My dad used to get irritated when he’d hear somebody say, ‘Look at the choo choo train’ or, ‘That’s a dicky bird.’…he’d exclaim, ‘Why teach a child a three-syllable word when they only have to learn one?’ He was right. Why teach a child to say ‘Ta’ (cringe), when ‘thank you’ is what they’ll be expected to use later?
Playing ‘Crazy Eights’ the other day with small children – on the cards were pictures of weird looking vegetables – with eyeballs. I’m guessing that the idea of gamifying a game (!) – jazzing it up to dumb it down – was to encourage young children to play – to somehow make it easier… weird looking vegetables, after all, might be appealing to some – especially if playing with family or friends is somehow not enough (why not?). So, instead of just learning to recognise diamonds, hearts, spades, clubs and numbers, they were also processing (and possibly being distracted by) the eye-balled vegetables.
One of my eight-year olds used to become tearful when she couldn’t quite get 20 out of 20 for our daily multiplication quiz. She went home every day and, supported by her parents, put in a huge amount of effort to learn them. She made dramatic progress. Other children didn’t and, despite encouragement, still don’t; as a year group generally, we deployed several layers of incentives; we issued certificates, badges and occasionally, there’d be a special appearance by ‘Maths Man’.
For this one child, the certificates were nice…but her intrinsic motivation was always present and that’s what drove her. She didn’t need any of that jazzed up stuff – the learning was the reward. All children, surely, have that intrinsic motivation – well, they do before it becomes eroded by the learned expectation of ‘getting something’ in return. Even when they knew they’d receive a certificate if they did well, for some of them, it wasn’t an incentive. It’s not a fail-proof system. What are we missing? Maybe parental support? A certificate might fix that temporarily but it isn’t a long-term solution. Intrinsic motivation? How did they lose it in the first place?
As adults, do we think that a child can’t learn something new, or something better, without those external incentives? It’s a genuine question – the funny vegetable on a playing card, that Maths badge, or the sound of a relatively more playful word such as ‘choo choo train’? The thing is, that sooner or later, those extrinsic motivating layers fall away – if they motivate at all. They’ll have to play with a real pack of cards (why not start with one?), somebody will point out, ‘Dicky bird? What?!’ Or their teacher will forget the certificate… Do we want to lull children into that trap? Surely, when they’ve experienced success – when they’ve earned it – when they’ve seen and felt the difference it can make – when it becomes internalised and remembered, a certificate is rather a weak substitute, actually. A step further would be to say, that if the certificate or badge or housepoint is seen as the culmination of learning – the reward – then we’re definitely off track.
Learning is not always easy. Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult – but these little people we have in our care are designed to do just that…they’re the perfect age and we have them – the world’s best learners – in our classrooms, every day. The assumption that they’ll learn only if I make it fun, or if there’s a badge on offer, is possibly rather patronising. The problem is that as soon as you offer an incentive (other than the learning itself), bad habits can develop. It’s a bit like hiding the vegetables under the pizza in the hope that both will be eaten… If you want the vegetables to be eaten, don’t serve pizza.
I’ve always harped on about extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic and in my (idealist) head, we really shouldn’t have to be jazzing up teaching and learning in order to make it accessible to, or engaging for our pupils. We shouldn’t need to turn learning into games…and we shouldn’t be spending inordinate amounts of time trying to make things ‘fun’ because we’re concerned that children won’t engage if we don’t. What does that say about them? What does it say about us? What does it say about the content we’re teaching?
‘We played this really cool game in Maths… ‘OK,’ I say, ‘but what did you learn?’ Hmmm.
What happens when the ‘fun’ stops and they’re suddenly lost, having never needed to dig deep, internalise motivation or without any memory of actually feeling that deep-down success? If our pupils are asking, ‘Why didn’t I get a badge?’, we might need to rethink what we’re actually teaching them. It’s a precarious system – not only because it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the real world, but also because of the inevitable inconsistencies that come with trying to manage it. It’s a distraction – and if we’re constantly distracting our pupils from the business of learning, they might actually leave school having not learned much at all, really.
So, what’s the answer? Well, whilst I think making learning ‘fun’ isn’t necessary, I do want it to be fulfilling, satisfying and ultimately empowering. If we’re passionate and have high expectations, if they have good learning habits, if it’s meaningful, if they get to change their world with what they’ve learned, even just a tiny bit, why do we need to jazz it up? ‘Having fun’ isn’t necessary. Children thrive on learning stuff, they love knowing stuff, they love finding out more and applying all they’ve learned in clever, creative and meaningful ways.
That’s got to be enough, right?