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Learning is the end in mind, not fun

Every year, back in my Derby Middle School teaching days, we did Kansas Day. A big Kansas Day. As in . . . invite the newspaper, Board of Education, and parents kind of Kansas Day. I was the social studies guy on a teaching team and my goal was to find a way to integrate my social studies activities with math, language arts, science, and reading.

And a big Kansas Day fit the bill.

We organized all sorts of activities and projects for the day that students rotated through. Kids weaved wheat into hearts and shapes. They punched tin for pioneer lanterns. Sewed quilt pieces. Played frontier games. We had a blacksmith set up shop who demonstrated how to make horseshoes. A storyteller came and entertained.

It was always such a great day. Parents loved it. Made our principal look good when he talked with the newspaper guy. Kids were up and moving around.

It worked out so well that I started doing more projects and activities. I had kids use potatoes and paint to make African Ashanti cloth. We played Oregon Trail. Kids simulated the Constitutional Convention. You get the idea.

I was Project Man.

Because projects are good, right? My job was to engage kids. Have fun. Hook kids into liking social studies?

But the further I’ve gotten from Kansas Day, the more I realize that I had the wrong end in mind. I wanted my kids to enjoy my class. And I think they enjoyed stuff like Kansas Day and Oregon Trail. But fun isn’t the goal. Learning is.

Projects don’t necessarily equal learning. Projects equal busy. And while fun and engaging activities are not wrong, if we focus just on engaging, we miss the point of why we’re here. Nothing wrong with fun but we have to be clear that it doesn’t get in the way of learning.

Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group spoke at a joint Kansas / Missouri history conference several years ago and did a quick Q & A:

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as History Alive or about making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to thinking rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.

I’m beginning to agree.

The cool thing is that there are lots of fun and engaging things that we can do with kids that still end up with them learning what we want them to learn. I really like the work that Wineburg’s group is doing with curriculum – it focuses on historical thinking, content, and, because it starts with a great question, it’s engaging for kids.

A friend of mine who’s busy teaching 8th graders told me this morning:

I am ending my year running my kids through nearly every Stanford History Education Group lesson plan over Civil War and Reconstruction. They like it . . . and it’s so teacher friendly.

For those of us who focus on projects and those who believe in the power of traditional lecture style instruction, a recent article in the latest Stanford alumni magazine will be helpful. (Sam sent a PDF version as well.) The article highlights what instruction can look like when it’s focused on both engaging kids and teaching them to think historically.

We can be both. Project Man and facilitator of learning. And if we want to be the best we can be for kids, we need to be.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve been having this very same dilemma. Fortunately and unfortunately, I am NOT a project person. But I feel it has become the GOAL of many teachers to make their kids have fun in class at the expense of learning about the content.
    I feel this is addressed in the new book “Teach Like a Pirate”. If I have my students make hardtack to simulate Civil War food, what are they going to remember? More than likely, the process of making hardtack, but nothing else about the Civil War from that project. So what was the point?
    I would much rather teach them how to analyze evidence and primary sources than how to color posters and design book covers.

    May 9, 2013
    • glennw #


      We did some sort of food station during our Kansas Day but can’t remember what it was. It easily could have been some sort of hardtack thing!

      What I would hope happens is that teachers find a way to balance both – historically thinking skills and engaging activities. But I agree, learning should be the goal. And I think many teachers sometimes can confuse one with the other.

      Thanks for the comment!


      May 9, 2013
  2. As someone who has wrestled with the same question, I think I would argue that engagement vs. learning is a false one: the real issue is _bad_ projects. Without engagement, I’m not sure much real learning is happening, but we want the engagement to be with the things we actually want students to learn. It seems to me the problem is that many teachers don’t put the same planning time–identifying essential questions/learning goals, writing rubrics, etc.–into project planning that we would axiomatically put into, say, an essay assignment. If we are clear that what’s different about a project is _means_–how students get information or how they show their learning, not _ends_–what kind of thinking they should be doing. (I would also argue that projects should always be graded and have a rubric–otherwise, it’s very hard to hold the line against the “just fun and games” mindset.

    That said, I just got end of year feedback from some of my U.S. history students and, hands down, the most memorable moment of the course for them was the day we “tried” Sitting Bull for insurrection and murder. This was an exercise that was noisy, exciting, and high energy, but it also brought up the issues of conflicting elements of law and ideas about rights that are so central to understanding that period, as well as broader historical context (the defense team, for example, brought up the Sand Creek massacre as evidence for a clear self-defense argument, and everyone pored over the treaty of Fort Laramie). These are the same sorts of mental actions I would want them to take if they had been writing an essay, just in a different form.
    But yes, I’m with you on potato carving!

    May 10, 2013
    • glennw #

      Thanks for the comment!

      I agree 100%. I have no problems with projects – I do have problems with projects that focus on fun, rather than learning. We can do both. Your Sitting Bull activity is a perfect example!

      And we should do both. Your second sentence is very true – “Without engagement, I’m not sure much real learning is happening.” We know the brain needs the engagement piece for retention and application to happen. But planning for this to happen (engagement and learning) is hard and so sometimes I think we just choose not to do it.

      BTW – love your recent Facts in a History Class post. Awesome paragraph about the clay:

      You can’t “do” history without facts; they are our evidence. Events and sources are to historians as clay is to a sculptor. They are fundamental to what we do, but one never hears a sculptor say, “Here, let me show you how much clay I have.”

      Have a great weekend!


      May 10, 2013
      • Thanks for the kind words!
        I’ve been lurking on your blog and getting good ideas from it for quite some time; thanks for doing what you do.
        I hope you have a very good weekend, too.


        May 10, 2013

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