From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

March 26, 1998*Make Learning ... Fun?

We don't have cable television, but we pick up a number of stations, including one called "Cartoon Network" which seems to get beamed to us from India. The boys love it, and even know to call me when Daffy Duck comes on. But hey, I'm an adult, a grown man, and I can't really spend my time watching cartoons all day, can I! So I have to find some "professional", perhaps "sociological" excuse for watching. And sometimes that sort of excuse presents itself in the form of a commercial.
I can't remember the exact words anymore, even though I wrote them down on a slip of paper which I filed with countless other slips of that sort, most which don't seem to have gotten lost (but I'm not looking for them at the moment, am I?). It was a commercial for computers, and the words were (almost exactly): You don't have to be super talented in order to catch the sub-text of that phrase: Learning is supposed to be good for kids, but for some strange reason they don't enjoy it as they should and as a result don't devote enough time to their studies, watching Cartoon Network instead. Thus we should take the necessary steps to change the learning experience from one of boredom and monotony to one of excitement and fun, and the way to do that is to purchase a particular computer (in this case, one with an Intel processor with MMX technology). Then our kids will spend the necessary time doing their school work, as we think they should.

It's really not a new idea, and isn't necessarily connected to computers. In the past just about any new technology was a must-have in order to bring about the desired changes in kids' attitudes toward their school work. As a kid, I remember 16mm movie projectors (in the classroom, not at home) as one of those desired technologies. As an teacher, a whole gamut of tools come to mind, ranging from pocket calculators to television. Perhaps not surprisingly, kids seem to continue to dislike school, despite technology's march into the classroom.

But lest we think that only Intel processors can bring out that hidden fun in learning, it seems that numerous other companies have a similar idea. An AltaVista check on the phrase "makes learning fun", crossed with the word "computer" brings up about 350 pages, most of them (apparently - I certainly didn't check them all) advertisements for computers and/or software. IBM touts having MMX technology with its Intel processors, but they apparently only claim that the computer itself (Aptiva) is what makes the learning fun, not the fact that a particular technology (made by another company) is bundled with their computer. All of the advertisements (and though these web pages may be defined as "information", they're most certainly advertisements as well), want to convince us that their product is what's going to change the face of education.

Should learning be fun? That it should seems today to be an accepted maxim of western culture, though only a generation ago the point was still under debate. Max Rafferty, the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction for much of the 1960s (under whom I had the dubious honor of being bored out of my mind through most of my education) wrote a classic, "Suffer, Little Children", in which he did battle with the idea that learning should be fun. In very straightforward prose (at least he was good at that) he argued with A.S. Niell, of Summerhill (hey, come to think of it, who remembers that anymore?) fame's statement that:

Rafferty's counter argument was: Of course it's rather unclear as to why doing that sort of thing can't be an enjoyable experience, but it's unclear as well as to just where computers fit into all this. After all, they certainly can be helpful in giving young people intellectual tools, maybe even in the pursuit of truth. But I doubt that that's what all those copywriters who come up with the phrase "make learning fun" had in mind.

My guess is that we're concerned with making learning fun with the aid of computer technologies because we have very little idea of what else learning might be. We're not very good at making it into an adventure. We're still far off from helping kids to define their own needs and then pursue the necessary tools for achieving those needs. It would seem that computers have been around the classroom long enough for us to start to get a picture of how they can be integrated into the educational process, or to see how their use changes the traditional pupil/teacher interactions. Yet in practice we still seem to be floundering. Calvin, in the comic that graces the main page of this web site, seems to know when he's being bluffed. When somebody says to him "fun" he instinctively knows what that means, and the basic uses that we make of computer in education today ain't it.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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