Should Learning be Fun?

I recall reading about a calculus teacher who taught in a gorilla suit one day to make his class more entertaining. This was lauded by some as a good thing. It is absolutely not a good thing! The unintended message is that calculus is so intrinsically boring that clowning around is needed to make it palatable.

Ideally a teacher should be interested, enthusiastic, excited about his or her own subject. Then the teacher’s main task is to communicate that interest, enthusiasm, excitement to his or her students. This can be a challenging task, especially for some audiences, but it is a worthy one. Teachers who continually learn new things are good models for students. If you yourself see no intrinsic value in what you are teaching, perhaps it is time to find something else to do.

To be clear, communicating your enthusiasm for a subject is not necessarily entertaining, although it might be. Entertainment should not be the primary goal. Stimulating thought in your students, stimulating appropriate action in your students, that is the primary goal of teaching. Ultimately a student’s success depends on his or her own actions. You can be the best teacher in the world, but if your students don’t do the right work on their own, they won’t succeed. And you can be the worst teacher in the world, but if your students do the right work on their own, then they will succeed.

Clearly it’s better to be a good teacher, as then you have a better chance of inspiring your students to do the right work. But being a good teacher is not a simple matter. I have always adopted a happy tone in my own classes over the years, and this has been well-received by my students according to anonymous teaching evaluations. But other teachers have produced very good results by being stern; to each his own. What matters most is how well you inspire students to do their work. Each teacher will have his or her own way of doing this, in harmony with their own spirit.

My friend and colleague Ed Sternin has remarked that the better job he does as a teacher, the worse his students do. This may sound paradoxical, but it makes sense in the context of our discussion so far. If a teacher does too much for his students, then they may not do enough on their own.

Back to the title of this post: Should learning be fun? A superficial answer is yes, but a deeper examination of the question brings us to a key principle of learning, and also of life. Each person is responsible for his or her own life. When you realize this, you stop blaming others for your own problems, and get to work to resolve them. In fact, a good measure of maturity is whether you take responsibility for your own life. Similarly, each student is responsible for his or her own learning. Stop complaining about the prof being an idiot, and making that an excuse for your poor results!

This was my attitude when I was an immature student. If I liked a prof, then I tended to like the subject, and I worked harder at the subject, and I did well. If I didn’t like the prof, then I tended not to like the subject, didn’t work enough, and did poorly. This is a dumb attitude, and reflects my immaturity at the time. At some point I wised up and realized that I could learn something even from teachers whose personality I didn’t enjoy. If you are a student, I wish that you will learn this lesson a lot faster than I did!

If you love learning, then bring your own enthusiasm to your courses. Don’t rely on your prof to be entertaining; if your prof is entertaining, then that is a nice bonus, but it is not essential if you are bringing your own sense of joy to your own learning process. Even if it’s cloudy outside you can bring your own sunny weather inside your own head!

For me, playing sports is fun. I really enjoy playing squash with my brother, for example. Neither of us is a very good player, but we are about equally-matched, we try hard when we play, but neither of us cares who wins or loses. We enjoy the process, and we always come away happy, win or lose, provided neither of us is injured. The outcome of our matches does not bring us happiness; we bring a sense of happiness to our matches.

There is a saying, attributed to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, although he quotes A.J. Muste in his book Peace is Every Step:

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.

Stop searching for happiness outside of yourself, says Thich Nhat Hanh. Instead, find happiness within yourself and bring that to all that you do.

Should learning be fun? Yes, but don’t expect your teacher to make learning fun. Instead, find a sense of joy of learning within yourself, and bring that to your learning. If your teacher is entertaining, funny, joyful, inspiring, enthusiastic, then treat this as a nice bonus and be grateful. But don’t rely on such external factors to brighten up your learning.

And also recognize that in every worthwhile activity, there will be aspects that are boring, difficult, frustrating, discouraging. This is all part of the learning process, and part of life too. Sure, playing sports is fun, but is working out fun? I see a lot of determined faces in the gyms where I worked out, but it didn’t seem like a lot of fun. But I can imagine that there was deep satisfaction in goals being worked on every day, in goals being met, and in new goals being set. If the javelin throw is the worst event for a decathlete, do you imagine that training the javelin throw is fun for that person? Probably not, but that is part of life for the decathlete: One must train hard in all ten events, not just the events that the decathlete finds enjoyable. It’s the same for a student; you may like some courses more than others, but you have to train seriously at all of them.

Should marriage be fun? “Marriage is not a love affair,” said mythologist Joseph Campbell, “it’s an ordeal. It is a religious exercise, a sacrament, the grace of participating in another life.” Anyone who has been in a long marriage has experienced that marriages have rhythms and seasons, dry spells, warm spells, stormy periods, sunny periods, and so on. It’s not all fun; it’s difficult. But the deep satisfaction that comes from having weathered the storms with someone you love and who loves you beats any love affair.

Should learning be fun? Don’t get hooked on the superficiality of fun. Instead, take a longer view, and work consistently every day at your studies, recognizing that progress is incremental and takes commitment and determination. Bring joy to your work every day and you will one day harvest deep satisfaction for your efforts.

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This is part of a series of posts on how to learn; the previous one is here. These posts on how to learn will all be linked on this page for easy reference.