“The origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion or doubt.” – John Dewey

Pop quiz. What’s the most overused word in coaching and education?

For me, ‘fun’ comes pretty close. It’s a bit of a buzz word, often ill-defined and used without the user really thinking about it or knowing quite what they mean when they say it.

When chatting with some students about their coaching philosophies recently, ‘fun’ was inevitably part of the conversation. When I asked them what fun looks like, they happily threw out terms like smiling, laughter, enjoyment and enthusiasm. What does learning look like? Brows started to furrow.

Similarly, the term ‘engaging’ popped up. How do you know when someone is engaged? Because they are doing the activity! Maybe. What’s the difference between compliance and engagement? Erm. Could I be engaged in an activity, have fun doing it, but not learn anything from it?

I think as a culture we often prioritise style over substance.

I’m not saying fun and enjoyment aren’t important, far from it. For example, they are key motivators of children’s participation in sport; however, they are also likely context dependent, as well as individually determined, with one person’s fun another person’s boring and vice versa (see Cope et al., 2013 for a useful review).

What I am saying, is that fun and engagement, although likely an impetus for learning, do not always equate to learning.

This leads me to a recent example I wanted to share from my own practice. The two videos below were created by one of our undergraduate sports coaching students, Sophie.

Whilst they are by no means perfect, I think they’re really good. Have a watch:

Sophie created the videos for an assignment on one of her second year modules. The students were tasked with creating a YouTube channel that had the potential to educate a specific audience (e.g., parents, coaches, athletes etc.) on the bio-psycho-social aspects of talent development.

In devising the task, I wanted to provide as much space as possible for creativity, agency and ownership (within the confines of a formal assessment), so as to help students construct and evidence new knowledge and conceptual understanding.

During the semester, face to face workshops were also supplemented with Slack, an online messaging and discussion platform. This allowed students to share and discuss drafts of their videos and get formative feedback from their peers and myself in order for them to tweak and improve them as the semester went on.

What do you think the students thought about the task?

Many of them absolutely hated it! At least in the beginning, including Sophie.

“It’s too hard.” “I don’t know what to do.” “It’s too complicated.” “Can I not just write an essay?” “It takes too long.” “I had a go but it was impossible.” “Can I not just do a PowerPoint instead?” – all phrases I heard, usually in an exasperated tone.

At the end of the module, I asked Sophie to send me a brief reflection on her experience:

Sophie Reflection

Her experience wasn’t uncommon.

Around half the students had a similar journey: starting out hating it, putting some effort in, then emerging from the experience having learned quite a bit and looking back on it retrospectively as actually being quite ‘enjoyable’.

Others, however, stood still or went in the opposite direction. They wanted to be told exactly what to do in order to pass or get a good grade. They wanted the rules of the game to be explicit and out in the open. The grey areas, choice and freedom inherent in the task made them uncomfortable – black and white answers were what they wanted, not ambiguity, unpredictability and ‘it depends-ness’!

Being compared to and, potentially (in their eyes), ‘measured’ against their peers also seemed to bring its own anxieties, hence many not accessing the formative feedback on offer, preferring instead to cling to the side of the pool and leave everything until the last minute.

Others, meanwhile, couldn’t wait to dive straight in and chuck their ideas out for comment and input.

I’ve come to realise that many students haven’t actually had much experience of failure and, when the potential for failure does appear, they tend to avoid it like the plague. Better to play safe or stick your head in the sand than take a risk.

This often seems to be a function of their previous schooling or college experiences, where failure just wasn’t an option (despite it probably being the best facilitator of learning I know of!).


Consequently, I often find myself considering this apparent disconnect between different pedagogical approaches and, not only learning, but student expectations – especially in the current climate of tuition fees and increasingly market driven, consumer-led higher education. Is it even possible to ‘consume’ an education?

Many of my colleagues in the sector will be familiar with the term ‘intellectual stimulation’, a metric used in annual student surveys that are intended, in part, to measure student ‘satisfaction’.

I often wonder how many students associate being stimulated intellectually with whether they are having ‘fun’ on a module, how easy it is, or simply whether they will get a good grade at the end of it – rather than how hard they were having to think, problem-solve, or whether they were indeed learning much.

If anything, worthwhile learning is likely to be frustrating, discomforting and confusing, at least at the time it takes place. Similarly, any sports fan will tell you (with the benefit of hindsight) how fondly they remember a particular match or game – despite the fact it was probably excruciating to watch at the time when the result was still in the balance!

Thought provokers and points for reflection:

  • How do we balance the demands for (and maybe misconceptions of) different types of learning activities with worthwhile learning outcomes?
  • How can we develop (especially in children) greater comfort with ambiguity and the ‘shades of grey’ that characterise our increasingly complex and uncertain world? cf. Bertrand Russell and the case for ‘Philosophy for Everyone’
  • We can’t expect young people to acquire and develop the skills needed to deal with challenge if the chance of failure is consistently minimised or removed from their path. How can we effectively periodise challenge within the contexts we work in order to help develop those skills? cf. Collins et al. (2016)
  • Fun and engagement are quite ‘visible’, learning is harder to ‘see’ – how do you measure learning?

2 thoughts on “Learning – It isn’t always ‘fun’

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