School can sometimes have a reputation for being dull, and students frequently have wandering attention. The wandering attention is especially challenging in entry-level education where students come to class every day amid hectic lives with many other distractions. Teachers then look for different strategies to keep students engaged.
One of the ways teachers try to keep student interest is with various forms of entertainment in educational activities. An excellent presentation can be both entertaining and informative, and often an outstanding presentation has substantial entertainment value as well. A great example is Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on Why Schools Kill Creativity. This presentation is the most-watched TED Talk of their whole collection. There were no fancy visual aids and no ground-breaking or mind-blowing revelations. However, he is a great storyteller and captivates you into his stories while delivering essential points about education and creativity. If you haven’t seen this, you should most certainly watch it. He is a masterful presenter.
Sometimes the entertainment is the presenter. Maybe it is someone like Ken Robinson that is a great storyteller. Or perhaps the presenter captures your imagination, like Steve Jobs (who was another masterful presenter). Other times the entertainment might be the learning activity itself. Maybe you are doing a role play activity to get a concept across. I remember in one of my classes in massage school the instructor had us all standing up in the classroom and bumping into each other in some activity that was supposed to mimic a cellular interaction. In that instance the activity ended up taking up much time and became a big distraction for what was a relatively simple concept. Don’t let the entertainment activity overshadow what is happening with the actual learning process.
Edutainment (entertainment with an educational focus), when done well, is excellent for your course feedback forms and for getting your students to like you. When done poorly you may turn people off with the activity and also not have good learning outcomes. So the question comes down to a matter of balance. When does edutainment enhance learning and when does it become a distraction?
The entertainment value of an excellent presenter is beneficial in keeping students engaged and helping to get key points across. If you watch outstanding presenters you can see them keep the audience engaged and entertained, but not going overboard to the point that students miss what they need to be learning.
Focusing too much on entertainment can be a seductive trap that leads you away from accomplishing a good learning activity. I was at a recent conference and watched the presenter bring up some audience members to role-play a scenario related to the topic that he was talking about. This role play went on for about 10-15 minutes of the presentation (this may sound short, but in a conference presentation where time is precious, that is painfully long). The role play was intended to illustrate some key point he wanted to make. He could have made the critical point in just a few sentences. However, he thought the role play would be entertaining and keep the audience engaged. In this example the attempted entertainment got in the way of effective learning.
So what is the ideal balance? As instructors we have to ask ourselves- are we creating good learning with this activity, or is it more about trying to make people have fun? Think about the learning activity you are setting up. Here’s an important question to ask about the entertainment aspects of what you are doing–If you were to do an assessment right at the end of that learning activity, would people get what you wanted them to get out it? That can help you determine if you are doing a good job with engaging them with some entertainment but not going overboard into something more memorable just because it was fun. Don’t let the core message of your learning activity gets lost in the process.