Learning Is NOT Fun

When I was in school there was this strange cult of crazy-eyed teachers who would proselytize to vulnerable students about how much fun learning is.

Learning is most definitely NOT fun.
Knowing things is fun.

Knowing how to speak a language fluently is caramel-coated euphoria! Learning how to speak a language fluently is like drinking old milk from a dungeon bucket.

Telling people “learning is fun,” when it isn’t, sets people up for failure — especially young people. It cultivates foolish expectations and, when fun is nowhere to be found, students withdraw themselves and embrace sad falsehoods, like “I hate school,” and “I don’t care.” When they experience no fun they will assume there is a problem with them.

There isn’t. They were lied to. Learning sucks.

Knowledge is power. But, if this is true, then learning is an exposure of our powerlessness. It is uncomfortable.

It is the joy of mastery, the pleasure of competence, that makes us hunger for more. Knowing already is fun, we just need to give students opportunity to feel it. Learning is not fun, and trying to make it so comes off as phony and manipulative. So stop toiling to make learning fun and spend more effort exposing students to the thrill and power of what they already know.

All the great minds in history understood this. René Descartes was so unimpressed with his “fun” schooling that he suggested to his teachers: “I learn better at home on my own.” And they bought it! Descartes would lay in his bed all morning just staring at the ceiling, thinking. (On one of these mornings he saw a fly buzzing near the ceiling. He realized, if he wanted to, he could communicate precisely where that fly was at all times with just 3 numbers (distance from the ceiling and the 2 walls). And so was born Cartesian Geometry).

Charles Darwin developed a deep passion for learning, but that passion was not nurtured in the classroom. “No pursuit at Cambridge…gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles,” he recalled in his autobiography. Cambridge, one of the greatest learning institutes ever, was no match for Darwin’s own curiosity. The zeal he developed, on his own, is undeniable:

“One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then, I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue, so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

You think showing kids projector slides of beetles would invoke such passion? Not a chance! This passion emerged from Darwin’s pre-existing familiarity with beetles, which emerged from his interest in collecting beetles, which probably emerged from trying to understand, say, how beetles make the noises they make, which probably emerged from an encounter he had with a strange beetle — probably when he was skipping school.

Of course, a student can develop a love of learning. But that love of learning develops as an inertia from experiencing the power and thrill of what we already know. No drunk first comes to love hard liquor for the taste. They tolerate the taste to get to the experience of drunkenness — which can be so pleasurable that one can then begin to grow a taste for the liquor as well.

Using what we know compels appetite, and tolerance, for learning. It’s about more than simply “applying what you have learned,” though that helps too, I’m sure. It’s about starting with what you know, exploring it, questioning it, trying to get as much out of it as you can, and seeing where all that leads.

Learning can become fun, but not by trying to make learning fun. Learning becomes fun by discovering and experiencing how much fun knowing is. And I have found, as a teacher, the better I am at making my content important to what my audience already knows, the more effective I am at teaching.


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