Teaching Village Rotating Header Image

The Fallacy of Fun by Leonie Overbeek


Tackling this subject I almost feel like an atheist walking into a church and shouting ‘God is dead’. I am met with the same amount of horror and resistance. Some of the comments made about me during the recent KOTESOL National Conference, where I presented a paper on this subject, included ‘she doesn’t believe in fun’.

By trying to make a case against fun as a pedagogy, many people feel I am trying to take the classroom back to the bad old days when teachers, canes in hand, stalked up and down rows of regimented students who were copying grammar rules or tables or dates, or chanting them in unison. That rather than the modern, enlightened classroom where the student and the teacher co-operate with each other wholeheartedly, having fun exploring the vast universe of knowledge.

The problem is that while the first scenario was true for many students (I recall the German language lessons where we stood, chanting ‘Ich bin, du bist…’ with a hand held out, palm up, waist high, to receive the whack if you missed something), the second is most definitely not true for all students.

Certainly many claim to provide that experience for the students, but in reality school is as boring, as stultifying and as much of a burden for a significant number of students as it ever was.

And telling them that learning is fun is telling a lie, because for those who are having fun exploring, they would have it no matter what the circumstances, while for those who do not like learning school is hard work, forced labor and the only fun comes from outwitting the teacher. For example, I loved school. I didn’t mind the German teacher, I hated the math teacher (but loved math), and adored the science teacher – not because of how much fun they were providing, but because I love learning and they were giving me the opportunity to do that. My sister hated school, except for sport, and if they wanted to provide her with fun, they would have let her play tennis and basketball all day.

Moving on a generation, my two children also personified the extremes – my daughter couldn’t get enough of school (and it didn’t matter if the teachers provided fun or not) while my son couldn’t wait to get away from it.

And right there is one of the first fallacies of fun – that it will make the experience of having to learn something more palatable. Note that I said ‘have to learn’. More than anything else, having no choice in what you learn raises the stress levels, raises the boredom levels and leaves students sullen and resentful. Fun cannot be had when you are feeling like that, unless it is the fun of turning the tables on the persecutor (or perceived persecutor).

Add to that the fact that the ‘fun’ is often of the kind where you also don’t have a choice in the matter, and you get classes like the one my co-teacher conducted the other day. On the spur of the moment, five minutes before class was due to start, he informed me that he’d been cleaning out his apartment, and there were items he wanted to ‘auction’ off to the students, and could I please bring some Monopoly money down with me to class.

Each student got about 1200 fake dollars, I quickly practiced the numbers with them, and then the auction started. They could bid, either alone or as a consortium on items – they would get to keep the item – and thus practice numbers and some conversation.

Fun, right? The problem was the students were having fun he had not planned on. The boy who ‘bought’ the soccer T-shirt twisted it into a turban and was having fun with his friends, showing off his ‘new’ hat. But when my co-teacher saw this, he stopped the auction and spent the next fifteen minutes haranguing the students in Korean, obviously along the lines of ‘I prepared this for you, I let you have some fun, and see what you do, I can’t give you anything, etc.’ You know, the speech your mom and dad gave you when you weren’t having fun on an outing they planned for you.

Which leads into the second fallacy of fun – that you can plan for it and organize it. You can plan interesting things. You can even plan to do things that you think are fun. But that will not mean that it will be fun. Because the third fallacy is that fun is the same for everyone.

This is a fallacy perpetrated by the ad agencies. The images of people having fun on beaches, in the snow, next to the fireside, on the yacht or in the shopping mall are staged. Of course there are people who find a beach outing fun, but I’m not one of them. Sand everywhere that gets in your drinks, your hair, your food, and intimate parts of your anatomy. No shade, unless you cart it with you (and who thinks lugging a shade device, several folding chairs, a picnic hamper, a cooler and assorted lotions across several hundred meters of sand is fun?) and the eventual hot-sand dance as you head for the sea to cool down. The idea that fun is generic package that comes from a certain product or destination is disproven day after day, yet still used everywhere.

Those two fallacies work together with the final one – that you can force people to have fun. Unless you have a choice in the matter, you are not going to have fun no matter what people place in front of you. You might enjoy some parts of it, but in general you are not having fun.

How does this factor into the classroom? Well, here in South Korea I personally know of quite a few native teachers who were either fired or threatened with being fired because their classes were not fun. Not because they were bad teachers who ignored the students, or beat them, or didn’t understand what they were doing – no, simply because the kids had complained that their lessons weren’t fun.

And as we’ve seen you really cannot provide fun for all the students all the time, unless you allow them to do exactly what they choose to do. Fallacies two, three and four (you can plan fun, fun is the same for everyone, you can force people to have fun) mean that there will always be at least one student, maybe more, not having ‘fun’ in your class. And under it all is the first and biggest fallacy, the fallacy that leads administrators and owners of private academies to expect teachers to provide the ‘fun’ – because fun makes learning easier.

Anyone who has worked at learning something, whether playing a musical instrument or mastering physics, knows that there are long, boring hours spent memorizing information, reading it, working with it or simply getting the mechanics of the movements needed right.

We seem to have forgotten to teach kids that effort is good, that effort is OK, that effort produces results. It’s like signing up for a gym membership and the personal trainer does all the exercises for you, and then you’re upset three months later when you still have no abs to show. We do our children a disservice when they are never introduced to the idea that effort, hard work and long, boring hours are a part of achieving anything worthwhile. Of course there’s enjoyment, and a sense of achievement, and the satisfaction of a job well done. But mere fun does not lead to those moments.

