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Episode 37: Edutainment - The role of fun in education

Minecraft, Plastic Surgeons, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam are joined again by special guest, Dr. Rachel Ralph from The Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, Canada. Does play have a bad name in education? Do we need to allow more artistic freedom? Plus, hear what Zoltan Dienes' influence is on the classroom of today.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos


Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Emily Guille-Marrett expert educational podcaster.

Emily Guille-Marrett


With nearly 20 years of education experience, Emily has a knack for creating wildly successful learning content. Her past work includes publishers like Oxford University Press, Pearson and Collins Education. Currently, you’ll find her dreaming and scheming in her role as Head of Publishing at Fig Leaf Group.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!

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Profile of Dr. Rachel Ralph expert educational podcaster.

Dr. Rachel Ralph


Dr. Rachel Ralph is very passionate about the role of women in tech and how she can explore her own role through research and teaching in digital media. In particular, she focuses on the idea of immersive experiences in entertainment and education (edutainment) and the role of thoughtful design.

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.

Emily Guille-Marrett

Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.

Adam Gifford

Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.


This is The School of School podcast. Welcome to The School of School podcast.


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Andy Psarianos

Hi everyone. Thanks for joining. So we're back with Rachel Ralph, really lucky to have her on this podcast. So today we're going to talk about edutainment. That's a new word for me, and in particular, the role of fun in education. All right, come on, Rachel, set us off. What are we talking about? What is edutainment?

Dr. Rachel Ralph

Great. I'm glad I didn't have to tell some cheesy dad joke to get it started. That's how I always introduce my fun in my class. So edutainment, I think is an interesting term that's come out of a lot of media entertainment, and I think what's happened is there's like the media side of things that are going on that a lot of people don't want to introduce into a classroom, right? Well, back in the day, you'd roll out the TV and that'd be the exciting movie day, or you put on the film, but that's like once a term and for a special reason. And we are starting to look at how education and entertainment can be mixed together, and I think we've seen things like film studies being used beyond just like the fun film day.

And it doesn't have to be just the very... I was going to say very boring educational films that we all had to watch and take notes on till we get get to have a test on it later. We're looking at film differently. We're looking at games differently. Minecraft for education, wasn't built for education, but it's being used, and how all of these are being used to help people learn. But behind it, it's actually fun. Imagine that, education can be fun. If you tell my former students that they'd be like, "No, it's not."

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, and it's not really a new idea, right? So Zoltan Dienes who was a Hungarian mathematician, slash, I don't know. Was he a philosopher? I don't know if he was a... He wasn't a philosopher. Anyway, whatever he was, psychologist possibly, incredibly brilliant man, super influential in the development of the mathematics classroom of today, and he was a big advocate of play, right? He thought that you need to play. You need to play especially, when you're introducing new ideas. You need to get kids or anybody, even adults, anybody who's learning something to engage with the thing you want them to learn, but in an informal way first, right? So that they get an experience of it, and they can make some hooks in their brain about where it falls into with the other things that they know, like what information can they pull in to struggle with this idea, right?

Because that helps them make those connections, what Piaget would've called accommodation, right? They're not just assimilating facts, but they're just actually having to make space in their brain for this new thinking that they have to contend with. And then later in, go in and put the structure and the formalities around it and give them the language and the tools that they need to explain what they're thinking. But you always need to start with that play, right? Let them have a go at it before, which is cool. It's like before you go to your iPad training, have a play with it, right? Because then you can see that makes sense. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Dr. Rachel Ralph

I think so too, and I think one of my favourite quotes here is from Neville Scarfe, and actually my education building was named after him. He said, "Play is the most complete educational process of the mind." And I completely agree with that. That's how we get creative thinking. When we're really young, it's all about imaginative play and what we're seeing in discussing topics and creating all these different things, but I think creating this space for play is really important. I heard a talk once where they were doing science experiments and learning about plate tectonics. This is classic science and then grade six, seven, eight, around there, I think we learned about plate tectonics and the teacher, she wanted to do something different. So she got one of those sand water tables that they have in the little primary classes and brought it in to the upper grades and set up all these things and then they would watch the stuff.

And then what happened was it turned into chaos, because the kids started playing with the sand and water and they were excited, and instead of reprimanding and telling them, "Stop, no, we got to focus on this." She realised, "Oh wait, they've never played with a sand and water table. Okay, hang on. Okay, everybody we're going to play for 15 minutes. Let's just play, you guys build sandcastles, do all the stuff and then we'll do the stuff." She let them play. They had a great time. And then they were focused and they stopped and they're like, "Okay, now we can do our piece." But she needed to give them the space to play first, and I think we don't do that often, we jump straight into what we have to do.

