Engage me or enrage me

There is an interesting discussion going on in the formal education’s corner of the blogosphere on how to engage students.

Marc Prensky started it here at «Educause Review», Dennis Fermoyle over at «In the Trenches of Public Education» picks it up here, and Chris Lehmann of «Practical Theory» puts his two cents in here.

Quite interesting discussion, really.


Does learning always have to be fun?
Can it all be done by playful exploration?

I wonder.

Sometimes, let’s be honest, learning stinks and sucks. Doesn’t it?

Learning vs fun…

And despite all the sweet stereotypes about non-formal education being all games and fun, learning also stinks and sucks in any experiential learning activity – no matter how funny it might be to watch.

Chris brings the discourse a little closer to non-formal education and learner-centredness:

«What we have to gain from Prensky’s argument isn’t that we should use games to teach, even if that is what he suggests. What we have to gain from the argument is this — what is it that our hobbies have in common that engage us? What is it that causes us to fall in love with doing something such that we can do it for hours?»

And he adds elsewhere that

«in all the writing we do about 21st Century tools and new ways of learning, it’s important to remember that, in the end, it’s still about the personal connections we make. It’s about connecting with our students, sharing our passion for learning with them, and sharing their energy and their ideas.»

Something which is indeed forgotten far too often.


  1. In my view it’s engagement we’re seeking to facilitate, not fun. Fun is both the occasional by-product of engagement, and the carrot we as curriculum planners use to draw in the attention of the learner. Things may as well be enjoyable if they can, but learning, taking place through true engagement, does indeed sometimes stink and suck – as things don’t always go to plan, do they? It is easier to engage learners if the activity is not blatant drudgery, however. . . .

  2. I agree that we are seeking to facilitate engagement, but does engagement happen when something is not enjoyable? I would not wash aside the fun-discussion so easily, even though I wrote myself that learning can not always be fun…

    But isn’t fun more than a mere by-product? Should learning not always begin with something enjoyable, and finish with an enjoyable (or at least: appreciated) note?

    I don’t quite think that ‘not blatant drudgery’ is enough to faciliate engagement. Is it?

  3. No, I agree, the absence of drudgery definitely isn’t enough. And while I think that classes should begin and end with something enjoyable, learning doesn’t always follow this pattern – the real learning might take place the night after the class, when “the penny drops” having spent two hours working laboriously through a badly written handout. While we can manage the classroom situation, I feel that unfortunately we cannot always facilitate learning – although making the educational setting enjoyable and attractive will of course increase your chances!! :)

  4. Yes exactly!

    In a way, every learning process (beginning with an initial experience and ending with an insight or a conclusion) should ideally start and finish with something enjoyable.

    But of course, learning often goes beyond the time units we (can) allocate to them as educators. When a class finishes on a thoughtful note, or people leave a session angry or irritated – fair enough. As long as it leads (not even to a happy ending, may be just) an appreciated end, this is not only ok – sometimes it is necessary.

    But then again: is learning not too complex for us to try and press it into schemes such as fun in the beginning, joy in the end?

  5. in a way though, that model of “fun in the beginning, joy in the end” mimics the natural learning that takes place when the curiosity of a child leads him or her to look further and explore – so maybe this is another reason to model it this way in the classroom, so that even just for a percentage of the learners present, they can go through the processes that come naturally?

  6. You have a point there, absolutely. But when we take it from here: Where, I wonder, do we fit curiosity in our sweet model mocked up in our previous comments?

    What I mean is, for example, this very typical behaviour of mine: Whatever my mom or dad said about stuff being dangerous or hot or spicy – I had to try, taste, touch. And boy was it painful! I still have scars of that time today :)

    So is curiosity joy, fun — or both or something else?

  7. people like Leni Dam in Denmark and David Little in Dublin have developed a great practise in education, based on harnessing natural curiosity. Leni Dam works with children aged 10-12 as far as I remember, teaching them English, and enjoys amazing results by allowing the learners to choose the content of their learning experience – they can study anything they want as long as it’s through the medium of English – so some kids learn about windsurfing, some about movies, some about music, whatever – it’s entirely learner-centred – they just have to document their learning in a learning journal ,and do their research through English. Even from absolute beginners. Her work is amazing.

    So I think that in an ideal world where syllabi aren’t dictated by a Government body, curiosity joy and fun all have a place – as the drivers and fruit of engagement with the world around us.

  8. Joy based on and developed through natural curiosity :)

    I guess we are trying something very similar in non-formal education, which is supposed to be learner-centred by definition (though sometimes it is not).

    When we run a training course on project management, it is the choice of participants which topics, themes and entry-points they choose – as long as they study them through the lense of project management.

    Complementary to Leni and David we work with people of other age groups as well, and sometimes we fail simply because people do not choose their topics by themselves – often they are determined by the organisations in the background, by superiors in the hierarchy.

    That is the disadvantage of working with adults, sometimes anyway: their natural curiosity is often restricted by more powerful interests. A shame, really…

    Thanks for the tip with Leni – I might get in touch and see whether we can write something up and publish it here.

  9. I totally agree about adults’ natural curiosity being overshadowed by other things – sometimes shyness alone is enough to stifle it.

    Leni has published at least one book through the Centre for Language and Communication STudies at Trinity College Dublin. Hope it’s useful.

    best regards, and complements on the site.

Comments are closed.