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A peculiar American notion that's also pernicious: Learning should always be fun

Dr. Angelika Pohl of Atlanta is founder and principal consultant at Better Testing & Evaluations. She wrote this essay in response to a recent blog  about the trend to make learning fun for students.

By Dr. Angelika Pohl

I think it's a peculiar American notion that learning should always be fun. Ask anyone who mastered a skill, whether writer, musician, carpenter, painter, or bus driver whether every step in their learning process was fun. Of course it wasn't.

They mastered a skill because they stuck it out during difficult, probably boring stages and because they had the discipline and the imagination and the drive to work toward a goal.

I'm glad I learned correct grammar and how to spell so when I write something, the reader is not distracted from my ideas by the mechanical faults in my writing; I'm glad the pianist I go to hear has practiced and practiced again the difficult passages so that the music she makes is not marred by unintended dissonance; I'm glad I learned to do calculations in my head so I don't have to scramble for my calculator to see if I'm being cheated in a purchase or misled by erroneous statistical claims in a popular magazine article; I'm glad I had to memorize endless French vocabulary lists when I was a middle school student in Austria because eventually I became fluent in French  -- and it helped me to learn English.

I am always distressed when today's teachers claim spelling or grammar don't matter and then promptly write something on the chalk board that is misspelled, which reinforces students' belief that accuracy in writing (and, by implication, in anything else) is a fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned notion. Too many teachers believe correcting a child -- in any subject area -- will harm his or her self-esteem and creativity. Such nonsense.

Ask any accomplished writer whether he didn't survive rigorous instruction at some point -- and is thankful for it. Ask any accomplished artist whether she didn't get terribly frustrated at times and almost gave up but decided the effort to improve was worth all the pain. Beethoven is said to have had his fingers rapped by his father when he made mistakes in his playing.

Too many of today's teachers, when faced with a minor math "problem" -- in or outside the  classroom -- will proudly announce "I don't do math," sort of like saying "I don't do shrimp." Even the word arithmetic has gone out of fashion because students are supposed to "understand" mathematical procedures, rather than be able to perform them.

In my Austrian elementary schooling I learned wonderfully useful mental as well as written arithmetic tricks to quickly do sums or division or whatever my daily life requires. My favorite app is my brain, not the calculator that I can't locate quickly. I'll never forget when soft drinks were sold at some charitable event for 50 cents (no tax), but when the electronic cash register went on the fritz they stopped selling drinks because the clerk declared himself unable to do the math.

In too many of today's schools I see a lack of emphasis on precision. I hear students -- and teachers! -- read text aloud that is only approximate, with words left out and words introduced that aren't there. That is supposed to be good enough. And we wonder why our students don't succeed in science. And maybe I'm not surprised when merchants get my order wrong, when mail is delivered to the wrong address, and when the wrong leg or arm is amputated.

Paying close attention is somehow out of fashion, somehow not cool. Students learn to guess at the meaning in texts rather than to read what's actually there; they learn to estimate math results, which they do poorly since they haven't developed enough math understanding to judge whether their estimate makes any sense; and they are encouraged to make up their own creative interpretations of literature with little regard to what the text actually says.

Ironically and unfortunately, the good jobs in our new Internet economy require more accuracy than ever. A comma in the wrong place in a computer program can cause a fatal glitch. Our students are not being prepared for this new world requiring hyper-vigilance to accuracy and precision. And apart from the computer world, the mundane everyday world also suffers. Physical things go wrong around us all the time because someone didn't pay close attention, because someone wasn't taught that accuracy matters, because someone never learned to do the hard but essential part of getting it right the first time.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.