Andy Psarianos

You're so right. It's interesting because I've done a lot of professional development, not so much these days, but as has Adam. And that's one of the common questions that comes up when you're trying to convince teachers, "Look, you need to use stuff in your teaching, right? You don't just make a PowerPoint and then like, 'Here is all the clever stuff that I thought of that all these slides are going to fly by you kids, and your role is to remember everything that I said, right?' But actually give them things and let them figure it out is a really, really, really good way to learn." But what happens is there's a certain age and I don't know what that age is, and this is shifting a little bit now, where we think, "Oh, we can't use apparatus in the classroom. They're too big for that, right?"

So then one day you do get something out and the kids aren't used to having stuff. So they're like, "Oh wow. I've got a bunch of linking cubes. I'm going to make a tower or a gun out of it or whatever." Because it's not part of their daily routine, but if the stuff is there all the time and they're always engaging with it, they naturally fall into that. Like, "Okay, I have these are my learning tools, right?" These are things they use, because we do it all the time. I construct stuff all the time. I write on paper, draw diagrams too. Of course that's just part of the learning process, right? You need to have stuff in order to learn that you can experiment with. But what about in literature, Emily? Where does this come into play in literature, like learning how to read and phonics and all that kind of stuff?

Emily Guille-Marrett

Yeah, so I'm really fascinated by this conversation, because actually it fits more around crossovers, I guess, with books and publishing, but is edutainment in terms of brands and licencing. So edutainment and education, if we went back like 15 years ago, plus when I started out, it was really poo pooed that you would have characters from well known brands. I don't know how much I can say, Andy, about well known brands in terms of the legal side of it, but we can all think of some very famous characters from movies and TV shows, and so on that we can imagine, and it was perceived that these should not be in the classroom. So this would be a very bad thing. Parents began to see an opportunity, I would say, for using these characters to engage their children.

So you might have so and so bare maths, or you might have seen so and so this character from a famous TV show during the ABC, and I think then sometimes with edutainment, what happens is there is an element because it is an opportunity to make money where there's greed and a bit, like you said on another discussion with Rachel. We were talking about the right people for the right job. So sometimes the brands and licencing teams that were creating and developing these programmes and opportunities were selling bucket loads, because every parent wants their kid to have a great start, and they were being engaged with these characters, but not necessarily working with the people behind the pedagogy and with an educational background.

And so whilst it was well meaning, and I'm not saying... Actually, I think a lot of people were engaged in those, from people who worked on some of these shows, and some of these elements, they would then create these books. Some of them were reading books as well. It would be like learn to read with such and such a brand, but they weren't necessarily working with the right people behind the pedagogies to actually deliver the learning outcome that happened. And now I find it really interesting. We're looking at toy companies, those famous bricks that you can put together. They're actually doing a lot more in terms of looking at play. In fact, some toy companies who've been around for a long time have actually often really understood the value of play and it's come from an academic kind of research perspective.

But there are also companies now where you will find more and more brands in the classroom and people can... As long as it's been delivered in the right way, then it's absolutely edutainment can have a place where you are having an entertaining element and you can engage because you're familiar with say characters in, so children's book and so on. But then from that you can actually get an opportunity to do some learning. So there's been a really fascinating eye shift, I think in terms of edutainment with cross-platform, cross-media elements and going into gaming and into the classroom and onto TV and into books. And it's a very interesting space there at the moment, but there's some bad practise still too, but there's also some exciting things. So yeah, that's what I would say with books and so on.

Dr. Rachel Ralph

I think it's interesting because when you're saying this and you're talking about the toys and things, automatically, I notice I was thinking about young kids. And a lot of this stuff does target younger children, and then we forget that older children like to have fun too. I don't know. I think I'm an old child and I like to have a lot of fun, and I think I'm seeing everyone else nodding and agreeing. And so one of the things that I did was, bring picture books back into my older classrooms. And so on the side, actually I'm a children's book author. I write picture books on the side, and I always think there is a space in the classroom for it, but we just need to think about using them differently.

Yeah, maybe I'm not sitting there with them on the carpet and reading to them and all the things that you would do, but what I did was, I was teaching them about story structure, and element plots, and how to create mood and tone. And there's a lot of different ways you can teach it, but I actually, I don't know if this will be a brand thing, but I'm a big Dr. Seuss fan. I love his stories growing up and I thought they were great ways to read because of all the weird rhymes and it's just silly, but a lot of them were really good for that story structure, because they all knew those stories. They'd heard them a thousand times. They'd read them in elementary school or wherever they did it in their primary grades, but stories that they know, but then I'm breaking it down into plot structure and mood and tone and all of these complex features.

