Learning is best when it is fun

Many years ago, the high-tech job that moved us out to California had me attend a couple of weeks of training before I got started. The lead instructor was probably a pussycat in real life, but to us trainees she seemed like a real drill sergeant. Remember, this was a very technical job. One thing she made crystal clear was that anyone scoring less than 90% on the final exam would be looking for a new job the next day. Read more.

Rooftops of Paris by Harold Davis

Rooftops of Paris © Harold Davis—Click image to view larger!

My oldest son Julian had just been born prematurely two weeks before the hospital tour, and I had just moved my family across the country. With a child in intensive care, keeping my benefits was important to me, and you can imagine that I crammed hard for that final exam.

Whether they really would have fired me if I hadn’t aced the exam I will never know, but I wasn’t going to find out.

I was motivated.

Fear is a great motivator—but it motivated me to cram, not to really learn, and I doubt I retained much of the material that I had studied for very long.

Over the years, as I’ve written books that are intended to teach, and as I’ve become an experienced workshop leader, I’ve pondered the question of what helps people learn. In other words, since I’m supposed to be helping people learn, what mechanisms can I best use?

As in my example of high-tech training, fear works to some degree, at least as a motivator. But it is not clear that fear teaches the right things, or that it best for long term learning and retention.

Repetition is also a learning tool that works in limited doses. Like fear, some degree of repetition is a good thing when you are learning, but too much repetition is a turn-off.

When will the schools recognize that boredom and true learning are orthogonal?

If fear and repetition, the two great motivators of our current educational system, don’t work—what does?

My answers are that one learns best by doing, and also one learns best when one is having fun. You might be surprised to find out that there is quite a bit of neuroscience that backs up the proposition that having fun enhances learning.

I think that you also learn best from instructors who are committed to continued learning themselves, and having fun while they do it. Anyone who thinks they know everything, doesn’t (to paraphrase Socrates)—and is probably a bit pompous and boring, to boot.

Within the overall arch of learning by doing, and learning best while having fun, different learning styles have also to be acknowledged—there is no one size fits all when it comes to how people learn, but everyone learns best through immersion, and when they are having fun.

Which is what I design my workshops to achieve. Sure, Photographing Paris in 2014 is going to be fun—and that is part of the point. It’s also going to be a 24/7 immersion in photography. I’m pleased that when I discuss this year’s Photographing Paris workshop with participants so many of us say, “Hey, that was fun! And I learned so much…”

This entry was posted in Workshops, Writing.

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