Learning as “fun,” or, every man in his humour

The other week, a #lrnchat discussion explored large training efforts.  Eventually the topic turned to fun.  In real life, when organization trainers start talking about fun and learning, I start looking for the exit.  I figure it’s not long before the Happy Gang shows up, determined to make you laugh no matter what, and I want to clear out before they do.

"Fun?"  Sounds dreadful.  Don't talk to me of "fun."“Making Performance Reviews Fun.”  Sounds ghastly.

I think I have a good sense of humor.  It’s just that institutional attempts to impose humor are a lot like institutional attempts to compose music.  I end up feeling in tune with the universe’s most morose android.

Here’s what got me musing about this: at one point (around 9:35 in the transcript), the #lrnchat question was,  “What are some creative ways, in a mass approach, to make training stick?”

  • Cammy Bean said: Use humor. Turn things upside down. Make it worth repeating.
  • A bit later, Craig Wiggins said: @cammybean you know, i’m a big fan of humor and levity in elearning, but in some hands the idea of humor is…not humorous.

Craig’s right. Not everyone has a knack for humor.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be open to it.  You shouldn’t force it, thought, as if it were the interpersonal version of making people eat their brussels sprouts.

Which is what I meant when I said in two tweets:

  • I am NOT a fan of “fun” sprinkled over learning like pixie dust (clown noses, loud noises, what veg are you)…
  • … But humor or just enjoyable attraction can arise from relevant context that has value in eyes of participants.

In the genial chaos of a #lrnchat discussion, people don’t always pause to define their terms.  I have the luxury of taking that time here.  What does “humor” mean in a structured-learning context?  What does “fun” mean in a training program?  Depends on who’s talking.  And on who’s listening.

I believe what people are striving for is engagement: how do you create opportunities for learners to involve themselves with what they’re learning?  This is the sort of thing Carl Sagan meant while about new discoveries in cosmology: they “remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy.”

Admit it: some stuff just doesn’t seem all that joyful from the outside.  Adopting vendor-managed inventory systems, for instance.  Deciding whether a building needs an elevation certificate in order to qualify for flood insurance.  Shepardizing a legal case.  Learning basic statistics.

The answer is not (necessarily) to provide balloon animals and confetti, or to toss miniature chocolate bars at the participants while they chant answers to quiz questions.  Often that’s like putting frosting on those brussels sprouts.  Even if people try eating that, all they’re going to remember is a weird taste.

For an organization, the challenge is helping people learn and apply skills that will achieve the group’s goals.  Assuming the people in question do in fact need to acquire or strengthen those skills, of course, so you’re not boring them to death “teaching” things they already know.

That depends much more on relevant, realistic, worthwhile experiences.  Out of those, levity can emerge–if it makes sense.  Horse first, then cart, then passengers and cargo, and then (maybe) mood lighting.  (Later this week, I’ll give a couple of examples from one of those dry topics I mention above.)

So, instead of trying to sneak brussels sprouts pass some unsuspecting diner, work on finding fresh sprouts, demonstrating recipes and cooking techniques that capitalize on their flavor and texture.  Then work them into, say, creating a meal for a restaurant guest who insists on having five different colors of food as dinner.

The customer’s a bit of an outlier, but the core skills (menu planning, item selection, preparation, technique, timing) actually matter.

Humor as an addition to the main topic can also emerge naturally.  By naturally, I mean people use humor to make new connections with the main focus, or to reinforce the connections they’ve made.

  • Marcia Conner (at the end of that #lrnchat session) : Last 2 days spent at 100% pixiedustfree event (#wire) & can attest to the fact it can be done beautifully
  • And Mason Masteka added a final garnish: My name is Mason, I am a eLearning Dev in Maine and I am celery.


CC-licensed images:
Marvin the android from Wikimedia Commons.
Sprouts with bacon by sling@flickr / Steve Ling.

3 thoughts on “Learning as “fun,” or, every man in his humour

  1. At St Pauls Cathedral with my daughter, she asked me what those ‘big things’ were. She was nearly four.

    When I said, “Doors,” she burst into uncontrollable giggles.

    Heaven knows how many times I’ve told this story. But it really gave me a jolt – so that’s what ‘humour’ is. (I heard somebody once saying their daughter did the same on being told that the ocean was ‘water’.)

    I really like this definition of ‘chic’:

    Luca once called something chic, and I asked him why, or rather what “chic” was exactly. He sighed and said despairingly, “Chic is the most impossible thing to define.” He thought about it. “Luxury is a humorless thing, largely. Chic is all about humor. Which means chic is about intelligence. And there has to be oddness — most luxury is conformist, and chic cannot be. Chic must be polite, but within that it can be as weird as it wants.”

    So, humour in learning is about intelligence, it’s about not being a slave to conformity. Humour must be helpful, but within that it can be as weird as it wants.

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