Home stretch | Enjoying learning together

‘Very valuable’ is how TU/e researcher Gabriella Tisza characterizes the great deal of ‘playful learning’ already taking place in Dutch primary schools in the field of science and technology. But until now there hasn't been an appropriate research tool with which to study the effect of the fun factor on the academic behavior of teenagers. And so she designed FunQ and took a workshop on coding into various primary schools. Her advice to teachers is this: integrate STEM education into the curriculum of every child and become an active participant yourself in the discovery process.

photo Angeline Swinkels

Gabriella Tisza laughs when she recalls her own primary school years. Born and raised in Hungary, she learned to read and write ‘in the traditional way’. “In Hungary learning is regarded as a serious business. In our classrooms the teacher stood in front of the class, in command. Many lessons were delivered in the traditional manner, drilling knowledge into students, and order and structure were highly rated.” With its strong emphasis on learning skills, including social skills, the Dutch system of learning struck her as being very different when she came across it. What a contrast, to see that here we want children to enjoy learning. Over time, she wondered which approach was most effective in fostering learning. So when in the Future Everyday cluster at Industrial Design a doctoral position became available to research the connection between learning and enjoyment among teenagers, Tisza delved into the literature and went ‘back to school’. On Thursday, January 19 she defends her thesis at the Department of Industrial Design.

Digitalization of society

An increasing shift is underway in the primary classroom from traditional learning styles towards interactive education. A frontrunner in this trend is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – abbreviated to STEM –  a versatile approach to learning that combines investigative, discovery-based and design-based learning. Tisza explains why STEM is so important for the new generation of school students. “STEM prepares students for their future by placing the learning of skills central. Everything revolves around the tech aspect; as our society becomes digital the number of technical jobs is only increasing, while there are fewer and fewer specialist employees to be found. By integrating STEM in the curriculum, we can enthuse more children to pursue a future in technology and engineering; though, of course, critical thinking skills and the ability to solve problems systematically are useful for everyone.”

In addition, Tisza argues that STEM education should be offered to all children, regardless of their learning level. “You often see that STEM is regarded as advanced lesson material and is only given to the extension-class children. But those children are usually from homes where there's already a strong interest in technology and science. My research clearly shows that in terms of learning, the greatest gains are to be made among children from families with a lower socioeconomic status. They are the ones whose future prospects you improve by nudging them towards a career in technology.”

Smiley faces

Owing to its practical nature, STEM makes much use of innovative learning resources and hands-on learning. Children are enthusiastic, but is this approach really improving their learning? In her literature study, however, Tisza found that the evaluation process was overly concerned with the learning resource itself. Do children enjoy playing with it? Do the visuals work well? Is it holding the children's concentration for long enough? An appropriate evaluation tool was lacking, especially for teenagers, Tisza explains.“You're no doubt familiar with the assessment scale using five emoticons, from sad to neutral to a smiley face; it's often used with children. But older children can communicate information of more substance, so if your evaluation is limited to emoticons, you're missing out on that. And you need that substantive information to find out how a child feels while the learning is going on.“

Tisza decided to develop her own evaluation tool for teenagers. To do this, she first needed to find out exactly what makes something fun when you're learning. She believes that a number of elements are important: control over the activity you're doing, intrinsic motivation, challenge and a comfortable feeling. Or as she summarizes it: “Fun is an emotional experience during which one feels in control over the activity and is intrinsically motivated for participation, one experiences an optimal level of challenge matching their level of skills, one feels ‘well’ during the activity and does not feel ‘bad’, one is immersed in the activity losing the perception of time and space, while letting go of social inhibitions.”

After much testing and refinement, her FunQ evaluation tool ultimately consisted of a list of eighteen concrete questions. She took this questionnaire into various primary schools where she taught workshops to the older children, on coding, among other things, and a year later she returned. As well as a mountain of research data, this produced some nice stories. “A young girl came up to me and told me that she'd driven her parents crazy repeatedly asking them to buy the coding set we'd used in the workshop, so she could use it at home. She'd gotten her way and her eyes shone as she reeled off a whole list of things she had used it to make. It's lovely to see what intrinsic motivation can do. We are seeing that enjoying the process of learning works much better than learning for the sake of good grade.”

Making discoveries together

What struck Tisza during her workshops was that all the teachers – bar two – went and sat at the back of the classroom and assumed the role of observer. But in a primary school in a deprived neighborhood, the teachers were genuinely interested and actively participated. This gave the children the chance to see that, like them, their teacher was learning new things by trial and error, and they more easily abandoned their preconceived notion ‘that they wouldn't be able to do it’. Making discoveries together proved a revelation. As a teacher, you don't need to know everything, instead you're allowed to learn and to make mistakes,

Through her thesis, Tisza wants to show teachers that the fun factor is also important within STEM education, and she hopes that even more primary schools will take a creative approach to science and technology. Especially as she now has two young children of her own – her youngest daughter aged three months is asleep in a baby sling on her chest – and knows one thing for sure: when they start school in a couple of years' time, they won't be attending a traditional Hungarian primary school. Instead, here in the Netherlands, they'll learn new skills through play and experience the joy of discovery.

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