What is that giant sucking sound coming out of the education?

As a part of my role at the Educational Service Center, I get to travel around the state visiting some of our finest universities looking for that next generation of teachers.  They have so much energy, and excitement about being a teacher it is contagious.  Aside from the normal run of the mill questions you might ask a prospective teacher like “why did you become a teacher?” or “tell me about your classroom?”  I like to ask a question that I have been asking new teachers in some variation for 13 years and counting.  It is a deftly simple question and the answer has been changing slowly– but noticeably changing —  as we continue down the rabbit hole of more and more testing.

The question is — “Do you think school should be fun?”

The question is straightforward — yet it always stops new teachers in their tracks, many of them readjust themselves in their seats, cock their heads, and desperately look at me for body language cues to sense what is the right or preferred answer.  I have asked that question in some variation in countless interviews and only a few candidates simply blurt out “yes of course” without thinking.  For the record, regardless of the performance in the remainder of the interview, I hired all of those teachers who said “yes.”

I am a strong advocate that school should be fun.  Learning should be fun…play should be encouraged and in fact without fun and play learning may not happen to the breath and depth needed for 21st century skills.   There is strong research to suggest that when we “play” we often tackle problems with more creativity, we learn from others, we are engaged, motivated and naturally collaborate.  Fun – play is part of successful learning. Just think about kids with video games that are often giant elaborate puzzles.  They will play for hours — never get bored — read and often do research to solve the games intricate puzzles — because it’s fun and challenging — yet put them in an environment of “drill and kill” teaching and watch the energy wither from their bodies as they struggle to stay awake.

All teachers talk about motivation or lack thereof.  But you never really hear the Art teachers complain about lack of motivation…or the gym teacher….or the advisors to the co-curricular activities even the ones that are academic in nature.  Why?  They are actually fun!  Kids like to learn new things, they are motivated and excited about learning when it is perceived as fun.  Kids will tackle difficult subject-matter and will learn all kinds of things if “fun” is involved.  Tell them it’s work or that it’s required and watch the demeanor and attitude change in an instant.

So why do new teacher candidates have a tough time answering “yes…school should be fun?”

Because the current school environment is simply no fun at all!  Teaching has become so didactic in nature that it has sapped the fun out of learning.  New teachers have experienced school in the era of No Child Left Behind — Testing for them is reality.  They passed a battery of test to get a diploma, they passed a test to get into college, they passed test to get a teaching license.  It is all they know…and it has become natural to the school environment.   New teachers accept “testing” without question and for the record, all of them thrived in this testing centric environment.

Teaching to a test is not exactly fun for the student nor the teacher, but that seems to be all we do in schools these days.   Teachers are reluctant — and rightfully so to deviate away from teaching to the test, since it is those results that make-up 50% of their personal evaluations and it is basis of the local report card.  Notice— I said nothing about what is best for kids….but what is best for the adults in this case is to make sure kids pass the test not only to make the district look good on the local report card but to preserve their personal employment.

So now do you hear it….the giant sucking sound?  F – U- N being sucked out of the K-12 arena.

Adults have created a system that is attempting on a rather shallow level to measure a human endeavor — Learning — that is next to impossible to accurately capture and measure.  Each of those assessments are snapshots in time and if we stayed true to what those assessments should be used for — then the only reason we would assess is to determine what needs to be done for each student along the path of learning.  Those assessments would not be used to compare countries, states, schools, districts, evaluate teachers, or administrators but simply used to actually help students.

If and only then will district leaders and teachers feel free to put the FUN back into learning and then and only then will we actually improve the performance and outcomes of students.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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