Having Fun Learning vs Really Learning

Recently, I had this unique experience of sending my firstborn for two different tuition classes for the same subject within the same day, the same week.  In the morning, he went to one class.  In the afternoon, he went to another.  This strange arrangement did not come about through my Kiasu-ism.  It was really a matter of unfortunate occurrence of events : I first signed him up for a holiday class at a well-recommended centre in town; shortly after that, I found another holiday class with a tutor I just met who would cover a little more than what the town class would cover.  If I had met this tutor earlier, I would not have signed him up for the town class.  Since I had already paid for the town class, I couldn’t back out of it.  The result was that I had to suffer a week of shuttling between two places in one day, dragging the two younger ones in tow as well.

Just to back up a little, I was one of those people in SG who still tried to hang on to the ideal that learning should be carried out in school and tuition should only be for those who need it.  I tried my best to keep my kids tuition-free but it has come to a point where I have to admit defeat and succumb to the tuition craze.  #1 did not do very well for his midterm, so I thought he is due for some extra help outside school.  As a compromise, I chose a short-term holiday programme over a regular, term time tuition.  The idealistic part of me still hope that with a little help during the holidays, the boy could carry on without tuition on his own after that.

I am not the sort to send my kids for tuition just to ‘cover all bases’.  There must be a need and the need must be met.  Therefore, after every single lesson, I would “interrogate” the boy, asking him what he learned, what the tutor taught him, and most importantly, I wanted to hear from him whether he found the tuition useful.

Coming back to the unique situation, the morning class was more like a tutoring session.  Although there were several kids in the “class”, the tutor did not teach in a class setting but would go to each kid to teach them individually.  The afternoon’s “town class” was carried out in a class setting.  In this particular class, there were only four kids in the class.  At the end of the first morning, #1 was quite confident that he learned a lot from the tutor.  At least, there were “Eureka moments” there.  At the end of the first afternoon class, his feedback was that the class was really fun, the teacher played games, but when I asked him whether he learned anything new, whether the teacher taught him anything really useful, he couldn’t give me any clear answer.

As the week went on, it became clear that he was learning more from the morning class.  Even though the morning class involved more work and less fun, his own verdict was that the morning class was better than the afternoon class.  He was getting more from the morning tutor than from the afternoon one.  In fact, the afternoon teacher gave them work but did not go through the mistakes, so he actually didn’t know why and where he went wrong.  I had to ask the morning tutor to have a look at his afternoon work and explain to him where he went wrong.

I called this a ‘unique’ situation because seldom do we get a chance to compare two kinds of classes this way.  If I had not found the morning tutor, #1 would have just attended the afternoon class, and I would get feedback along the line of ‘class is fun, teacher went through this and that’ and think that since the class is fun, the teacher must be doing something engaging, #1 must be learning something.

This brings me to the point I am trying to make : how much learning is done is not directly proportionate to how ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ the class is.  I know we all buy into the notion of ‘learning through play’ and “if learning is fun, it makes learning easier”.  While there is some truth in these sayings, the danger is also that of too much playing makes no learning.  I was just thinking to myself : if I run a commercial outfit teaching a short term class, it would be a piece of cake to just make things fun and jolly, give some work of course, but I don’t really have to teach much.  The kids would be happy, the parents would think that since the kids are having fun and not hating the extra lessons, something must be right with the class.  In actual fact, they may not be getting their money’s worth in terms of actual, proper teaching.

This is not to say that there must be something wrong if a class is too much fun or the kids must be learning nothing.  I am sure through the process, the kids will learn something.  However, as parents paying through our noses for these expensive tuition, we have to be clear how much learning our kids are actually getting from such classes and not be distracted by the frills.  Through last week’s experience, I now learned to look at classes a bit differently and be a bit more wary when the feedback is the form of ‘fun classes, lots of activities and games’.

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