And so people would come into my class and they're like, "What? You're reading Dr. Seuss to 14-year-olds?" And so it would be like, "Wait a minute." I'm like... But it was fun and silly, and then we got into graphic novels and... This is before a lot of graphic novels had come out. It was just the beginning of that, and I would use them again for plot points. I would scan them, project them, and have the students read out the different parts. And every time we would read it, people would volunteer. I was having kids volunteer to read who hated reading in front of the classroom, but of course they wanted to be Gulliver, right? This was Gulliver. Like, "I'll be the voice of that one character." And then translating it to them making their own graphic novel.

Yeah. That's not typically what we're doing in that time, because it's about reading and writing and being better at this. But to me it was no, it's about story, and how do you create characters, and how do you think about it differently. And so I think we can't forget that the older kids still want to have that stuff too, and I think it's not always targeted at them.

Adam Gifford

We have so many prompts. I'm just thinking of the whole idea around fun and learning, and exploration and learning, and play and learning. And I think of, I don't know. I like a lot of sports, but I'm interested in a lot of people who have done things that have changed the way that we live. So think about sports people, the majority of sports people that go on to do incredibly well often they'll say, "Oh my coach let me, just gave me the space to be creative. I've got the skill set. I learned a skill set like everyone else, but I was given the space to play, to have fun just to enjoy it." I think this is true of like, I don't know, you read books around, say Apple, for example, as a company, I get the sense that there's a space for creation and fun, and yeah, taking a skillset, but we can see this where people have been successful and amazing across all the different fields.

But then there's this funny thing that happens, like a number of us have said, that at the beginning of school we're allowed to explore and have fun and play, and play is valid and fun. And then we go through this kind of buttoned up stage, where all of a sudden it's now just about, "Right. Here's a set of skills that we must learn and we can't deviate from these or something terrible is going to happen." But then when people talk about their favourite teachers or coaches or those sorts of things, it's like, "Yeah, they understood me, and they gave me space to move. They gave me space to create things and to do better at things." And the end result is massively positive.

So like you Rachel giving the older ones picture books, I love that, because I've taught children in high school too, as well as primary school and yeah, people might for the first two or three minutes, try to be a bit cool and like, "Oh no, I'm not into picture books. I'm 15, Mr. Gifford. We don't nap, can you read that page again? Can you just show me that again? Oh, that's pretty good. Hey. Oh, look at that. Oh, yeah." And they're into it. And I think that holds true of adults as well. Like being read to, it's reserved for children. Well, hold on. What's one of the fastest growing publishing markets? Audiobooks, because we like being read to.

So I think there's these things that we've got all of these kind of, I don't know, all of these prompts that are allowed to happen in art or sports and culture, where all of these extremely talented people have been allowed to realise their potential and continue to do so because they've been given some sort of, I don't know, it's off the phrase like artistic freedom or freedom to create. But effectively, I think what we're talking about is that it is that room to have fun and to play and to enjoy what we are doing, whilst, learning the skill set that underpins it to allow that, and that's where, I don't know. I get a bit frustrated at times because it is, I think sometimes that whole idea around fun and play, it's a bit pigeonholed and the world tells us that, that shouldn't be the case. Rant over now, I'll finish now.

Andy Psarianos

I don't know. I was stunned there by what you said, Adam. I'm like speechless. There's a lot of things to think about there. We talked about this before. I mean, play has got a bad name in education, at least for some people, right? It's like, if you're playing, that's not serious enough. You're not learning if you're playing. That playing is what you do after you've learned stuff. It's the reward. And it's so far from the truth, and when you look at the greatest achievements of mankind, whether it be commercial or artistic, I mean, there's always an element of enjoying the process, right? Not just being results focused. And there needs to be a little bit more of that in education in the older ages.

I think we understand how important it is with like five-year-olds, but we forget how important it is for a 20-year-old. Like, so my daughter right now, my oldest daughter, Anthea, she's currently studying. So she's finished her first degree, and now she wants to go into medical school, right? So she's studying to write the MCAT because she wants to go into neuroscience. She has a passion for how the brain works. She is great. I love it. I'm so proud of her. Not here to brag about my children, but I will take the opportunity while I'm here. And anyway, so now she's studying and the other day she said something and it just broke my heart. She said, "Yeah, medicine, it's all about memorising. There's nothing in it. You just got to remember a whole bunch of stuff." That's what she said to me, right?

And I hear that, and that breaks my heart and I know it's not true because one of my closest friends is a surgeon, right? And I hear him talk about what he does. And he does really serious stuff, right? Like he does a lot of trauma based plastics. Like if someone's arm gets ripped off by a grizzly bear in Northern Canada, they'll fly him out to my friend to sew this arm back. That's what he does. So you can imagine people who've crashed in cars and he deals with a lot of that kind of stuff. And when I listen to him talk about what he does, there's so much creativity. And I would even dare to say, there's a little bit of fun in it. Like figuring out how I'm going to reconstruct this person's face that's been entirely destroyed, right?

