Parkin Space: Who Says Learning Should be Fun?

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Godfrey Parkin Slogging away trying to pep up yet another time management course? Godfrey Parkin suggests you stop and do something more engaging instead...

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I am becoming increasingly exasperated by the extent to which “fun” is specified as a requirement of learning design. In fact, it is frequently the only need that is clearly expressed.

Now, I understand the general idea that if people don’t enjoy the training, they are less likely to give it high smile-sheet ratings, or recommend it to a colleague. But are they less likely to learn if the process is not liberally peppered with “fun” experiences?

In theory, we learn best when we are relaxed and in harmony with our learning environment. A good trainer can set the tone and help create the most appropriate atmosphere. Ice-breakers contribute to that state, and are particularly helpful for sceptical learners, those uncomfortable in learning situations, and inexperienced trainers.

But training does not have to be entertaining.

E-learning’s rise has brought this issue to the fore. The constant admonition from instructional designers that e-learning has to be punctuated every couple of minutes with “interactivity” is one of the saddest mantras of our time. It’s like the American notion that food cannot be palatable unless you smother it with ketchup. If you are working with training that is bland and dry, by all means bring on the sauce. But would it not be better to make the training itself more engaging in the first place?

The distinction between engagement and interactivity is crucial, and it’s one that many instructional designers – and those who commission the development work – do not appear to understand. Engagement is intense mental absorption; interactivity is often just busyness or sugar-coating. It is vitally important that learners be engaged. Interactivity, entertainment, and fun can contribute to cognitive engagement. They can equally well distract from it.

There are possibly three causes for the boom in gratuitous fun in learning: managers want motivational experiences disguised as training; instructional designers lack the skills or imagination to architect inherently engaging learning experiences; and trainers seek high smile-sheet scores and possibly a release from their own boredom.

Managers: Too often, when managers commission training, what they really want is a motivation activity. I can't tell you how often, for instance, I have heard the whine: "We can't make people take that course online, because we'd lose out on the motivation, energising, bonding, or social interaction that we get from the classroom course."

My response is to challenge the learning objectives: if the primary desired output of the "event" is all that warm fuzzy stuff, then why pretend to be running a training course? It is far more cost effective to structure a motivation session that achieves those goals, and does not come out of the training budget. (Through my focus on sales and marketing, I have designed and run many such events, some of them wild or lavish, and all of them very effective, but I have never called them "training" events). Naturally, if the self-discovery or bonding is germane to the learning (in, say, leadership training or some interpersonal skills training) then it may be relevant and appropriate.

But too often the kind of feel-good factor that is called for in training is (once again) training being abused as a surrogate for good management.

Instructional designers: Many learning experiences are atrociously conceived. The designer has to work with unrealistic timelines, limited subject matter knowledge, poorly specified learning objectives, and myopic supervision, as well as limitations or constraints in the way the training is to be implemented. That said the expedient approach often taken is a linear exposition of content, made less dull by the frequent insertion of bits of fun. “We’ll do an icebreaker at the start, a game here, bring out the Lego over there, run a video here, chuck in some role-playing and a bit of team competition intermittently, and make the tests like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. ‘Triple Bottom Line Accounting for HR Professionals’ will never have been so much fun! Who cares if a week later the only thing they remember is the egg-dropping contest?”

Trainers: From a trainer's perspective, "having fun" can be an acceptable way to leaven the dullest of subject matter, so long as it does not distract from the learning goals. And, because in too many companies the smile sheet ratings are the primary indicator of how good a trainer is at his/her job, "fun" is welcome. If you are running the same course over and over again, the entertaining components also serve to keep you from putting yourself to sleep.

From a learner's perspective, those who do not really want to be there in the first place may be distracted, if not seduced, by the injection of "fun" components; those who really want to learn ask themselves why they are wasting time on irrelevant padding.

Fun can be very constructive. Well-designed entertaining experiences that are relevant and fully integrated into the learning process can work as powerful illustrations of concepts or living analogies. If the fun is designed as an effective instructional process, contributing to the achievement of specific learning objectives, I'll opt for fun over dull any day. But if it is gratuitous, I won't waste my time, or that of learners, by indulging in it.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.

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