Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who says learning should be fun?

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I am becoming increasingly exasperated by the extent to which “fun” is specified as a requirement of learning design. In fact, it is frequently the only need that is clearly expressed.

Now, I understand the general idea that if people don’t enjoy the training, they are less likely to give it high smile-sheet ratings, or recommend it to a colleague. But are they less likely to learn if the process is not liberally peppered with “fun” experiences?

In theory, we learn best when we are relaxed and in harmony with our learning environment. A good trainer can set the tone and help create the most appropriate atmosphere. Ice-breakers contribute to that state, and are particularly helpful for skeptical learners, those uncomfortable in learning situations, and inexperienced trainers.

But training does not have to be entertaining.

E-learning’s rise has brought this issue to the fore. The constant admonition from instructional designers that e-learning has to be punctuated every couple of minutes with “interactivity” is one of the saddest mantras of our time. It’s like the American notion that food cannot be palatable unless you smother it with ketchup. If you are working with training that is bland and dry, by all means bring on the sauce. But would it not be better to make the training itself more engaging in the first place?

The distinction between engagement and interactivity is crucial, and it’s one that many instructional designers – and those who commission the development work – do not appear to understand. Engagement is intense mental absorption; interactivity is often just busyness or sugar-coating. It is vitally important that learners be engaged. Interactivity, entertainment, and fun can contribute to cognitive engagement. They can equally well distract from it.

There are possibly three causes for the boom in gratuitous fun in learning: managers want motivational experiences disguised as training; instructional designers lack the skills or imagination to architect inherently engaging learning experiences; and trainers seek high smile-sheet scores and possibly a release from their own boredom.

Managers: Too often, when managers commission training, what they really want is a motivation activity. I can't tell you how often, for instance, I have heard the whine: "We can't make people take that course online, because we'd lose out on the motivation, energizing, bonding, or social interaction that we get from the classroom course."

My response is to challenge the learning objectives: if the primary desired output of the "event" is all that warm fuzzy stuff, then why pretend to be running a training course? It is far more cost effective to structure a motivation session that achieves those goals, and does not come out of the training budget. (Through my focus on sales and marketing, I have designed and run many such events, some of them wild or lavish, and all of them very effective, but I have never called them "training" events). Naturally, if the self-discovery or bonding is germane to the learning (in, say, leadership training or some interpersonal skills training) then it may be relevant and appropriate.

But too often the kind of feel-good factor that is called for in training is (once again) training being abused as a surrogate for good management.

Instructional designers: Many learning experiences are atrociously conceived. The designer has to work with unrealistic timelines, limited subject matter knowledge, poorly specified learning objectives, and myopic supervision, as well as limitations or constraints in the way the training is to be implemented.

The expedient approach often taken is a linear exposition of content, made less dull by the frequent insertion of bits of fun. “We’ll do an icebreaker at the start, a game here, bring out the Lego over there, run a video here, chuck in some role-playing and a bit of team competition intermittently, and make the tests like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. ‘Triple Bottom Line Accounting for HR Professionals’ will never have been so much fun! Who cares if a week later the only thing they remember is the egg-dropping contest?”

Instructional designers need to look beyond the smile sheet for their inspiration, and companies need to stop hiring as ISD's people whose only pedagogical qualification is a mechanical competence in Macromedia's tools.

Trainers: From a trainer's perspective, "having fun" can be an acceptable way to leaven the densest of subject matter, so long as it does not distract from the learning goals. And, because in too many companies the smile sheet ratings are the primary indicator of how good a trainer is at his/her job, "fun" is welcome. It is often true that a learning experience becomes less engaging for the trainer the more engaging it is for the learner. If you are running the same course over and over again, the entertaining components serve to keep you from putting yourself to sleep.

From a learner's perspective, those who do not really want to participate in the learning experience in the first place may be distracted, if not seduced, by the injection of "fun" components; those who really want to learn ask themselves why they are wasting time on irrelevant padding.

Fun can be very constructive. Well-designed entertaining experiences that are relevant and fully integrated into the learning process can work as powerful illustrations of concepts or living analogies. If the fun is designed as an effective instructional process, contributing to the achievement of specific learning objectives, I'll opt for fun over dull any day. But if it is gratuitous, I won't waste my time, or that of learners, by indulging in it.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 21 Oct 2005


illusions said...

I liked this post, but had a problem with the following para...
"The distinction between engagement and interactivity is crucial, and it’s one that many instructional designers – and those who commission the development work – do not appear to understand. Engagement is intense mental absorption; interactivity is often just busyness or sugar-coating. It is vitally important that learners be engaged. Interactivity, entertainment, and fun can contribute to cognitive engagement. They can equally well distract from it."

My problem is that I see interactivity as a subset of engagement, as is good content. Regarding the fun aspect to training, I think training should always be fun. Now, we need to define fun. I define "fun" in learning as a positive experience that enables a learner to retain concepts. Simple animations can do the trick, depending on the dialogs being used.

I do appreciate your blog. It triggers several thought processes :)

Anonymous said...

what makes training engaging is the business context around the need to know. for instance, having to learn a technology that is needed immediately on the job makes the most straight forward content "engaging" - provided it's accurate.

experiential-learner said...

I enjoyed reading this post and agree with it whole heartedly. The only reason games (other than energizers)should be used during training is transact the content effectivey and make it accessible by all. Training is an environment where time is compressed and the content has to be accessible (in practical terms) by everybody in this short duration, so as to transfer it to the workplace post training. Games along with other tools make content accessible quite effeciently.
Experiential-learner from

Anonymous said...

While I do not wholeheartedly agree with all you say nor disagree vehemently I do think that the order and primary subject matter was incorrectly conceived. The subject being an overt attack on fun engagement as a teaching tool is misplaced. I can see that statement as being a paragraph inserted into how to be a good educator but to make it the prime topic is irresponsible due to the audience. If you are speaking to trainers and admonishing them on how better to work their craft I would accept the premise. However, as an open forum that is accessible to all I am afraid that the response could be "I don't want that guy or gal, I heard they were a lot of fun". I do hold very entertaining classes so perhaps I am one that you are directing it to. However, experience gives you a couple of interesting observations. 1) are you getting results? 2) if you are not getting "this is the best class that I have ever attended" remarks then you just flat out are not doing your job. I get the smily faces as you call them but I get more hand written thoughtful comments that guide my training. People who are not used to sitting in class rooms all day or during an evening are going to have attention span issues. A good intructor is going to be a motivational character with ready antidotes and humorous or emotional engagements. These people sitting through your seminars deserve to have that WOW feeling when they are done. I explain to my students that my job is to train them the process, and motivate them to perform those processes for the time period required to create the new habit. Zig Ziglar was once told by a gentleman that he did not believe in all that motivation because it did not last. Zig correctly replied that "neither does bathing, that is why we do it everyday"

Anonymous said...


I can relate to the author's thought process. I am not a fun trainer, in the funny sense of the word, because I cannot crack jokes, if I do, it is so corny, I would have squeezed my own neck. Some trainees do provide highers scores to a trainer who can effectively crack jokes even if it gets them distracted from learning the subject matter.

I have learned to be happy with the results of my Level 1 assessments though, by not trying to compare the results with the Level 1 assessments of the "funny trainer".

I get satisfaction from the results of the learning opportunitites I create, 6 months down the road...when the either productivity or high morale is improved.