Why having fun is the best way to learn

If you ever want to see playing and learning happening together you just have to watch a toddler for five minutes. A game of peek-a-boo is tremendous fun but also develops the child’s concept of object permanence. Similarly, when a two year old tries to push a square block through different shaped holes in a toy he is playing but also learning which hole is correct and will slowly begin to understand why. This learn-by-play intimately associates fun and learning but what is it about having fun that makes it an effective way of learning?

First of all what is fun? When we ride a roller-coaster it is exhilarating, it feels dangerous but we survive and have a sense of overcoming adversity – this is fun. If we ride the same roller-coaster another hundred times it will stop being fun because we will either vomit; which is not a positive experience, or the novelty will wear off and it will become “boring”. Fun is the sense we have when we have a novel positive experience.

So, what is it about fun that leads us to learn – what is the point of fun? We evolved from primordial ooze by somehow avoiding starvation, falling off a cliff or being eaten by a bear. This has driven us to evolve a healthy survival instinct down to a physiological level. We only have finite resources so we instinctively save our energy in case we need to do something in a hurry to survive. Now, when anyone learns something this requires a physical rewiring of the brain to make and break synapses which requires energy. Consequently, the brain is hard-wired to avoid wasting energy so won’t learn things it sees as unnecessary. The brain as an organ is like a dumb animal and is driven by sensation. So, unless something feels like it has a point from a survival perspective it won’t bother, no matter how much we cognitively know that something is important.

In a multi-organ organism the brain’s job is to know things. At a low level this comes down to instinct, because knowing when to run and when to stay put in an instant can make the difference between becoming bear-fodder or not. In order to achieve this, the brain learns from each new experience where a positive outcome is achieved as it sees a benefit to the likelihood of survival. Situations that are too close for comfort are not fun and will be avoided in future whereas we will tend towards experience that are in our interest and have a sense of enjoyment aka fun as a result.

In order to be able to respond to challenges quickly brains will look for patterns and where the same result is seen it makes an assumption that an outcome will occur so stops working and boredom will ensue. These assumptions have been called chunks or schemas but are essentially shortcuts to a predicted outcome based on a given set of inputs. Associations between different ideas form an abstract kind of shortcut and is a brain’s way of trying to order the information it sees as relevant and build a broader set of predictions.

All this talk of having fun learning is great but what about other places we have fun? What about games? Games designers are in the business of designing fun experiences. They know that a game must give a sense of reward to players, must not be too easy or too hard and that they have to give a few surprises here and there. Games designers can become so effective in fact that some get totally addicted to the latest mobile sweet-swapping game! We understand how fun and learning fit together but how can we use this knowledge to help us learn or teach more effectively.

How can we hack learning?

Recognise that fun is a good thing

Fun is not a dirty word (although sometimes dirty words can be fun). If you need to teach or learn something do not think there is anything wrong with enjoying the process. Making a game out of the goal is an appropriate and effective way to learn something.

Break learning down to chunkable predictions

We learn things as a series of predictions or shortcuts. Break complex subjects into simple steps then build a pattern for how the chunks fit together. Remember that everything complicated is just made up of a series of simple ideas.

Challenge misconceptions

Once someone has made a shortcut this is very hard to identify and unlearn so it is important to look out for misconceptions. These are harder to challenge the more embedded they become in bigger schemes of ideas so must be dealt with as soon as possible.

Keep things fresh

We ascribe the most value to new experiences so presenting information in novel ways. Retain engagement by making activities slightly unpredictable and generally mix things up to make it far more likely that an idea will be absorbed and internalised.

You learn what your attention is on

Quite simply you remember the things you pay attention to. I have a terrible memory for names and song lyrics. The reason is that they just don’t catch my attention. On the other hand I remember ridiculously complicated scientific terms like “ataxia telangiectasia mutated” or “glomerulonephritis” because they are interesting words. Make things interesting and make sure the focus is on the actual thing that needs to be learned.

Tap in to primitive urges (Ug)

We do a lot of things automatically without really thinking about it. Generally we follow our basic urges like hunger or the fight-or-flight response. The urges to compete, to close loops, to curate, to seek status or to gain rewards are very powerful. These can be very effective as tools to retain focus and engagement and in tech products have become collectively known as gamification. These can be used in any learning context.

All of the above can be used by teachers and learners and form the central thread to Zammer’s product. Stay posted for more on how we are doing that!