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Stop making learning fun. Start making learning uncomfortable.

I hear this a lot: Teachers should teach using a story. Teachers should show an interesting video. To these people I have just one thing to say:

Stop making learning fun. Start making learning uncomfortable. Children need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because learning happens at the edge of their comfort zones. Once this happens, they will become a learner for life.

Surprised reaction

Shocked? Let me elaborate.

While students may love a story, a video or a theatrical demonstration, chances are that they are not learning much. This is backed by research and I will come to the research later.

What do I mean by discomfort?

A lot of you might be wondering, 'Why the heck should we subject kids to discomfort? It is the age to have fun!'.

Well, fun is great but there can not be any learning with discomfort.

By 'discomfort', I do not mean physical pain. Nor do I mean mental anguish. Why would I want children to suffer?

By 'discomfort', I only mean: a small irritation caused in the mind. This discomfort is a necessary part of the learning process and is caused when the information in front of us does not match with our earlier belief.

What causes this discomfort?

Let us say you like a certain politician. You believe that he is an honest man. One day, you are shown an evidence of him taking a bribe. The evidence is irrefutable. You have a choice to 'learn' something new or stick to your earlier belief. If you choose to learn, you will have to cross the bridge of discomfort in your mind.

In the process of learning science or any deep subject, there are many occasions of discomfort.

Many children think that the wheels push the car forward. Many children think that heat is a fluid. It flows from one place to another. It is only when children are made to think of a scenario that does not tally with their conception that there is a chance to learn.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called: cognitive dissonance.

Why is the discomfort necessary for learning?

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that humans try to achieve a state of psychological consistency to be able to function properly. When an information does not tally with our existing belief, then we try to reduce the dissonance in our mind. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Reject the new information. Go back to the earlier belief and live happily (and learning nothing)
  2. Adopt the new learning in your belief system. This requires some effort and that is why learning anything new is difficult and time-taking.
Ok, learning requires effort. But, what about fun?

I recently posted on this subject on LinkedIn and this led to an interesting discussion in the comments section. While a lot of people agreed with the point of view, I received a lot of comments from people who did not fully agree with the post. Here are some examples:

Linkedin comment screenshot
Linkedin comment screenshot
Linkedin comment screenshot

While most people think fun is necessary for learning, it is the other way around. Fun is a great way to keep children hooked on to learning. But, it is only optional for learning to happen.

Also, in a world where there are sufficient limelight on making learning fun, the goal of this article is put limelight on the necessary discomfort required to learn something. Just Google for 'Companies making learning fun' and you will find 100s of companies. Google for 'Companies making learning uncomfortable

Making children lifelong learners: From Comfort zone to Discomfort zone.

Do you know some people who are capable of learning almost anything? They are good at Math, Physics, Economics, Philosophy and also play an instrument. What is different about these lifelong learners?

People who learn continuously have learned how to learn. They have learned to live in a sense of discomfort. They realise that it is OK for their earlier beliefs to be challenges and changed. They are comfortable with change because that they know that it is the only way to learn.

Teachers need to make learners comfortable with discomfort. In some time, students will grow up to become lifelong learners.

Message to the teachers: Add discomfort to your lesson plans

As a teacher, you are looking to help your students learn something new about the world. This learning is impossible without making discomfort an important part of your lesson plan. At a time when many teachers are including videos, animations, activities and games in their lesson plans, teachers need to ask themselves: Are we making children think? Are we creating a dissonance in the mind of our students?

Instead of lectures, videos and games, how about we add more of Questions, Refection & Thinking to classroom teaching?
Harvard Study says that lectures cause a delusion of learning

A Harvard Study shows that an amazing explanation by a teacher may only cause a delusion of learning. They fool students into believing that they are learning. They fool teachers into believing that they are teaching well. This massive delusion reduces the chances of learning even further.

In the study, researchers divided students in two groups: A and B. One group of students was taught by amazing lectures while the other group participated in active learning, which is more uncomfortable. The researchers found out that while group A enjoyed learning more, group B had learned much better.

Teachers need to make children think and question their existing beliefs.

A simple but powerful learning tool: Questions

A wonderful teaching tool is 'Asking questions'. If the question is an interesting question, then learning is both fun and uncomfortable (perfect!)

Open Door has always believed that children learn best when they are pushed to think. Children may find it hard (thinking is hard, after all) but that is the most effective way to learn. Some examples of Science questions that Open Door team designs:

Which colour is more colourful: white or purple?

Can humans echolocate like bats?

How would we get up from the bed if there was no friction in the world?

We designed programs with beautiful questions at their core. If you are a school leader, you should check out Thinking Assessments and Thinking Classroom. These programs are designed to include more thinking and reflection inside the school curriculum.

If you are a parent who would like to develop critical thinking in your child, you must check out Unbox Physics. This course is offered to children between grades 6-9.


Aneesh Bangia

Aneesh Bangia is the co-founder of Open Door. He writes about the past, present and future of education.

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