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Catering to Kids: How a Hyperfocus on Making School Fun is Hurting Our Students


Catering to Kids: How a Hyperfocus on Making School Fun is Hurting Our Students

Ours is the first age in history that asks the child what he would tolerate learning.

~Flannery O’Connor

Summer is coming which means teachers will be using their “time off” to prepare and plan for the year ahead. No doubt our recommended (or required) reading, professional development workshops, and training seminars will include information on how to make our teaching more engaging and our content more relevant. And that can be a good thing because all teachers want their students to enjoy learning and relate to the material.

However, by hyperfocusing on ever new and better ways to be engaging and relevant, are we depriving our students of some other valuable lessons? Does making learning fun produce life-long learners? Does tailoring our instruction to fit the interests of our students prepare them to face the challenges of real life? There’s no question that there is value in creating a positive learning experience for our students, but is there still a place in our classrooms for teaching methods that aren’t flashy and material that is “high-interest?” Absolutely! These are the reasons to bring back boring.

1. Real-life can be super boring.

By continually providing our students with information, lessons, activities, and literature that they can immediately relate to or enjoy, we are setting them up to eschew the mundane and the monotonous. And as anyone who has ever read an instruction manual, tried to decipher a contract, or waded through an article about a complex political or social issue knows, life is full of the mundane and the monotonous. No amount of fun learning games or high-interest literature can prepare kids for that. They have to know how to dig deep and not only read but also understand and apply information that they don’t really care about. They have to learn the value of gutting it out and the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting to the other side of a complex text or a tedious task.

2. If kids mainly read and learn about what already interests them, they won’t discover new passions?

It’s one thing to push through complex or boring material because you have to. It’s another thing to push through complex or boring material and discover it actually interests you. Of course, this won’t always be the case. But it is immensely satisfying when a student realizes, despite their complaining and procrastination, that they really do love reading Shakespeare or learning about the Civil War or solving quadratic equations. And when a student’s newfound interest comes through frustrating, difficult work, they learn a valuable lesson about perseverance and trying new things.

3. Our job isn’t to cater to students’ tastes. It’s to form them.

Should students be allowed to choose their own projects or books based on what interests them? Should teachers choose what they will teach based on what they think kids will want to learn? Sometimes. Every ELA teacher should have a go-to list of fun, high-interest books to offer her students. Most history teachers prefer those events and periods that grab students’ attention over less flashy topics. And every science teacher knows that cool hands-on experiments are more popular than book work.

On the other hand, when we fall into the trap of “just wanting them to love reading” (or math or science or history) at the cost of challenging them to look beyond their own interests, we do kids a huge disservice. Few students will voluntarily pick up the novels of Dickens or Hawthorn. How many kids will intentionally seek out the works of diverse authors or read the writings of Socrates or Fredrik Douglas? But their disinterest in these great works does not mean they shouldn’t read them. Students won’t always love great concepts and great works, but they can learn to be open to them and to appreciate why they are great. At the very least, they should be challenged to defend their negative opinions rather than being let off the hook just “because it’s boring.”

4. Getting them outside their comfort zone makes them more interesting people.

The most interesting people are the ones who are open to new ideas and experiences–not the ones who focus primarily on their own interests. If students aren’t encouraged to explore books, concepts, and ideas they don’t find immediately intriguing, they will likely spend their lives shrugging off everything that doesn’t instantly grab their attention as “just not that interesting.”

5. An overemphasis on relevance and fun underestimates our students. 

If we present every lesson as if we are putting on a show, if we shy away from all seemingly boring topics and ideas and make a game out of our lessons, our students will get the message they aren’t capable of more challenging learning. They will equate boring with impossible–or at least irrelevant.

Does this mean we should never play games in class or design lessons that are exciting and fun? Of course not. But our students need to see a balance. They need to know that sometimes learning can be exciting and fun and sometimes it is more mundane, even tedious. They are capable of both kinds of learning and both kinds are valuable.

6. They will learn the world doesn’t revolve around them and their personal opinions.

It’s important that teachers value our students’ opinions and sometimes take their interests into consideration when planning our curriculum. But by primarily designing our lessons around their personal preferences, we set them up to expect life to be as accommodating. But as anyone who has ever had a job or a spouse or children knows, it isn’t–and shouldn’t be.

7. Some “boring” skills are actually useful.

In recent decades rote memorization has often been cast aside in favor of higher-order thinking skills. This is unfortunate because memorizing information can be extremely beneficial for young learners (and adults.) Because of the malleable structure of their brains, young children often find memorization easy and fun. It doesn’t matter what it is–math facts, state capitals, poetry, a list of presidents–children enjoy memorizing and showing off their knowledge. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride–which can help form positive attitudes about learning.

Memorizing also trains the brain to hold information, yet too many students see no point in memorizing information they can just look up. But which is more likely to “exercise brain muscles?” Using a calculator or memorizing the times tables? Googling the capital of Arkansas or memorizing all the state capitals? Memorizing also gives students the ready-knowledge they will need for future learning. For example, working complex math problems is much easier if students already know their math facts. It is much harder to discuss a book or a poem if students haven’t learned the definitions of literary devices.

There are other “boring skills” that have tremendous value as well–ask any teacher who has ever tried to decipher the handwriting of a sixth-grader who has never been made to practice his letters. Or try working with students on a fun creative writing assignment who have never learned basic punctuation. Having knowledge and skills at the ready makes critical thinking and engaged learning possible.

Sometimes lessons should be fun. Sometimes a teacher needs to jazz up her presentation to get students’ attention. High-interest books and topics certainly have their place. And games and cool projects are a great way to help learning stick. But knowledge, information, and skills are not products to be sold, and constantly marketing our lessons to cater to an ever more demanding “clientele” sends the wrong message and establishes bad habits. Sadly, the edutainment mentality that pervades education today leads to teacher burnout and robs kids of the chance to fully develop as learners.

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Catering to Kids: How a Hyperfocus on Making School Fun is Hurting Our Students

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Laura Hudgens

Veteran Member

Laura has taught ELA and communication in grades 6-12. She also enjoys writing and taking care of her little flock of chickens. Her little flock of children have all grown or are mostly grown, but she still enjoys taking care of them too.

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