You know when you read something and it just sticks with you? Years ago, I read this short column written by mathematician, Seymour Papert, called Hard Fun. What is “hard fun”? Papert, referring to a student engaged in hard fun says, “I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.”
Hard fun describes the thinking and feeling one experiences when engaged in challenging, creative work. Most activities and pursuits that are repetitively fun and endlessly engaging are also extremely difficult to master. We challenge ourselves over and over to excel at a game, sport, mechanical project, musical piece, or work of art, not because we have to but because we are compelled to. Any progress made is extremely rewarding. When a task like this requires your best work, you give it your all, and then, even then, improvement is required. This is the allure of video games, skateboarding, and Tiktok dances. Hard fun taps into our intrinsic motivation. The goal is not a grade or piece of candy. Mastering the task at hand is the target. When we are intrinsically motivated, we learn more, practice more, and take more academic risks in order to achieve goals. It’s hard and because it’s hard, it’s the best kind of fun.
To really understand how to incorporate hard fun in schools, it may be more important to underscore what hard fun is not. Hard fun is not a game where students dance around and parrot information back to the teacher or a standards based worksheet that grants students the privilege to use crayons for the day. Teachers and students describe these activities as fun and engaging when what they mean to say is that these activities make the day go by more quickly. Students may get to leave their seat, converse with a friend, or even smile. The bar set for “fun” in schools is currently very low. And though a welcome respite from a boring lecture, these activities, as a whole, serve no academic purpose and are in no way intellectually stimulating.
I sometimes speak with past students that have been accepted at prestigious high schools that boast rigorous courses and are reserved for the area’s best and brightest students. When I ask them how it’s going, I expect to hear how they have been academically, intellectually, and personally challenged. Surely these schools focus on hard fun. Instead, I listen to student after student recount weeks of sleepless nights filled with mind numbing memorization. Survival at these schools is a war of attrition as opposed to a passionate pursuit of knowledge, skills, and ideas. Instead of igniting the mind, these schools are snuffing out every last ember of curiosity and intellectual pursuit.
Schools are not currently designed for hard fun. Daniel Pink wrote about intrinsic motivation in his 2009 book, Drive. He states that the three key factors are:
Autonomy - when you have control over what you do
Mastery - the ongoing need to improve
Purpose - you see the learning as relevant and meaningful to your life
Students have little to no autonomy in their lives at school, passively sitting at a desk, completing questions steeped in recall, and blindly following meaningless algorithms. Teachers have an inordinate number of standards to “cover” per day to keep up with a pacing calendar devoted to frequent standardized testing. There is little time for students to think or debate with peers over rich, challenging questions let alone master a skill. When class is over, students trudge on to the next topic, the next day.
In my class, when the question of purpose arose, “Why are we doing this? What is the point?” My answer became closer and closer to the sad truth each year. “We are doing this so that you can perform well on your test. You will be judged on the test and placed next year with students that perform as you do. It is in your best interest to be placed in a classroom where the students have performed well.” This is a careful way of saying that students that pass our standardized tests are usually our most compliant students. Classes full of compliant children are generally quieter, get rewarded more often, and allow students to get more one on one help from the teacher. They may also get to avoid a remedial class and choose an elective. Electives are a student's best opportunity for hard fun.
The “behind the scenes” truth of the matter is that students do what they do because school districts fear losing funding. Their fear diminishes trust in teachers and students to the point that they micromanage and script lessons. The result is shallow, frantic classes devoted to test preparation and devoid of any hard fun or academic success.
Look, we know what good teaching and learning look like. It’s hard fun! If we could somehow lift the veil of fear from administrators’ eyes (oh, and remove the stronghold of textbook companies), we could demonstrate that hard fun is the best way to prepare students for anything, including tests. True learning is creative, supportive, thoughtful, personal, communal, continuous, and frequently hard. We do a tremendous disservice to students by ignoring this and devoting hours on end to boring busy work.
What if all learning incorporated hard fun? What if the culture of teaching and learning centered around it? How different schools would be! Imagine if we accepted and embraced the notion that the scope of character traits and learning targets that we value most cannot sufficiently be measured by a standardized test. Teachers could focus on creating the conditions for hard fun around that which we want students to learn. Schools would be filled with joy, discovery, and a collective passion for learning. What could possibly be more important?
Drive Virtual Academy is redesigning our plan this year to best meet the needs of families. After speaking/texting/Zooming with parents in South Florida since early June, we see a tremendous demand for affordable, flexible, high quality classes and activities centered around hard fun. Without compromising the integrity of our instruction and commitment to small class sizes, we feel that we can shift our model to serve students in homeschool, private school, and public school by offering courses, clubs, and Esports a la carte. We hope you will consider joining us!