Are school activities fun or meaningful?

Attentive class
Despite all the hype about making better use of visual content in education, most educators still rely on language to communicate their messages. When educators talk to audiences beyond the education community, they often choose the same words they would use with other educators. Those choices can significantly undermine the case for education.

One such word is  fun.

Foreign language teachers have been discussing ramifications of  “fun activities” in foreign language classrooms. Joanne E. O’Toole, assistant professor of  curriculum and instruction at the State University of New York at Oswego, offered this insight:

I have spent much time trying to understand why some people view foreign language education as dispensable or less important than other content areas.  One contributor I have discovered is the perception others have of the nature of the language classroom.

Our beginning courses can be viewed as lacking weight because they are composed of so many “fun” activities (i.e., games, songs, food, etc.), just as our  advanced courses can be viewed as too weighty because they are “no fun at all.” This “fun-based” dichotomy can negatively influence educational decision makers, students, and parents.

My perspective is that conversations about what happens in language classrooms should not be about degrees of “fun” but rather on meaningfulness and the opportunities provided for worthwhile learning.

Therefore, I have replaced the word “fun” with the word “meaningful” when I talk about what we do in the foreign language classroom. This reminds me to make the meaningfulness of activities I use explicit, such that others understand the value the activities contribute to overall language and cultural learning.

Meaningful activities take a range of forms that evolve with the students’ proficiency levels; there is no dichotomy. Meaningfulness can be easily understood and valued by all those with whom we work and the students we teach.

In other words, one very powerful advocacy move I believe we all can make is this semantic shift. When we talk about what we do as “meaningful” rather than “fun,” we advocate for the value of language teaching and learning.

Dr. O’Toole’s analysis fits with what research tells us students want in courses in every discipline: activities that are meaningful and challenging rather than activities that are fun.

Her analysis also makes good sense from a public relations standpoint. Hearing his school taxes support “fun activities” is likely to raise the ordinary taxpayer’s blood pressure to a dangerous level. Such wording may lead to a resounding “NO!” vote on a school’s budget proposal, while an identical tax levy to support “meaningful activities” might pass without opposition.

Thanks to Dr. O’Toole for permission to reprint her remarks.
Photo Credit: “Attentive Class” by Ruthibabe