April 3, 2014

I have had a lot of flack from people who read this column (and other things I have written) as advocating taking the hard work and discipline out of learning. I don’t blame them. I am a critic of the ways in which traditional school forces kids to learn and most attempts to introduce a more engaging, less coercive curriculum do indeed end up taking the guts out of the learning. But it is not fair to hold me guilty by association. My whole career in education has been devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline. But it is not easy to find the right language to explain how I think I am different from the “touchy feely … make it fun make it easy” approaches to education.

Way back in the mid-eighties a first grader gave me a nugget of language that helps. The Gardner Academy (an elementary school in an under-privileged neighborhood of San Jose, California) was one of the first schools to own enough computers for students to spend significant time with them every day. Their introduction, for all grades, was learning to program, in the computer language Logo, at an appropriate level. A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: “It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s Logo.” I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.

Once I was alerted to the concept of “hard fun” I began listening for it and heard it over and over. It is expressed in many different ways, all of which all boil down to the conclusion that everyone likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills and (don’t let us forget) ethic adults will need for the future world.

Papert, S. (1996) The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap. Atlanta: Longstreet Press. Retrieved from “Hard Fun” at http://papert.org/articles/HardFun.html


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