Learning Should Be Fun


Learning can and should be fun. This is not just a moral position, but a scientific one too.

When you learn a new thing, or get a surprise, there is a shot of a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is famous among neuroscientists for its involvement in the reward and motivation systems of the brain.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the reason addictive drugs are addictive is that they hack the reward circuitry that dopamine is intimately involved in. Perhaps the most addictive drug, cocaine, directly increases the amount of dopamine at work in your brain.

Learning something new triggers a chemical release of the same kind as cocaine, albeit in a much more subtle manner. As methods of getting your kicks you can perhaps compare it to the difference between walking up a hill yourself or being strapped to a rocket and blasted up — slower, harder work, but a lot more sustainable and you’re in a better state to enjoy the view when you get there!

The reason for this electro-chemical connection between learning and drugs of reward is that our brains have obviously been designed to find learning fun.

One of the many negative things about the misconception that education is about transmitting content is the idea that any fun you have is taking time away from proper learning, and that ‘proper learning’ shouldn’t be fun.

Rather than fun being a relief from learning, or a distraction from it, for most of our history, before school, learning had to be its own motivation. Brains that learnt well had more offspring, and so learning evolved to be rewarding.

In lots of teaching situations we focus on the right and wrong answers to things, which is a venerable paradigm for learning, but not the only one. There is a less structured, curiosity-driven, paradigm which focusses not on what is absolutely right or wrong, but instead on what is surprising. A problem with rights and wrongs is that, for some people, the pressure of being correct gets in the way of experiencing what actually is.

You can try this for yourself, either in any teaching you do, or any learning. Often we will get blocked at a particular stage in our learning. A normal response is to try harder, and to focus more on what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. Sometimes this helps, but sometimes it just digs us further into our rut. The way out of the rut is to re-focus on experiencing again.

I’ll give you an example from one of the two things I know best about teaching — aikido, the japanese martial art. Aikido involves some quite intricate throws and grappling moves. Often a student is so intent on getting through the move, and on trying hard to get it right, that they become completely stuck, repeatedly doing something that doesn’t work, and usually too fast. Even if you say or show explicitly the correct movement, they can’t seem to get it. In this situation, one teaching technique I use, inspired by the ‘Inner Game’ writings of Timothy Gallway, is to tell the student to stop trying to do the move correctly, and instead do it deliberately wrong. “Try pushing over this way to the left”, I’ll say, “Now try the opposite over to the right. Now try high, or low. Which is easiest?”. By removing the obligation to get the move correct I hope to give permission to the student to just experience the effect they are having on their partner’s balance. Once they can tune into this they can figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is, without me having to tell them.

However you do it, if you can get out of the rut of right and wrong you free up a natural capacity for experience-led, curiosity-driven learning. Soon you’ll be flying along again, experiencing the learning equivalent of the jogger’s high, and all thanks to that chemical messenger dopamine and a brain that’s evolved to find things out for itself, and feel good while doing it.

Part of a series. #1 Learning Makes Itself Invisible

Cross-posted at schoolofeverything.com

Image: jogging on the beach by Naama

2 thoughts on “Learning Should Be Fun”

  1. Nice post.
    From Rolls¬¥ book, “Emotion Explained” in which is listed a table of primary and secondary rewards, i learned that intelectual puzzles can be rewarding and the implication of dopamine it is therefore justificated.
    A feeling of pleasant when things are done, or a flow á la Csíkszentmihályi.

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