The Intersection of Education and Entertainment

How many times have you heard a teacher say something like “I’m here to educate them not to entertain them.” Sometimes it almost seems as though they regard education as bad tasting medicine that students need to take whether they like it or not. Other times is it is a reaction to students complaining about being bored and perhaps someone suggesting that the teacher “do something” to make it more interesting. Dealing with students who have grown up in a world where they expect constant amusement and entertainment can be frustrating. This is especially true for some “old school” teachers. But should there be a separation between entertainment and education?

Marshall McLuhan famously said "If you think there is a difference between education and entertainment, you don't understand much about either." I think he was on to something. Let’s face it, we all learn best the things that are most interesting to is. Is everything interesting? Well, everything is interesting to some one. The trick is for people to make what they find interesting become interesting to others. That is where entertainment comes in to play (no pun intended).

Anything can be presented in a boring fashion. I sometimes think that scholarly research papers have to be boring to be accepted into peer reviewed journals. If the bare facts and details are not interesting to you then you have no business reading the paper. This is sort of the opposite of attracting people to your ideas. It is making them work for them. This is not the way we want to teach young people though. Not by a long shot. They often don’t even know what sort of things they will find interesting. It is up to teachers to communicate that something is or should be interesting. And that is where we wander into entertainment.

Have you ever had a really interesting teacher? Someone you enjoyed listening to or whose class you enjoyed attending? I think most of us have. When I look at the teachers who really got me interested in the subject they were teaching I find that they were entertaining. The did interesting things. Perhaps they told jokes or funny stories to make a point. Or they did demonstrations. I still remember my materials science teacher standing on a table as he help up a long polymer that he hard created in class. Funny? Sure! But it’s been 40 years since that demonstration and I still remember an awful lot of what that man taught in that class.

Computer science lends itself to entertainment. No really. Think about visualizations. I ran across this sample sorting visualization written in Small Basic today.


It creates these squares with boxes in a random order and then sorts them using three different sort algorithms. You can check the program out directly on your browser here:

That is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. In fact I can see assigning students to add other sorting anlorythms to this program and then viewing them the same way. Many things we learn in computer science can be visualized with the right graphical display. Students can be entertained my this for hours as they experiment and treat the discovery process as a game.

And then there are role plays which seem to be gaining traffic in computer science education. The Computer Science Unplugged activities are one of the better know set of kinesthetic learning exercises that can be used in computer science.

Of course we can also help by allowing students to create their own entertainment – game projects are challenging and entertaining at the same time. And why not use them?

Now I know that some teachers don’t see themselves as entertainers. They see entertainment as somehow frivolous or non-professional. But I think that perhaps that means they don’t understand entertainment. Or maybe not education. Or just maybe they don’t find the material they are teaching as being potentially entertaining! That is the scariest thought of all.