (Ford Heights) triumphant in the cricket race.

Matrina Eno (Ford Heights) is triumphant in the cricket race.

Here’s a video of a whole group of teachers not. (Open at your own risk.)

Which of these teachers is more likely to return to the classroom with useful knowledge and a renewed enthusiasm for teaching?

That sounds like a great investigable question.

Have fun this year testing your hypothesis!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here.

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