I remember how surprised I was as a teenager when I learnt the etymology for ‘school’. School derives from the Latin schola and the Greek skhole, which means ‘leisure time’ or ‘time for idle discussion’. School is leisure? School, to my mind, was anything but leisure. School was hard work; it was difficult or boring, and sometimes both. As for idle discussion, that was confined to recess, and if you insisted on doing it in class, it would get you in trouble.
Leisure was not associated with school, but with play – what we would do as soon as school was out. Playing football, cards, or computer games, and having endless idle discussion about music, movies, and our favorite stars. The unquestioned underlying assumption – which we shared with our teachers and parents – was that learning happens at school, and not during play. Even learning to play a musical instrument wasn’t really play.
The traditional paradigm holds that learning needs to be serious; if you’re having fun, you’re doing something wrong. Learning is meant to be hard work. It needs to be done in an orderly, disciplined fashion – the students silent as the teacher speaks.
While there are some surprising exceptions, this is still the basis of most of the teaching happening in the world, and deeply entrenched in our way of thinking about learning. But is it true? Does serious learning require us to be serious?