Fun: A prescription for transformational learning

Fun: A prescription for transformational learning

I first prescribed fun as a key element of effective teaching and learning when I worked with children and young people. We all know don’t we that children learn better when they are enjoying themselves and when they are having fun. Anyone who has witnessed parents with their children is aware of the duality of fun and learning.

Over the past thirty years or so I have worked with a great range of people in many different ways. No matter what words my job descriptions used, at their core was an expectation that I would effectively communicate messages, enhance learning and facilitate the growth of others. When I was a youth worker it was young people. When I was a radio phone-in host, it was the general public. When I was a university lecturer it was students. When I was a senior manager in the NHS it was my team and their clients. As a coach and trainer, it has been the thought and industry leaders who I have worked with and their teams.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his now infamous Ted Talk “Do schools kill creativity?” tells us how as we get older and older educationalist feel that it is necessary to educate less and less of us. He takes us through the process whereby educationalist when we are children see the importance of play, creativity, dance and drama. As we get older the focus reduces as education is reduced to training for university or training for work. He (using bags and bags of fun) explains that in junior and infant school education is concerned with the development of the whole person. As we move up the education system, education limits itself more and more to developing just the logic side of our brain.

Many years ago I ran training centre for long- term unemployed people in southeast London. The electronics teacher came to me one day and said that he was finding it difficult to move forward in the curriculum because the trainees were very poor at mental arithmetic. I went into the room with him and we tried a few interventions with no real success. One day at lunch time one of the students brought in a dartboard. I sat in amazement as the students without calculators or thought were able to multiply, divide, add and subtract with speed to know what the next target for their dart should be. I joined in the fun, as we giggled together I developed a learning strategy based on darts and we successfully managed the transfer of core math’s skills to electronics. If only I had started a conversation with the students about maths and its place in their real lives instead of developing interventions with the electronics teacher!

I co-led an international community development expedition to China in 2009. On a break day, we took a group to climb the Great Wall of China. The fit young ones jogged to the top in fifteen or twenty minutes leaving me and the others to drag ourselves up step by step. When we reached the top thirty or forty minutes later we collapsed. We then started using sentences like ‘that was fun’ … ‘Wow, that was good’ … ‘that really hurt, but it was fun’! Fun I thought, I don’t remember any giggling or dancing on the way up! Fun is not just about those light moments when we are enjoying ourselves. Fun is also when we stretch ourselves when we truly engage our entirety in a challenge.

As a radio chat show host, I had to communicate every week for three years important sexual health issues. The programme was commissioned in light of what was then an impending HIV epidemic and very high teenage pregnancy statistics. In the one-hour phone-in programme I was tasked to interview researchers, politicians, professors, sexual health experts. As I am sure anyone in the media will agree the preparation of guests is key to the success or otherwise of the show. Much of my time in their preparation was re-connecting them with why they chose to do what they do. Teasing out what inspired them. Helping to make them feel safe. Teaching them that they can run with ideas, I am big enough to hold the space and keep them safe. Without these core elements satisfied, I would be left with a boring guest that wanted to talk policy or research or statistics in a totally unconnected way. With these core elements satisfied I had guests who were smiling who wanted to tell their stories, which could build relationships with an audience as they communicated difficult important messages.

In my prescription of fun in education, I do not mean always light-hearted, I don’t mean that we must always giggle with learners or that learners should always be ‘enjoying themselves’. My prescription calls for the educationalist, be they teachers or trainers or coaches or youth workers to take responsibility for their learners connection with what they love about what they do. To ensure that learners feel safe. To make some choices about how they learn. To operate in an inspiring environment. To encourage learners to take risks and be prepared to fail. To enable the learner to bring their entirety to the learning table.

It is when these elements come together that learners have the freedom to begin to have fun with themselves, play with their subject and truly engage with their own learning.

Michael Hamilton, AKD Associate 

Michael is an AKD Associate specialising communication skills, leadership and professional development.  Learn more about Michael here.