And now he's got to reach in and say, "What are the tools that I have? I can take a bit of cartilage from here. I can take a bit of bone from there. I can take some skin from here." And he draws these 3D models and there's a lot of technology and maps involved, but the real thing that's fascinating to me is the joy that he gets out of it, right? The sheer joy, and we forget about that, because that's what drives innovation. That's what drives things to get better, because if you hate what you do, and it's just drudgery and that includes learning, it becomes soulless, and then you're not going to get the most out of it, right?

Dr. Rachel Ralph

I think so. And I think I'm also hearing, not just enjoyment, but passion, and I think passion is also a piece behind it. If you're passionate about something, you're going to be more interested and learn the details. I had that one student who was obsessed with dinosaurs. He knew every single thing. We'd stop teaching dinosaurs in grade three, but it didn't matter. He was obsessed with it. And what I'm seeing is a shift in curriculum in particular, in parts of Canada and to a personalised learning curriculum. And it's less prescribed learning outcomes that were very specific of, "You're going to learn this, this, this." But a little bit more big ideas open and getting that personalised learning. So we're going to learn the scientific method and then that's it. It's not specific anymore.

So this kid could focus entirely on dinosaurs if he wants. And so taking those passions, and I think bringing that back, because then that brings a little bit more fun. So I think more curriculum needs to shift into that open way. It's harder because then, I think we talked about this before, assessment can be really challenging when it's a little bit more open. So how do I assess the kid who's writing about dinosaurs to the kid who's writing about ice skating to the kid who talks about their favourite toy. So it's a little different, but I think there's ways of doing it, and it can be much more beneficial to them.


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Andy Psarianos

Okay. What's the answer guys? What's the answer? Come on Rachel, tell us what the answer is.

Dr. Rachel Ralph

I think with edutainment, I think, yeah, maybe I'm over the term, I'm not over the concept. And so I think that's what it is. And I think I fully embrace it. I'm working in it right now. I'm creating a mobile app that is focused on this. Like behind the scenes, I'm secretly teaching you about the environment, but I'm focusing on the fun first. And I think some places have done this very successfully. I think of Minecraft, which we mentioned earlier. How have they been able to infiltrate the classrooms? Teachers accept it, parents accept it. Kids still love it. They love it. And so what are they doing right? And so I think we should look at really good examples, because there's a pedagogy behind that as well. It's not just because, and I think there's a lot of just because in edutainment. I think that there's more room for it.

I think when we look at time, and we talk about real memorization, I think there needs to be a shift in curriculum. We have a lot of things that are still in there that we're telling students they need to memorise. Yes, I agree, the alphabet, because a lot of things will follow after that, but there's a lot of stuff we don't need to necessarily have memorised anymore. How many of us pick up our phone when we are like, "Oh shoot, what was that thing?" And we just Google it. Like we just look it up, right?

And so why are we forcing kids to still memorise certain things when they're just going to look it up? I look it up. So why should they not? And instead we should be teaching them how to look it up better, how to use the right words, how to not just take the first article, and how to critically look through the things and find the right multiple answers and multiple viewpoints and not just the first one, and verify the answer and check all these things as opposed to just like, "Okay, we'll still go memorise the 14 parts of that cell."

Why? What is the purpose behind it? As opposed to, "Let's look up cells on the internet. Okay, well, why does this one website say it this way, and this one the other way? Oh, look these 25 websites all say it the same way. So does that make it true? I don't know. Oh, look at this counter article." That's more important, and so I think a lot of places need to adapt their curriculum and it's going to be really hard, but pull stuff out of it. We keep adding more and more and more, but we're not taking anything away. And so we're putting pressure on teachers to deliver all of this stuff and not create any space for fun or thinking or time. And then the pressure goes back to the kids, and then now they have to memorise it, and so we have to take some stuff away and that's the hardest part, is deciding what comes out, and I don't want to have to make that decision beyond my pay grade.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah. Well, there you go. I mean, that's it, right? Just a lot of things to consider. You need to keep an open mind, but you also need to keep a bit of cynicism, right? Because there are snake oils, vendors out there as well. And it's tough for teachers. It's tough for people who have to be the decision makers, and it's tough for the people who have to create the things that we're going to use. It's not easy. I just wish there was much more collaboration between all the different disciplines. That's what I think is lacking.

I don't think academics spend enough time with teachers. I don't think teachers spend enough time with academics. I don't think engineers spend enough time with both of those categories, and we fall into these holes all the time. And at some point we need to overcome that. There you have it, guys, all the answers right here, The School of School podcast. Thanks for joining.


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