Friday, 17 February 2012

Thoughts on 'fun' activities

I've often been encouraged to include fun activities in to my lessons, particularly snappy little starters to introduce the lesson, but in my experience you have to be very careful with these. Before I go in to this I should explain that in my last school, this wasn't so dangerous, as motivation was not really a problem, but it absolutely applies in schools where pupil engagement was low.
  • The maths involved needs to be essential to the activity. Otherwise the students, particularly disengaged ones, will see these activities for exactly what they are; an attempt to make dull repetition of a task more interesting by attaching it to something better. They know that these activities could be made even more fun by removing the maths altogether. Using these activities also implies that there is no interesting context for this topic, something which is never true but is widely believed by students.
  • Having a fun starter that does not lead directly in to the main activity can easily backfire. Either the students enjoy the activity and don't want to stop and get in to the 'boring' main activity, or they don't, and you know that you've just lost your best shot at engaging them.
  • Never describe an activity as fun or exciting or even different. Pupils can and should be the judges - they are very good at this. Setting up an activity as 'fun' is an invitation for an antagonistic student to find it boring. Students have an amazing capacity to find anything boring if they feel it is being forced on them, as do I actually.
This does not mean that I won't use fun activities. At their best - when the maths involved is intrinsic to the task, comes as a nice surprise to the students and if possible offers a true context for the topic covered - fun activities can be incredibly engaging and pupils come out of class after an hour of solid work in a good mood, shocked that they managed to do so much work. However, playing monopoly where you work out the average of 10 dice rolls to work out how far you should move does not achieve this.