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Three ‘F-Words’ to Make Boring Ideas Interesting

Posted on: March 13, 2020

Excerpted and adapted from chapter 5 of  Teaching Complex Ideas by Arnold Wentzel. You can download the full chapter on which this article is based here.

Every professor is looking for an answer to how to make lectures more interesting to their students; however, it is difficult to completely define what makes an idea interesting because it is multi-dimensional. Three dimensions that are important in teaching can be captured in three words: ‘fascination’, ‘fun’, and ‘fumbling’.


Fascination

When you are fascinated by something, your attention locks onto it, and you are unable to move onto to something else. If we can make something relevant and attractive to students, they are likely to find it fascinating, which is an important first step in generating interest because students will not be motivated to learn what we explain to them unless they are motivated to pay attention.

Fascination happens when we are able to connect the idea to our audience in a way that they can see that it is relevant to them. This means that you need to get to know your audience, what their goals are and what they care about. For example, if I teach someone about investing in the stock market, I will not fascinate people by telling them what shares are, how to buy and sell them, about financial statement analysis or the role of brokers – they will lose interest. I am more likely to succeed if I talk about the benefits of investing, such as increasing one’s wealth. But I am even more likely to succeed if I connect to something deeper inside of them, by showing them the benefit of the benefit (or the meta-benefit). The benefit is gaining wealth, but what is the benefit of gaining more wealth? Maybe, if you gain wealth, you can increase your status or help your friends and family. Maybe it simply means you can finally be independent, doing what you want when you want and never having to ask anyone for anything. The deeper the idea connects to something that matters to a person, the more fascinating it will be to them.


Fun

By itself, fascination is of limited use in learning and teaching situations. We have all watched television documentaries or attended flashy presentations that captured our attention, but, one day later, we remember little. This is because simply paying attention does not translate into learning unless we actively use that attention – unless we think. This is where the game designer, Raph Koster, made a great contribution with his ‘theory of fun’, which adds the second dimension. He defines ‘fun’ as that which we experience when we find and master new patterns of thought.

Like games, to gain an understanding of a subject or topic, we need to find patterns. Finding these patterns helps us to see connections and chunks, compress the information and try out the ideas to see how well we can generate new information. Once we find all the patterns and become competent in using them, we have mastered the subject and it becomes easy. But just like games, all of this is only fun for those engaged in the process, not for passive observers. This implies that one needs to encourage participation. This can be done inside a lecture (e.g. through discussions, quizzes) or outside (e.g. performing authentic tasks). It can be done in groups (e.g. through various kinds of cooperative learning), by talking, individual writing or even just by thinking (e.g. through using advance organizers or simply pausing for a few seconds after asking a question).

For something to remain fun, it has to push you to the limits of your ability. When our skill level exceeds the perceived degree of challenge, we get bored, and when the challenge exceeds our skill, we become anxious or frustrated and give up. So, once people are fascinated by an idea, we can make it fun by presenting a series of varied challenges, ideally involving active learning, that match their ability.


Fumbling

There’s still one problem: once we have mastered a game, we keep on playing simply to experience the pleasure of winning, even if we are no longer learning new patterns. Similarly, in a subject, the patterns become sedimented once they are automatic and part of our long-term memory. At this point, we no longer need to think much and no new learning occurs. It is difficult to switch to learning a new game or a new set of ideas, so our brains resist it, preferring the easy path of just repeating old patterns.

In a learning situation, something has to force us to be open to a new idea by upsetting our old ideas and making us fumble. This means that old ideas must be disrupted so that mental cracks can appear through which new ideas can slip in. Disruption makes students realize that their old patterns do not work as well as expected. Active learning helps here too, especially if students are required to respond to provocative questions or make predictions that make them realize they need better ideas.

But if the ideas are relevant but completely obvious, they are boring. If an idea disrupts us too much, we call those ideas ‘absurd’. An idea is interesting when it is useful and lies somewhere between being obvious and absurd. In a dynamic learning situation, we have to push back against the obvious and disrupt students’ understanding by upsetting what the students thought they knew.

There is no recipe for using the F3 approach – it depends on the audience and the presenter’s own style. Though ideal, it might not always be possible to use all three Fs, and their actual use may only be a small part of a presentation. But if deployed successfully, there is no need to return to the question of why a seemingly ‘boring’ or ‘useless’ subject is taught.

To read more about the three F’s, including practical examples and exercises, download the full free chapter from Teaching Complex Ideas here.