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Learning is fun, or at least it should be

Rāwini Ngaamo and Dawn Lawrence
Abstract: 


This article is written in response to listening to teachers query the place of fun in learning. Students often express that learning should be fun but teachers are often unsure what they mean by this and whether fun is actually important to learning. We have drawn some relevant understandings and views together to promote further conversation and learning around these questions in support of our professional development work alongside teachers, leaders, students, and whānau to develop effective relational and responsive pedagogy.

Journal issue: 

Learning is fun

or at least it should be

Rāwini Ngaamo and Dawn Lawrence

Key points

Fun should not be an optional extra within the learning process.

Whakatoi—cheekiness and fun—holds an important place in the growth and development of Māori children.

Cognitive research shows a significant link between fun and learning.

Fun breathes life into effective relational and responsive pedagogy.

A child’s connectedness to learning through fun can positively impact the power dynamics within a classroom.

This article is written in response to listening to teachers query the place of fun in learning. Students often express that learning should be fun but teachers are often unsure what they mean by this and whether fun is actually important to learning. We have drawn some relevant understandings and views together to promote further conversation and learning around these questions in support of our professional development work alongside teachers, leaders, students, and whānau to develop effective relational and responsive pedagogy.

Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia
Let us be taken by joy and entertainment

(Royal, 2020)

Ko Kakepuku te maunga
Ko Mangapu te awa
Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Ngāti Maniapoto te iwi
Ko Ngāti Matakore te hapū
Ko Kaputuhi te marae
Ko Rāwini Ngaamo tōku ingoa

Nō Peretānia ōku tūpuna.
I whānau mai au i Essex ki Ingarangi.
I tipu ake au i Waikumete ki Tāmaki Makaurau.
Kei Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa ahau e noho ana.
Ko Dawn Lawrence tōku ingoa.

Tēnā koutou katoa. He mihi maioha ki a koutou. We work in the University of Waikato’s Poutama Pounamu whānau as cultural capability facilitators. We have both been a part of the ongoing learning and development within Te Kotahitanga, Kia Eke Panuku and, more recently, within individual schools and kāhui ako.

Part of our work is to support schools within an evaluative learning process called Rongohia te Hau.1 Rongohia te Hau was first developed within Te Kotahitanga, and has become an increasingly important way in which schools can come to understand and respond to the voices and experiences of their students, whānau, and teachers.

One of the survey statements always elicits much debate and consternation: My teacher knows how to make learning fun.

Our response to this statement is the following provocation: We understand fun, in the context of learning, as a state of being entwined with mauri ora and embedded within cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy (Berryman et al., 2018; Poutama Pounamu, n.d.) as a liberatory process.

The importance of fun

Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, an ancestor hero greatly admired for his cleverness and exploits embodies many of the characteristics that are held in high regard in te ao Māori. “He was quick, intelligent, bold, resourceful, cunning and fearless, epitomising the basic personality structures idealised by Māori society” (Walker, 1990, p.15). Another of Māui’s valued characteristics is whakatoi. Rameka (2021) describes whakatoi as cheekiness, spiritedness, having fun, displaying and enjoying humour. She proposes that this characteristic holds a particularly important place in the growth and development of Māori children.

For Māori, cheekiness is what helps tamariki to explore, be curious, and socialise. The humour of whakatoi is also highly regarded in Te Ao Māori for both social and speaking skills. People who are adept in this skill can lighten a difficult situation without losing focus.(Ministry of Education, n.d., para.8)

This prized cheekiness, sense of mischief, and witty humour, often delivered through provocative questioning with a sparkle in the eye and wry smile is aptly demonstrated by many kaumātua and kuia.

So what is fun?

What is fun? This is a deceptively simple question. While Māui provides us with an archetype of fun the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, n.d.) adds that fun is “Light-hearted pleasure, enjoyment, or amusement; boisterous joviality or merrymaking; entertainment.” Fun can be described as laughter and joking, freedom and creativity, and playfulness (Barrett, 2005). However fun is something we each experience and therefore understand in ways that are unique to us as individuals (Kim and Mardis, 2017). Our particular sense of humour, our experiences, culture, whānau, understandings, beliefs, and interests all contribute to how we each understand fun. It is a very personal and voluntary experience that cannot be forced on another – you cannot make someone else have fun. We tacitly know what fun is. We know when we are having fun and we can see and hear when others are too.

The connection between fun and learning

In pre-European times, whare tapere were an integral part of pā life. People would gather regularly in these spaces to learn with each other through various waiata, kōrero, haka, taonga pūoro, and tākaro (Royal, 2020). Māori children were encouraged to play and explore, having fun while often mimicking adult activities (Hemara, 2000). It has long been seen in te ao Māori that having fun while learning is a natural part of everyday life. At any Māori event such as Te Matatini, waiata practice, a celebration at the local marae, or just getting together with friends and whānau, the cheekiness, banter, and laughter are ever present.

