Learning is ‘hard fun’

Learning as ‘hard fun’

by Helen Mclean with help from Jon Hurford

We all wish for our students to experience meaningful learning. We want them to have experiences that are more than the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Experiences that challenge previously held beliefs and attitudes; experiences that go beyond meeting the required outcomes and have the potential to transform our students into lifelong learners.

This kind of learning is usually difficult and challenging. We are trying to let students in on the ‘fun’ that we have as more experienced learners who have already put in the ‘hard’ work.

So how can we make learning interesting and exciting to hold students’ attention but not turn them off with perceived frivolity or intensity as they work hard to internalise cognitive abilities that will establish them as independent learners and competent practitioners in the future?

The constructivist paradigm suggests that effective and meaningful learning is inspired through activities that are social, active, involve lots of thinking and that aim to create outcomes that are new… sounds a bit like fun really! It’s also likely to be a careful blend where learning has substance and challenge and where the learner comes away with a sense of it having been worth doing. And you don’t get much closer than that to a definition of ‘hard’.

How do you get the balance right between learning that is energising and makes you laugh and learning that gets you sweating just a bit through effort?

No doubt you have been able to keep your students’ attention while introducing difficult concepts (hard) that draw on examples in the real world (fun). Or perhaps you have worked with them to master techniques (hard) in mediums that are inspiring and engaging (fun) that will enable them to perform more fluently as a practitioner.

Mathematician, computer scientist and educator at MIT, Professor Seymour Papert, one of the developers of Logo and Lego Mindstorms, calls this way of learning ‘hard fun’ (Papert, 2002). Inspired by a child’s comments about learning the programming language Logo, Papert argues for learning experiences that are fun because they are hard (Papert, 1996, in Barrow, 2005). That is, experiences should appeal to students’ interests and enjoyment but should also be challenging and stretch learners to develop their own good habits. He advocates that bringing fun into learning does not detract from the hard work and discipline of learning but rather is enhanced by the connection to a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, realized through a sense of achievement, concentration and discipline.

Barrett (2005) helps in unpacking Papert’s notion of ‘hard fun’ in learning. He suggests the qualities of ‘fun’ include experiences of creativity, freedom and playfulness. He suggests that the ‘hard’ in learning might involve seeking answers to challenging problems (see Problem-Based Learning), being actively engaged in doing and thinking and questioning and changing ones beliefs and attitudes. Perhaps you are already using these combinations in the learning experiences you design.

It may seem all very well to design learning that is ‘hard fun’, but the reality will be that not all students will enjoy it at the time. They may object, wriggle, complain, be anxious or disengage. How successfully this mix of ingredients comes together relies on the environment you create for your students that makes the value and purpose of all that is occurring explicit to them. How do you then preserve the momentum so they will stay for the entire ride? How do you assure them that what they are experiencing will be worthwhile? Have you explained to them the purpose of what they are experiencing to help them through those periods of hard slog? How do you show them that fun is on the horizon? Are there times when you should be direct and let students know that what they are doing is hard and stays hard but that their work here will give them the edge over those who find it too hard?

Finally, remember that many of your students may only realise in hindsight that the ‘hard fun’ experiences (or just the plain hard ones) you guided them through led them to something as significant as their career or their calling. Or even that these experiences shaped them as individuals, more ready to navigate a complex world.

Barrett, T. (2005). Lecturers’ experience as problem-based learners: learning as hard fun in Handbook of Enquiry & Problem Based Learning. Barrett, T., Mac Labhrainn, I., Fallon, H. (Eds). Galway: CELT.

Papert, S. (1996). The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap. Atlanta, Georgia: Longstreet Press.

Papert. S.(2002). Hard Fun. http://www.papert.org/articles/HardFun.html (accessed 21 March 2012).

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