Most educators have brought the myth that academic learning does not require discipline--that the best learning is easy and fun. They do not realize that it is fluent performance that is fun. The process of learning, of changing performance, is most often stressful and painful.
--Lindsey, O., (1992). Why aren't effective teaching tools widely adopted? Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, 22-26.
So begins chapter four of Vicki Snider's book Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching, What really happens in the classroom on the Myth of Fun and Interesting. This chapter is relevant to the ongoing debate over the educational value of the SLA student's project on the Dred Scott decision and problem-based education in general.
Snider describes the dangers of this myth well.
The myth of fun an interesting is an extension of the myth of process. When the process [of education] is emphasized, the entertainment value of a lesson and the students' level of engagement becomes the measure of the successful lesson. Teachers derive their reward and sense of satisfaction from creating fun and interesting lessons rather than from attaining specified learning outcomes.
There is some truth to the myth that learning should be fun. I can understand why teachers feel compelled to make lessons entertaining. I, too, like to design activities that engage students, create excitement, stimulate discussion, and make students laugh. I also know that these reinforcing moments do not necessarily guarantee that students have mastered the content. The exhilaration of my great lesson is more that offset by the letdown when I assess retention and application of skills and concepts.
Snider goes on to describe the potential harms that are done by the myth:
There are four harmful effects that result from overreliance on fun and interesting activities. First, fun activities lead to a lot of wasted instructional time. Second, activity-based instruction can make it difficult for learners to focus on what it is they are supposed to learn. Knowing what to pay attention to is called selective attention in the psychological literature and it is often a problem for young or naive learners or those with learning disabilities. Third, rather than increase motivation to learn, activities with a high entertainment value but a low content value may actually decrease the probability that a child will become a lifelong learner. Fourth, without effort and practice, individuals cannot master any intellectual or creative endeavor.
Snider makes an often overlooked, yet important point about lifetime learners:
People seldom decide to pursue a new intellectual area out of the blue; they become interested because they find themselves in a situation that reactivates some general knowledge that a teacher thought important years ago. If they have enough general knowledge, they can find out more through experience, by going to the library or looking on the Internet, or taking a class. The more specific knowledge they acquire, the more they are able to learn. Sometimes this positive reciprocal learning cycle leads to a depth of knowledge that allows a person to think critically and analytically. In other words, interest is the reward of learning, not the motivation for learning.
Lastly, Snider on the importance of developing fluency.
Fluency goes beyond accuracy. It is accuracy plus speed. Our traditional reliance on accuracy only, in the form of percentages, does not distinguish between students who have learned a skill, but still perform it with hesitation, and those that are fluent. failure to make these distinctions underlies many educational failures (Binder, Haughton, & Bateman, 2002). Students "progress by building one non-fluent skill on top of another until the whole skill set becomes too difficult to be enjoyable and students may respond to this stressful learning situation by becoming inattentive, misbehaving, or failing to complete homework and other assignments. All of these consequences are predictable. If the teacher responds by making learning more fun and interesting or by reducing accountability, the problem is solved in the short term, but the real issue remains unaddressed and the long-term result is low academic achievement.
Snider raises some important issues with PBL. Making school work fun and interesting is all well and good, but ultimately you have to look at what the student has actually learned to gauge the effectiveness of the teaching. The arguments I'm reading so far favoring PBL and SLA rely on some form of goal-post shifting with respect to what the student is expected to have learned. This isn't exactly a strong argument in favor or PBL and SLA if you know what I mean.