Fun is a natural by-product of, and an intrinsic part of play (Rucker, 2017). Joseph Chilton Pearce makes the connection between the optimal state of learning, playing, and having fun (Touch the Future, 2012). Real playing is how real learning takes place. He goes on to say that much of what we call learning in schools is actually conditioning or behaviour modification. Although some conditioning is needed to create boundaries in which a child can safely explore their world, the importance of play to a child’s learning and development cannot be overstated (Touch the Future, 2012). As Willis (2007) explains, “brain research tells us that when the fun stops, learning often stops too” (para.1).

Cognitive research suggests a significant link between fun and learning. Tisza et al. (2021) explain that any learning activity can be fun when participation is intrinsically motivated, immersive, allows for a sense of control, is at the right level of challenge, supports social connection, and evokes positive emotions. Learners often feel a greater sense of control over their own learning when they experience it as fun (Shukla, 2020) Student agency may also be fostered when the rigidity of the curriculum is lessened through fun and play in the classroom (Shukla, 2020). Drawing from research, Shukla (2020) explains that “having fun while learning avails unique cognitive resources, associates reward and pleasure with information, strengthens and broadens memory networks, and toggles between two basic neural modes—one for diffused mind-wandering and the other for focused attention” (para.4). The positive emotions experienced through fun can broaden people’s attention and cognition, building physical, socioemotional and intellectual skills, and fuel brain development (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

The connection between fun and flow

A positive, immersive learning experience can be described as a state of flow. Csikszentmihalyi (2014) describes this state as one where concentration, interest, and enjoyment are experienced simultaneously. Flow is a full-bodied, joyful state where a person is completely engrossed in what they are doing, unaware of anything else but the experience. Thought, feeling, action and the body are all completely focused on the activity, creating an optimum state for learning (Touch the Future, 2012). Young children instinctively know how to learn, following their curiosity, easily moving into this state of flow.

Flow is also connected to the level of challenge of the activity. If an activity is too easy boredom and subsequent disengagement occurs; conversely, when it is too difficult learners will often experience anxiety (Preston, 2016). It is important, however, that the level of challenge within the tasks shifts and changes in response to the development of new skills and understanding (Preston, 2016). Papert (2002) names this concept “hard fun” after a colleague of his recounted an exchange she had overheard between two 4 year olds at a kindergarten. One of the 4 year olds saw his friend coming out of a session around learning to use a simple computer programme, and asked what it was like. The friend answered, “It was fun.” Then paused and added, “It was really hard.” Papert (2002) says this exchange left him in “no doubt that the activity was fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.” (para. 2). When we begin to look for them, examples of “hard fun” can be seen everywhere which suggests that everyone enjoys doing hard challenging things, but only if they are responsive to the individual’s current development, interests, and culture.

The state of mauri ora

Being in a state of flow invites mauri ora. Mauri ora is the state of wellbeing where words such as capable, confident, engaging, wholehearted, and satisfied may be used to describe the life force of the person, the person’s family, or place (Kennedy et al., 2015, p. 99). Durie (2016) characterises mauri ora as being in the state of holistic wellbeing encompassing the particular vitality, integrity, uniqueness, and energy that exists within every person and the relationship to the wider environment. He makes an important point that mauri ora cannot truly be experienced unless the person has a secure cultural identity.

This understanding challenges educators to realise and centre learners’ identity, language, and culture so that they are positioned to experience enjoyment and success in their learning as culturally located beings. When the learning is connected to learners’ reality and experiences, and draws on their cultural toolkit (Bruner,1996), it sets them up for success, building on what they know and understand, allowing them to engage with confidence. It creates a context that is low risk, a place of safe exploration and learning through connection, whakapapa, and within their zone of proximal development.

Cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy

Cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy (Berryman et al., 2018; Poutama Pounamu, n.d.) draws from Māori student voices around the pedagogical practices that most effectively support Māori students’ learning and engagement (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Bishop et al., 2007). Within this pedagogical approach, whānau-type relationships are typified by shared laughter, collective success, and creativity. In such contexts, “fun can motivate learners to try new things without fear of making a mistake, looking silly, or feeling awkward” (Bisson & Luckner,1996, p.110), creating supportive and caring relationships that recognise everyone as powerful, worthwhile, and loved (Zinn, 2008).

Fun within cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy is connected to care for learners and their learning. By demonstrating this quality of care, teachers actively invite and engage with a child’s prior knowledge, their interests and motivation to learn, understanding that these are critical to their engagement in learning. These types of relationships set the scene for flow to be experienced not only in the students but within teachers also, requiring teachers to be physically and emotionally present in order to respond in the moment. This state moves beyond a planned set of strategies to a way of being in which a teacher’s adaptive expertise draws on multiple ways of creating meaningful contexts for learning.

