Opinion Strategies

You Want to Engage Your Students, Not Entertain Them – Fun and Engaging Aren’t the Same

There’s nothing like that feeling (is it pride, or accomplishment, or honest relief?) of looking out over a classroom of engaged students. Sometimes that feeling can be all that gets you through the rest of the week without taking a mental health day, and staying home with Dr Phil and a tub of ice-cream. And of course, we want our students to be engaged because its good for them too. It means they interested, switched on, and learning. But often we hear people, both inside and outside of education, conflate engagement and fun.

But our students don’t need to be having fun, to be engaged.

Whether your scrolling Pinterest or cruising through Instagram (or even going old school and browsing a bookshop – which is it’s own kind of heaven in my mind) there’s no shortage of ideas on offer for ‘fun’ activities, ‘fun’ lesson plans. When you delve into these further you often find that ‘fun’ and ‘engaging’ are used interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing.

Before I get accused of being a stick in the mud, don’t think that I’m against fun learning tasks. Sometimes a task being fun, or novel, is what helps students construct their understanding of a concept. What I’m opposed to is teachers being sent on a never-ending quest to create or find ‘fun’ learning tasks and activities for their students, as though fun is the only way for students to be engaged. Essentially, students are reduced to easily distracted and vacuous audiences, and teachers are reduced to harried entertainers. Which makes teaching students about the Holocaust, or how to solve quadratic equations particularly challenging.

In my mind, to create engaging learning opportunities we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What learning outcome is this task aimed at?
  • How will my students be active participants in their learning, through this task?
  • How will this task challenge my students, without being too challenging?
  • How can I scaffold my students as they engage with this learning task?
  • How does this task contribute to the wider unit of study?

All teachers – you, me, our mentors, leaders, and supervisors – have fallen prey to the make-it-fun mentality. But just as our kids don’t want a steady diet of lollies and fairy-floss, do they want (or need) a steady diet of fun?

What’s your take on this? Am I just old and boring, or do you agree that fun and engaging aren’t the same? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Wendy Allott

I'm an educator, mum and wife living in beautiful Victoria, Australia. I make learning resources for passionate, but time-poor, teachers in need of a better work-life balance. I'm a voracious reader, love a good curry, and believe life is always better with chocolate.

3 Comments

  1. […] like dinosaurs). Learning about dinosaurs was thrilling. Engaging. Dare I say it after my previous rant? […]

  2. It’s so true! Especially since ‘gamification’ became a thing. The problem is that sometimes students enjoy the lesson and have fun but they don’t really ‘learn’ what they need to learn if they’re just having fun. It is often cited that children learn best while playing but the older one gets it’s easier to ‘get lost’ in the game and not really acquire new knowledge or to forget that knowledge when the game is over.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I agree! I definitely think there’s room for fun and playing in all classrooms, but I don’t think it should be the focus and I think we do our students a disservice if we prioritise fun over engaged learning.

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