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How to bring the fun back in learning?

Ever wondered why we use “XYZ” and not “HIJ” or “LMN” as a variable in maths.

The obvious answer is that “XYZ” are the last letters in the alphabet. But that is not the reason they are used as variables.

The credit of using “XYZ” goes to French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. The same Rene Descartes who famously said “Cogito ergo sum” meaning “I think. therefore I am.

But that is not all he is famous for. He has contributed more to maths and philosophy than anyone else outside of Greeks.

As the story goes he was printing his mathematics work when he needed letters to denote ‘unknown’ variables. Since he had lots of variables in his work, he needed lots of spare letters. X, Y, and Z are not that commonly used letters in French, so he used them.

The other speculation is that in those days, printing presses needed all letters arranged by hand. Since X, Y, and Z were stored furthest away, way out of the reach of the printing-man arranging the letters, they were the least used.

Who knows which story is correct but I am sure you had as much fun learning about the stories behind the use of “XYZ” as I did.

Learning itself is fun.

Whenever we start learning something new, we are enthusiastic, excited, and full of energy. Remember the last time you started learning painting, dancing, or singing. How excited you were? You joined a course. You bought new material. You were always the first one to arrive at the class. You started great. You did your homework. Everyone encouraged you and you had so much fun.

Then something happened.

Things started getting harder. You lagged behind. You tried to catch up but that doubled the pressure. You started putting in more hours. You were getting tired but you didn’t want to give up. And suddenly the learning stopped.

The same activity that was so much fun started to stress you.

You left the territory where things were easy and entered the zone where things became harder and harder. Now you were expected to be serious and put in the hard yakka if you really wanted to learn the skill.

In other words, you were not supposed to have fun. Or at least this was what you thought. And that is a mistake.

Learning stops when the fun stops.

Somewhere along the line, we pick up the belief that learning has to be torturous. Whether it was due to the fear of examinations or due to our upbringing which insists on learning at the cost of fun that we start hating the act of learning itself.

So much so that many adults believe that after a certain age they can’t go to college or university because they are too old to learn anything new. The same people will be fine to go to clubs and learn to play bridge or chess, the games requiring memory and strategic thinking.

They are able to learn new games because they are having fun.

Learning becomes easy as soon as you put the fun back into it.

No one knows this better than the language teacher Michel Thomas. Michel has a completely different approach to teaching. In a BBC documentary, he was given what could be considered the most challenging students. And his mission was to teach them French.

Michel starts with something entirely unexpected. Rather than starting with the first lesson, he gets his students to move the desks and replace them with sofas. The blackboard and screens are all abandoned because Michel doesn’t believe in textbooks, or taking notes or homework. He says, “Anything that causes stress must be removed from the experience.” And classroom-like setup causes stress.

Michel has two ground rules for learning.

  1. You have to be relaxed.
  2. You should never worry about remembering anything.

You got to abandon any anxiety usually associated with learning. Michel’s theory is that any form of tension and anxiety inhibits learning.

He also believes that the responsibility of retention lies with the teacher, not with the learner. The method of teaching should incorporate retention.

We associate learning with work, with concentration, and with paying attention. Learning reminds us of homework and of memorizing. It brings back painful memories. Learning becomes hard work rather than a pleasure.

Learning shouldn’t be work but a pleasure.

When we learn we should experience a sense of progression, of excitement. Rather than feel exhausted from it we should want more.

We feel exhausted because we forget the intimidation factors. We are intimidated by the unknown. We are intimidated by the pain it is going to cause us. And we are intimidated by the fact we are not going to retain much of what we are going to learn.

Ease is the opposite of intimidation. The only way we can become enthusiastic about learning if we can make learning easy. Ease brings the fun back to the learning process.

How to make learning easy.

Here are 3 simple things you can do:

1) Break the learning into smaller components and tackle them one by one. Smaller components make it easy to gain and retain information.

2) Remove any expectations from yourself. Expectations cause stress and stress is the enemy of learning.

3) Make the hard components fun somehow. Why not make them crazy. For example:

  • Write a story backward? Tell the ending first, then the middle and then beginning.
  • Start a course from the middle rather than the beginning. You will be surprised to find out you already know a lot and your concentration level has doubled.
  • Write with your eyes closed? Describing what you are seeing on the inside of your eyelids. Do they become a tiny screen and a film starts playing on them.
  • Put some constraints. Write for just fifteen minutes and see what you can come up with. Learn to play only two notes for a month and master them. Draw the same sketch twenty times.

Let me summarise what I have covered so far.

Learning itself is fun. You keep learning as long as you are having fun. As soon as the fun stops, learning stops.

Fun in learning is linked to “ease of learning”. As long as learning is easy, it is fun. As soon as learning gets difficult, the fun stops. And the learning stops too.

So how to bring the fun back in learning. 1) make learning easy by dividing it into small components 2) remove any expectations 3) introduce fun by doing crazy things.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

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