Through mahi ngātahi—working in unison—control and decision making is shared, supporting the realisation of self-determination within the group. When a teacher creates contexts that invite fun, this positions the power with the learners in regards to how they will engage with and experience the learning. Learners are able to follow their interests and curiosity with the teacher positioned to follow their lead and facilitate when needed.

A group of students are deeply engrossed in a conversation gathering ideas to use in a piece of writing on courage. Their kaiako sits amongst them, listening intently.

“Being courageous is hard”, says Sam, striking a superhero pose.

The students laugh and nod their heads in agreement.

“Yeah”, says Paora, he describes the day he attempted a manu in front of his mates and belly flopped instead. “I had to have courage to get out of the pool after that!” Everyone hoots with laughter and starts calling out similar stories to each other. As the students quieten, Nic picks up the conversation. “What about Māui? He did heaps of courageous things.”

“Yeah, like when he fished up the North Island, that must have been scary as but he did it anyway!”

“And the time when he took his kuia’s fire nails eh?” The students excitedly share other stories of courage when at the back of the room Fetu begins to speak in a low, strong voice …

All of the students turn to him with awe on their faces as he recites a poem about courage. “Whoa! That’s awesome Fetu!” Cheers and clapping break out.

Fun as liberatory

When we consider that fun allows us to “set free our inner self, try new things, trust others and take emotional risks” (Bisson & Luckner, 1996, p.110), we posit that fun, embedded within cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy can be a liberatory process. Liberation in this context understands that learning is something that children do themselves rather than something that is done to them (Shor, 1990). This understanding necessitates relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity in which teachers and children learn from and with each other.

Teaching approaches that control a child’s engagement with the world limit the possibilities of new learning and liberation. They hold us all confined within the power dynamics and socialisation of the status quo. We suggest such confinement and control is not conducive to fun nor does it bring both joy and hope in pursuit of new knowledge and ways of being. In particular we suggest that liberation through such educational experiences is the right of Māori.

Conclusion

As educators we cannot make our learners have fun but we can create contexts for learning that create space for fun. By centering and privileging learners’ identity, language and culture, educators can create contexts in which all learners can experience states of mauri ora and flow in their learning. Therefore we propose that fun, in the context of learning, is a state of being that is entwined with mauri ora and when embedded within cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy is a liberatory process.

Reflection questions

To what extent do you agree with the provocation we began this article with: We understand fun, in the context of learning, as a state of being that is entwined with mauri ora and embedded within cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy as a liberatory process.

What connections do you see between fun and ways of relating for ako to occur?

In what ways might fun provide opportunities for teachers to demonstrate care and high expectations of their learners?

How might fun within the learning context provide opportunities for learners to be self-determining?

How do you create contexts for learning in which your learners can have fun? How do you know they have experienced learning as fun?

Notes

1.Rongohia te Hau uses four data sets (teacher survey, student survey, whānau survey and observed pedagogical practice snapshots) to consider the extent to which cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy are implemented and how this is experienced across a school/ early childhood centre from multiple perspectives. For more detail see Rongohia te Hau: Effective support for culturally responsive teaching (Education Counts, 2022).

2.The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a concept developed by Vygotsky. It states that the most effective learning occurs when a learner is presented with tasks just beyond their current understanding, or capability, or both, along with the support of a more skilled other. (Shabani et al. 2010).

Glossary

Te reo Māori as used in this article.



haka dance
kaumātua and kuia elders
kōrero story
mahi ngātahi working in unison
marae Māori cultural space, sometimes including complex of buildings
mauri ora life force flourishing and strong
tākaro game, sport
taonga pūoro musical instrument
te ao Māori Māori world
Te Matatini Māori performing arts festival
waiata a song; to sing
whakapapa genealogy and relationships
whakatoi cheekiness and fun
whānau family
whare tapere house of entertainment, community centre

References

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Rāwini Ngaamo and her whānau are the product of the deliberate and devastating colonisation of Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. She works to ensure that all of our tamariki, mokopuna, and whānau never have to experience the loss of identity, culture, and language through education again. She is an accredited facilitator currently working at the University of Waikato.

Email: raewyn.ngaamo@waikato.ac.nz

Dawn Lawrence currently works as an accredited facilitator at the University of Waikato. Her work with teachers and school leaders is focused on equity and social justice through cultural relationships for responsive pedagogy. She is currently undertaking doctoral research on the potential of applied theatre within cultural capability focused PLD.

Email: dawn.lawrence@waikato.ac.nz