At the risk of upsetting people again I thought it’d be useful to reiterate (i.e. double down) on the idea that learning is not fun. Last year I made what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial statement that learning is not fun (it’s somewhere on Twitter, if you have the time to try and find it). Ben and I talked about it a bit on this episode of the In Beta podcast and, while I felt confident of the claim, it kept nagging away at me.
So I read these (links to go book summaries):
- Ultralearning by Scott Young
- How learning works by Susan Ambrose et al.
- Make it stick by Peter Brown et al.
- A mind for numbers by Barbara Oakley
I’m not going to summarise everything I learned from the books other than to say that all of them talk about the idea that learning something new is hard, and none of them talk about the value of trying to make learning tasks fun (I acknowledge that there are other books which may offer different perspectives; if you’ve read any of them feel free to respond in the comments). There’s an acknowledgement in each book that pushing yourself to make intellectual leaps is a mental challenge and that to learn something difficult requires a certain amount of cognitive effort that can be described as uncomfortable.
Maybe people confuse the social aspects of going to school or university with the practical aspects of learning. In fact, I think that people tend to conflate “learning” with lots of the other activities associated with being at school. I also think that it’s easy to confuse the feelings we have when we achieve something difficult (e.g. satisfed, content, elated, etc.) with having fun. But a few seconds thought should make it clear that these are not the same thing.
No-one would ever suggest that the physical effort you put into training for a marathon is – or should be – fun. I have no idea why anyone thinks that the cognitive exertion necessary for learning is any different.