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.

 

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33 thoughts on “Are Teachers Entertainers?

  1. As Bill Clinton says, it all depends on what the meaning of “are” is … or, more accurately, “fun” and “entertainment.”

    If “fun” denotes cheerful enthusiasm, I don’t mind encouraging it. Some people think physics is fun. Others get great enjoyment out of poetry. The word is innocuous but it need not connote “mindless” frivolity. Personally, I like to see a little more eroticism and a little less escapism when I use the word, but that’s just me.

    Likewise, if entertainer is used to mean “engaging” or even the much overused “charismatic,” I don’t mind that either.

    Both “fun” and “entertainer” are words that need exclude neither “passion” or “knowledge.”

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      1. Yes, I read it. I appreciate that the issue was dealt with, but I was actually responding to Mgozaydin as much as to the original post.

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      2. I don’t know whether I was attempting to show that “two negatives makes one positive”; I simply meant that being “fun” (meant as “enjoyable”) and “entertaining” (meant as “engaging”) does not exclude being “passionate” and “knowledgeable.” The first refers to “style” and the second to “substance.” You can have one without the other, but it is better to have both.

        For example, I’ve been well “educated” by a number of excellent professors whose lectures were both witty and profound (e.g., the scientist Gregory Bateson, the critical theorist Henry A. Giroux, the philosopher Abraham Kaplan, the political theorist Henry Kariel and the historian Edward Thompson – to name just five whose names might be familiar to you). They combined erudition, a sly sense of humour, great love for learning and an extraordinary depth of understanding.

        I have also endured the superficial banter of “teachers” whose public performances amounted to nothing more than transparent attempts to ingratiate themselves with their audience, who were all style and no substance, and who displayed the pedagogy of a Rubik’s Cube. Immensely popular among the dimmer students, they sought only to be liked and not respected.

        None of this means, of course, that a sparkling wit and a comely stage presence are required of a great mind. I recall being in the presence of professors whose written work was first-rate but who were monotonous, tentative, stumbling, apparently fearful or even resentful at having to appear before groups of students at all. I may have loved their books, but I was almost embarrassed to hear them talk to students. They shall remain nameless here.

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      3. I don’t know whether I was trying to show that “two negatives makes one positive.” I simply meant that teachers can be: (a) both witty and profound; (b) witty but superficial; (c) profound yet painful to hear; and (d) monotonous and ill-informed.

        To be “fun” and “entertaining” AND passionate, knowledgeable and inspired/inspiring is best. I have been taught by a number of individuals who I think were not only witty and profound, engaging and knowledgeable and intensely involved in their disciplines, but also capable of making a singular difference in the lives of their students. I’ll mention just five of the most memorable: the scientist Gregory Bateson; the critical theorist Henry A. Giroux; the political theorist Henry S. Kariel; the philosopher Abraham Kaplan; and the historian Edward Thompson.

        I could identify many more in categories (b), (c) and (d), but I do not want to tempt the litigious among them.

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  2. As the esteemed philologist William J. Clinton observed, it all depends on what the definition of “are” is. Or, more accurately, on the definition of “fun” and “entertainer.”

    If “fun” connotes mindless frivolity, then I have nothing against it, but I am pretty sure it has little place in any classroom worthy of the name. On the other hand, some people think physics is fun and others think poetry is fun. If the term means enjoyable at a level slightly higher than hop-scotch, I’m all for it. Personally, I’d like to push the definition a little more toward the erotic than merely entertaining which seems to suggest distraction more than in-depth learning, but maybe that’s just me …

    Likewise, an “entertainer” can be rather vulgar comic in a seedy nightclub and, if that’s the aspiration of a novice teacher, I suggest she’s in the wrong game. On the other hand, some of the most informative, critical, inspiring and inspired lecturers I have heard have been entertaining if the word is used to convey “engaging” or even that terribly overused term “charismatic.”

    “Fun” and “entertainer” are not words that are necessarily inconsistent with knowledgeable and passionate commitment to learning. Sometimes even (or maybe especially) the most dense philosophical text or the most complex mathematical problem requires a Mary Poppins moment of mischief to help the medicine go down.

    What annoys me far more are the teachers and administrators who are so besotted with “method” and the importance of minimizing attrition rates that they are happy to jettison content for style. This applies equally to technophiliacs who are desperate to put every thought into 140 characters so our “tech-savvy” students won’t fade away at the sound of a polysyllable. But that’s another story …

    For the moment, we should content ourselves with considering what purposes “fun” and “entertainment” are intended to serve. If they are to build bridges to students, to display a sense of involvement and to show that studying something of importance is inherently worthwhile, then I’m all for it.

    If they are just scummy “teaching techniques” intended to keep the little darlings amused until graduation, then put an sock in it … NOW!

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    1. It seems that there are two versions of my comment: one already posted and the other under review. That’s my mistake, since I inadvertently “sent” the shorter before I’d finished it and then couldn’t find it and so I tried again.

      I’ll shut up now before I make a “foole” of myself.

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  3. Again I seem to display ineptitude in sending a reply properly and have again doubled my output in quantity without adding an iota of quality. I must sign up for “Introduction to Blog Comments 101.”

