06 February 2023

The Monday Briefing: Fun It

The Monday Briefing: Fun It

I always remember the brief when I was invited to interview for the position of Head of History at Waddesdon C of E School. I was given a mixed ability Year 8 class to teach, and they were studying Tudor England at this point. I was asked to deliver a lesson which showcased the ‘fun and fundamentals’ of teaching History. It was a request which immediately enlivened me at the time, and it inspired me to perform well enough to secure the job. 

Such a mantra has remained with me, and I still do my best in lessons to adhere to it.

There is a really interesting blog post on the place of ‘fun’ within lessons from 2013 on the Mantle of the Expert website, entitled ‘Why learning and having fun are not inimical.’

It raises a number of important observations, after first explaining three misconceptions about criticisms of bringing ‘fun’ into the classroom: that learning is more important than fun (which it is); that focusing on ‘fun’ can become a distraction; that ‘fun’ is frivolous and unimportant, having no place in the classroom.

The article really hits the nail on the head by discussing the the true definition of the word ‘fun’ in this context, explaining what I understood by the phrase ‘the fun and fundamentals’:

Perhaps ‘fun’ is not the right word to describe the commitment, effort, and time it takes to learn something difficult and complex. Would Andy Murray describe his close-season training sessions in Miami as ‘fun’? It seems unlikely, but he would probably say they are enjoyable and important. ‘Fun’ is a word children use, especially young children, and we shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. However, unfortunately, it is laced with connotations of frivolousness, which make it difficult to use seriously. I suggest we substitute ‘fun’ with ‘enjoyable’ but not in a passive sense, like being entertained, but in an active participatory sense, where the learner finds enjoyment from the activity of learning, even (perhaps especially) if the learning is difficult.

‘Fun’ therefore becomes a key way of making engagement happen, and getting as far away from apathy as possible becomes the key aim.

There follows an excellent diagram entitled of ‘Continuum of Engagement’, courtesy of Dorothy Heathcote, the teacher who inspired the creation of Mantle of the Expert.

I’ve already written a blog based around obsession, another word which can be used negatively, here. It is my view that honed obsession can bring incredible achievements - it’s this that we should strive to get students working towards. In finding this full focus is when they truly reach their best levels.

I had the great pleasure of attending a webinar on Thursday evening, organised by Education Director Sam Selby at Bellevue, as part of the Memorable Learning series which our group is looking to embed amongst teachers and students. It featured Hywel Roberts, the ‘Travelling Teacher’, an educationalist who has now published three books, and who has championed the importance of ‘botheredness’ within the classroom. Quite coincidentally, when I was researching his work following the talk he gave on Thursday evening, I found that his work had also been inspired by Dorothy Heathcote, the creator of the Mantle of the Expert.

Botheredness echoes the ideas put forth in the Continuum of Engagement above in that the more ‘bothered’ a student is, the better they are likely to perform.

Roberts spoke a great deal of sense throughout his presentation, his key message being that learning must, as far as possible, hit a ‘relevance hot spot’ for each and every child in our care.

He regaled over 150 staff across the group with stories of a child who learned to engage with his learning of the Romans, in spite of his initial hatred of them, because he enjoyed camping and found respect for them through their outdoor skills. Likewise, he enabled a student whose primary hobby was caving to take the lead in a lesson where the discovery of paintings within a cave prompted wider inquiry.

Personally, I’ve always advocated this approach. As a History teacher, I try to find relevance within the topic for students wherever I can. This helps to build empathy, and allows students to pose the important questions in the subject: why did this happen? Why then and not before? How far did this bring change? How might this have happened differently?

When I’m teaching English, and exploring extracts my approach is similar. I ask the students to put themselves in the perspective of the narrator - to question their thoughts and motives in the situations they are in. Teaching the younger year groups three times a week, I like to intersperse these lessons with sessions aimed at building vocabulary, utilising problem solving exercises within the subject and building competition in lessons. Students can often see the scope of the prescribed texts as rather dry. Winning over students who have an ingrained sense of apathy and boredom before they even get to the room is a thankless task. Getting them in the right frame of mind is utterly vital to making progress.

I like to think that I create memorable learning opportunities in the classroom - but this isn’t limited only to myself at the College. We’ve been working very hard this term to empower students to ask the right questions more in lessons. The plan is that through upping their engagement and involvement, the plan is that their levels of ‘botheredness’ will rise.

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