Should we be ‘children’s entertainers’ while following a knowledge-rich curriculum?

Laura Sterne.jpg

Guest Blogger, Laura Sterne, joins us to discuss whether teachers should be children’s entertainers. Ms. Sterne is the Teaching and Learning Champion at Cottenham Primary School and a Year 6 Teacher. She serves on the school’s Senior Leadership Team.

What is entertainment? Entertainment can be defined as, ‘something affording pleasure, diversion or amusement’. As teachers, do we have the responsibility to ensure children are entertained in our lessons? Opinions of teachers and school staff in relation to this question appear to be split. However, in Why don’t children like school?, Willingham (2009) highlights findings from research and makes suggestions as to how we can interlink the ideas of eliciting pleasure, or entertaining children, while at the same time ensuring we are sharing essential knowledge and enabling children to remember this knowledge.

Some teachers think that if children are not ‘entertained’ in a lesson then they may not be engaged and therefore might ‘switch off’. This may well be true, but the key here is how we entertain the children. If we, as teachers, spend a great deal of time focussing on how we can ensure our lesson engages children with exciting ‘hooks’ and experiences, we face the danger of children remembering the lesson rather than the knowledge we hoped the children would gain. In other words, we activate episodic memory (memory of autobiographical events) rather than sematic memory (memory of facts, ideas, meaning and concepts) (see this blog for more information).

Over the last 10 years, research has pointed to the idea that learning is linked to pleasure. Neuroscientists believe that when we learn something new, or solve a problem, the brain may reward itself with the chemical, dopamine, which is known to be associated with the reward area in the brain (Schultz, 2007). Therefore, we can come to the conclusion that if problem solving elicits this response, they are being entertained. Willingham consequently highlights that children need to solve problems in order to keep engaged and motivated in lessons.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that as long as children are solving problems, that they are being entertained and therefore are engaged and motivated to continue learning. It is important to ensure the problem hits the ‘sweet spot of difficulty’, meaning children cannot find the problem too hard (leading to cognitive overload) or too easy (which would not result in the desired response). Furthermore, it is important to consider when to introduce the problem.

Willingham (2009) suggests that the ultimate aim of problem solving is to make children (or adults!) curious. Is it more beneficial to elicit curiosity before or after the basic concepts have been learnt? For example, science experiments frequently have the ‘wow’ factor (for example putting a burning piece of paper in a bottle and then putting a boiled egg over the opening of the bottle. When the paper has burnt, the egg is sucked into the bottle). Some teachers may opt to use these ‘wow moments’ at the start of the lesson in order to ‘hook’ the children and therefore keep them engaged in the lesson. However, Willingham offers that it might be more beneficial to display these experiments once the children have the key knowledge they need to be able to explain the principles behind experiments (with the egg experiment, this would be after they have the knowledge that warm air expands and cooling air contracts, possibly creating a vacuum). This would then potentially puzzle the students momentarily but would ultimately lead to the added benefit of the pleasure of problem solving.

After reading Willingham’s book, it has become clear that it is possible to follow the principles behind a knowledge-rich curriculum and be ‘entertaining’ and therefore engaging students at the same time. Entertainment elicits pleasure. There are many ways to elicit a pleasurable response and, conducting and following a knowledge-rich curriculum, alongside reasoning and problem solving, is one way to ensure children experience pleasure, are engaged, motivated and consequently on the road to becoming well-rounded effective learners.

Amusement. (n.d.). In Retrieved from

Schultz, W. (2007) Behavioural dopamine signals: A review of the role of dopamine, a neurochemical, in learning, problem solving, and reward. Trends in Neurosciences, 30, 203-210.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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