I just read this excellent article Pragmatic Learning: It’s not “fun” on Roger Schank’s blog. It’s a very good post that calls bullshit on the “gamification” cargo cult which is widespread in the edtech and corporate training world. Just adding points, badges, and levels to a corporate training program that teaches you something boring is not going to suddenly make it fun. The author’s main observation is that forced learning is not fun and we need not pretend it is. Consider an employer who wants their employees to know X because it is required by law, or a bunch of students forced to learn Y or else they’ll fail. These “forced” trainings are not fun, and gamifying them is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.

Instead of gamification, the author suggests learner’s experience should focus more on things like:

  • Getting away from the one-size fits all approach:

    Courses need not be administered to multitudes. One can have a course that is for one person only and can be used when needed. […]

  • The use of simulators
  • Enable students to collaborate with peers who are learning the same thing
  • Have human teachers (tutors) available to help
  • Enable “learn by doing” experiences:

    […] real autonomous, motivated, learning happens when you are in the middle of doing something, and questions arise in your mind about it.

  • Provide training in a “just in time”(JIT) manner, e.g. provide training on X right before the student will need to do X.

I highly recommend you read the article because the above summary hardly does it justice. I agree with 90% of the observations in this article, but I have some comments and observations of my own to add below the fold.


Learning can be somewhat fun

Learning some things is not fun for sure, like learning to factor quadratic expressions, or learning the exact accounting procedures you must follow as part of your job. But there are many other types of learning that can be fun.

One way things can be fun is through the knowledge buzz student feels once they understand a concepts, or see a new connections between concepts they already know about. I’m not talking about getting a good grade on an exam or successfully solving a problem—I’m talking about the sheer pleasure of learning new things. The author describes the feeling of “winning,” which is very similar to what I call “knowledge buzz” here.


Sell the applications

Although I’m a big fan of the just-in-time knowledge idea, we shouldn’t give up on the possibility of ahead-of-time training, as in the context of formal education where student take courses and learn things “in theory” that they will put into practice only years down the line. Some skills take two hours to learn, some take two weeks, some take two months, but there’re also skills and knowledge take on the order of two years to acquire. Think medicine. It’s impractical to use only just-in-time training for doctors to fill in the gaps in their knowledge when they’re already seeing patients.

One way to justify this frontloading of work is to “sell” the applications of the concepts the student is learning.  Put the applications first. We can explain all the doors that open for the student wants to learn the concepts at hand, which will motivate them to learn the theory and go through the course. This approach works well if the student can tests their knowledge through practical experiments and simulations as the author recommends.

2 thoughts on “Learning can be fun

  1. “Although I’m a big fan of the just-in-time knowledge idea, we shouldn’t give up on the possibility of ahead-of-time training, as in the context of formal education where student take courses and learn things “in theory” that they will put into practice only years down the line.”

    SO glad to hear someone say this. It’s lost in much of the buzz around corporate training these days!

  2. FWIW – Re: your point on just-in-time learning, particularly in the medicine scenario. Dr. Schank has long argued that situations that have serious and/or potentially catastrophic consequences, such as medicine, be done via story-centered curricula (SCC aka simulations) to avoid those types of mistakes in the real world. Even when you do need to “frontload” knowledge, you should still design training on sound learning science principles. Just-in-time learning does not need to be OJT.

    In story-centered curricula people are placed in fictional scenarios where they have to solve realistic problems. You provide just-in-time learning within those scenarios to help participants solve the problems. When done well there is always a clear application of what you’re learning – there’s no need to sell it as useful… someday… maybe.

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