Entertain versus Educate

In my email this morning was an update from the National Council of Teachers of English on LinkedIn. A group member from Australia had posted under the heading “Are You Trying To Engage Your Students Or Entertain Them? ” with these questions: “Should we use entertainment to engage our students? If you are using entertainment to engage your students, is this a less effective way to teach?”

I remember this debate from decades ago as Entertain versus Educate. Now after years of realizing that getting attention was a challenge, but that underestimating kids was a trap too easy to fall into, I have to wonder why the debate continues. The questions in themselves suggest a limited and simplistic perspective of teaching and learning. I use the terms ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ purposefully here, because they are but two, albeit significant, pieces of the human development process, of which education itself is a shared set. Education is a major part of human development, but it extends to other areas of our existence too. It helps to sustain as well as develop us. The reason this matters is that the member’s questions trap us in a decontextualized viewed of a single teacher activity—frontal performance. And disconnected from the greater whole of assisting human development, the questions lead nowhere; whether the frantic pup chasing her tail catches it or no means little, except perhaps to the pup—at the moment.
Yet the questions are legitimate enough in the arena in which they are offered. For many decades—I would say since John Dewey—educators have been reticent about asserting what they understand—when they do—about what happens in successful learning environments. For me, it was an epiphany that classroom success is what the kids do, as in learning, not what I do, as in teaching. And while this would suggest that what the teacher does to achieve engagement is important to that learning, it is not to say that entertainment is equivalent or necessary to engagement. That notion, I believe, comes from the influence of marketing in the age of television.
When education policy is so dominated by the American competitive business model, is it any wonder that we see teachers asking questions which might easily be rephrased as, “Should we use entertainment to entice our students? If you are using entertainment to entice your students, is this a less effective way to sell?” I viewed the British Arrow Awards at the Walker Art Center; entertainment sells and selling entertains. I have concluded that the question isn’t whether or not it teaches, however. That question only arises in a culture wherein the teacher can be seen as the manipulator and the student as the manipulated. Marketing is about deception, misdirection, generating needs, and satisfying immediate gratification. Yes, it informs about products and opportunities, but it does not invite thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.
I suggest we try to move the messages beyond entertainment in the classroom toward how we can help students in “thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.” Does entertainment have a place in this? I think so. Our students, in the over-developed countries, are awash in the catch-phrase culture of commerce, the sound bite polemic of politics and car crash nuance of news. In this era of super-superlatives, it may not be necessary to be the very most entertaining absolutely all the time to get the very best from your outstanding students. My students, and I would bet yours too, are better than that. Kids are good and they want to be and do better. What’s more is that they are reasonable.
Entertainment is fine for keeping it a little lighter, breaking the ice and dealing with failures. Learning will happen when kids see something in it for them. If you do anything well for your students, it should be to help them see the long view. Help them visualize goals for their lives and plans for how to reach those goals. Help them understand how to tell shit from Shinola, how to make decisions informed by the realities of their lives and futures. In short, help them take control of their lives; do not try to control them. Show them the power of thinking. Thinking is a highly desirable form of engagement.
Teaching is nothing by itself. Teaching and learning on the other hand form a partnership vital to the success of all. Teaching empowers learning. And if you teach for the adulation, you will get nothing like the letters I get now from students, whom I tried, apparently with some success, to empower twenty and more years ago when they were 12, 13, and 14—the “unteachable” ages.
Try this little experiment: challenge your students to entertain you in your subject area. Perhaps they should start by working in groups to create the most entertaining lesson on a new concept, formula or experiment. Check what you learn, and use it as a teaching strategy later. Or have them teach you about what’s important to them in an entertaining way. Maybe teachers should think in terms of engaging in learning with their students, and get beyond entertainment as an end or a means.

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