children-playing-250x249I’ve been following a discussion on LinkedIn in which one instructor has taken the position that teachers are entertainers because learning should be fun, and another is taking issue with him — he maybe agrees that learning should be fun, but he’s doubtful that teachers are entertainers. I think it wouldn’t hurt to consider how we use the words “fun” and “entertainment” when we think about classroom experiences and instructor’s roles.

We tend to say that we’re “entertained” by films, plays, concerts, stand-up comics, etc. Actors, comics, and musicians are entertainers. Being entertainers, they perform while we watch, and we enjoy what we’re watching. The important thing here is that when we’re being entertained, we’re passive. However, we have fun at the beach, the carnival, or when we’re playing games. When we’re having fun, we’re active. So by these definitions, whenever instructors are acting like entertainers, students are passive observers, but when students are having fun, they’re engaged — they’re doing something. So if instructors are entertainers, students aren’t having fun.

But to say that students should have fun in the classroom doesn’t seem quite right either: “fun” seems mindless (though it doesn’t have to be), and mindless isn’t what a college classroom should be. I think we should abandon the notion of fun altogether and adopt the idea of pleasure instead, so that we think about learning as an advanced form of pleasure. I’m drawing here from Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he distinguishes carefully between the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the soul:

Neither practical wisdom nor any state of being is impeded by the pleasure arising from it; it is foreign pleasures that impede, for the pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.

There are pleasures that impede growth and pleasures that foster growth, and learning is one of the pleasures that foster growth. Aristotle calls these pleasures “natural.” They’re like eating. We eat so that we can live, and pleasure is a natural by-product of our eating, but not the purpose of eating. Learning is supposed to work the same way. We learn so that we can live and grow, and the natural by-product of learning is pleasure, but pleasure isn’t the purpose of learning. It’s just a by-product. When students truly learn, when a light comes on and they see something — maybe even the whole world — in ways that they haven’t before, those students experience a deep pleasure that makes them want to learn even more. As we learn, our ability to gain pleasure from learning grows with us.

Strategies for increasing the pleasure of learning:

  • “Big picture” teaching — teaching that relates the material to students’ own lived experiences, prior knowledge, and future lives.
  • Minimizing (though perhaps not eliminating) lectures and involving students in more activities: have them do something with the knowledge they acquire.
  • Problem solving activities are perhaps the best. Pose a problem for students to solve with the material at hand.

These strategies work, usually. Are they limited?  Of course — by reasonable class sizes, by the amount of instructor support, and by students’ prior learning experiences, which usually involve having all of the imagination and pleasures of learning beaten out of them by test preparation instruction — and by hours of mindless fun in front of a television set or playing a video game. But I’ve also seen students resistant to learning have their heads turned by these strategies.