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  4. So long as teaching is the goal, “entertainment” can be an effective method or ruse. For more than forty years as a college professor I led with humor and then bootlegged in as much education as I could. Through innuendo, sleight of hand, and verbal jujitsu I sometimes turned entertainment into reflection and even critical thinking. I called those teaching moments, and because I was prepared, passionate, and lucky, we (the students and I) often experienced two or three of these teaching moments in a class period.

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    1. Thanks for the response — how do you distinguish classroom entertainment that has teaching as the goal from classroom entertainment that does not? It’s not a rhetorical question: I think you do actually distinguish between the two and can tell me. I also notice that you’re talking about two or three “moments” during a 50 minute or more class session — what filled the other moments?

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      1. I never attempted to “entertain” without teaching as the goal. The entertainment (games, humor, irony, asides, puns, teasing, etc.) were used to get attention, to hold attention, or to return attention to the lesson for the day. It was the bright wrapping on the package, the spicy condiment in the stew, the lagniappe in the deal.
        What filled the other moments in a class period? The business of the day, the lesson, the hard work, the muddling through. Somebody said, “Life is what happens while we are making other plans.” Rare, pure gold teaching moments occur spontaneously when teachers are good and eat their spinach and work their butts off to prepare a lesson and then put their hearts into its delivery.
        Example of what I am calling an entertainment strategy? I chose to teach mostly English Comp I even after I became chair of my division and made the teaching schedules. (I think as you do that better reading, writing, and critical thinking are what education is.) One of my goals early on was to disabuse freshmen of the notion that the essay is a five-paragraph creation with a three-part thesis. I would with my most serious face on send students out to find this phenomenon in print anywhere–in magazines, editorial pages of newspapers, collections of essays, their textbooks. I offered an A in the course to anyone who succeeded. I never had to make good on my promise of an A, and the game led us into some teaching moments on deductive and inductive patterns, supporting generalizations with specifics, thinking outside the box, veering off the beaten path, essaying or attempting to make meaning on paper.

        Good discussion. I think it interesting that when I became aware of your question I was working on a scene in my third novel in which my protagonist, a college English teacher, feels compelled by a rather dry police officer to defend his use of humor in the classroom. Oscar

        .

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      2. Ha… what a coincidence indeed. And I think it’s great that you’re voluntarily teaching freshman comp.

        That’s a good exercise about the five paragraph essay too. I explain to students that we’re expecting development of thought in the essay, not a simple point that’s supported and then repeated at the end. The idea that started the paper should be more complex and nuanced by the end.

        Jim

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    2. Well done!

      The best compliment I’ve received is that “you made us laugh and you made us think.”

      Next best: “you didn’t stoop to teach but you made us stretch to learn.”

      Ah, would that I’d always been that successful.

      If, however, I’d followed the “skills training” version of pedagogy, I’d have achieved nothing,

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      1. Well, if the goal of teaching is warm student compliments, then by all means — entertain. But if you care about students actually learning material and learning how to read and write and do math — entertainment is just one tool. For my part, as a college instructor, I think we need a lot more people caring about students’ ability to read and write and do math than about students not getting bored in the classroom…

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  5. Thanks for the reply, Folio and Ink (I really like your work, btw — great blog) — I’m trying to define three levels of enjoyment here:

    1. Entertainment (passive)
    2. Fun (active, may or may not be mindless)
    3. Pleasure (natural by-product of our participation in an essential good, like eating)

    Really, there’s room for all three within an educational context, but I want to emphasize the third, and remind us all that learning is a natural pleasure. I think mandatory public education leads us to forget that.

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  6. Learning should not be boring. Children might find serious teachers high and mighty instructors. Teenagers will love to skip classes. College students might say the weirdest things to get laughs.
    Teachers as entertainers? It depends on what subject or course he/she teaches. They are many ways to engage students so they can feel educated. You identified some of them.
    For my part, I remember teachers who made me feel comfortable in class. The rest, I forgot their names and their faces.

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    1. I’ve received many, many responses to this blog — probably more than all of my other ones combined (both here and on LinkedIn). It’s interesting to me that almost everyone latches on to the immediate question and gives the obvious answer — of course we shouldn’t be boring. It’s a throwaway question, really. What are the broader implications of the inherent pleasures of learning?

      When we say that teachers ought to entertain so that students can learn I think we reveal that we’ve forgotten that learning itself is a pleasure — so what we do with entertainment and fun is try to move students from superficial pleasures to deeper ones.

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      1. Indeed, we have to teach correctly. However, is there any harm if the lessons appear entertaining or fun? You can teach music using mathematics but is it easier if you teach it using the real instruments? Teachers will adapt to the specific situations. It’s their decision which path to take.

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  7. Belsbror —

    I’m taking it for granted that teachers need to be as engaging as they can within the constraints of their material and institutional support. Once we’ve agreed upon that, where do we go from there? I’m really not concerned with answering the question, which to me is obviously yes, but with considering how our answers relates to the task of learning.

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  8. A teacher is always a entertainer if he or she cannot teach without his or her lecture mixed with a little fun, most of the student would be yawning as I was doing in some lecures, forty years ago. Khalid kafeel, Azamgarh, India

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