Don’t get me wrong, as far as I’m concerned, I’m all for moments of fun in the classroom. There’s the moment when we read a sentence together and I stumble over a pronunciation and the kids burst out laughing. There’s the moment when the text just lends itself to a joke. There’s the moment when one of the students spots something silly and shares it. There’s the final five minutes of class when I show them the latest cute cats viral video, or we watch two guys on cellos dueling with each other (watch Two Cellos do Thunderstruck!). Fun arises spontaneously in a classroom where there is caring and sharing.

But, there are also the many many moments when students accomplish something they didn’t think they could, and the joy we share at that moment is transcendent.

And here is the final nail in the coffin (at least as far as I am concerned) of this current trend that asks teachers to provide fun for their students. Many people will tell you that it is based on Krashen’s theory about the lowering of the affective filter. It isn’t. Krashen himself said that the affective filter is high due to students being evaluated and tested, asked to produce the language before they are ready and other general stresses. As long as the tests and the expectations remain, all the fun in the world will not lower the affective filter.

Of course we all know that human beings learn best through play, that’s how our brains work. And providing opportunities to play a la Montessori has a proven track record. But that means the teacher and the curriculum have to relinquish their hold, and simply provide many different activities for students to choose from, and then stand by to answer questions.

And are schools ready to let that happen?

English only in English class by Leon Butchers


Most teachers would agree that ideally only English should be spoken in English class. However, in practice this is often more easily said than done. It’s easy to see why students struggle  – young minds whir away 24/7 in their native language, so suddenly changing into English mode is somewhat akin to a right hander being told to only use their left hand for an hour a week! For me, mastering this aspect of classroom management is still a work in progress, and one that I have to re-deal with periodically. First year students are the most challenging, but there are plenty of “hard nuts” with ingrained bad habits that will unconsciously chatter away in their native tongue seemingly no matter what you try! Looking back, I became much more effective at managing classroom chatter over the years and these days it is rarely a problem. I would like to share a few insights gleaned through my own experiences, trial and error, study and conversations with other teachers.hands-raised-photo

Be consistent, realistic and patient:

Make your expectations clear from the start, but be patient – it can take several months of consistent effort before students really get it. I prefer to gently lead students in this direction by making them feel good about the challenge . i.e. I’m always sure to praise students in front of others when they make a good effort to use English. I point out (non English) chatter, without going overboard to the point where it affects flow. In other words – don’t spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to achieve this goal overnight, but gently push kids in the right direction.

Students can also be trained to catch each other out. If you use the phrases “English only please!”, or “Don’t speak Japanese, please!”, your students will start using them too with a little encouragement. It can also help to periodically get an assistant to address your students and their parents in their native language about what you are doing and why it is important.

How to break a hard-core chatterer:

A while back, I had a ten year old student that was a hard core chatterer. Seemingly no matter what I tried he would freely babble away in Japanese moments later. He had been studying for a few years, and was doing okay overall. The problem was, all the other kids in the class were trained to only speak English in class, yet this one boy just didn’t get it! One day I had a flash of inspiration that fixed the problem within a fortnight: I walked into class and placed fifteen points on his desk (in my lessons with younger kids, I often reward kids with points that can be exchanged for goodies at the school shop. Sure, there are some pros and cons to this approach, but I’ll leave that for another article…) Anyway, fifteen points was more than a lesson’s worth of reward. The boy was delighted and confused. His peers were jealous.  That lesson, every time the boy spoke Japanese, much to his horror I took away a point. By lesson’s end, he’d lost all his bonus points and was a little upset. The next lesson however, when I put ten points on his desk, I was only able to catch him out a couple of times all lesson, and he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face! The following week, I only gave him five bonus points, and he kept them all! He got it, and never looked back!

An English lesson in English!

It’s really satisfying as a teacher to have your class free from foreign chatter. Students will learn faster and importantly practice engaging their brain in English, too. Parents are impressed, too! I strongly recommend making the process fun – appeal to students’ love of praise, and their competitive and fun-loving natures. This gets much better results than entering into a battle of wills. If you go about things the right way, you will reach your goal smoothly and naturally. If you feel like you are continually battling students over this issue or this aspect of classroom management is eating into too much class time, chances are you need to try a different tack.  Best of luck! I’m interested to hear of other teacher’s experiences and thoughts.


Leon ButchersLeon Butchers is the creator of the best selling AGO card game series. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand he has taught English in Japan for over ten years.

TEFL teaching — slavery or career path? by Leonie Overbeek


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the article ‘The Slavery of Teaching English.’ Sebastian Creswell-Turner wrote that ‘the job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil.’ The article was written in 2004 and recently published in the Telegraph of the 24th of May 2014. The article is set in Europe, and talks about the ‘hell’ that teachers are put through by the owners of private academies.

After reading it, I commented on Facebook that it made me wonder whether TEFL teaching is a career path or simply a way of avoiding responsibilities. This remark prompted quite a few responses from my friends, some of them, to my surprise (although I should perhaps have expected it) very vehement. They ranged from agreeing with me that for some it was a way to avoid the responsibilities of mortgages and career commitments, while others felt that it is a career path.

My friend Chuck Sandy, for example, felt that TEFL is something that he is responsible for and in, and which he, as he put it ‘fell in love with’. And that anyone could follow his career path if they loved what they are doing. His advice about ‘getting out’ if you hate what you are doing is wise and should be considered by all who feel themselves trapped by economic or other circumstances. Getting out may come at a cost, but not as much as staying unhappy does.

I made my remark, originally, as a result of the article, but also as a result of what I’ve observed during almost eight years of being in South Korea, teaching in a public school, and coming into contact with many others either in public schools or private academies.

I have to say that many of the teachers I came into contact with, especially during the early years in South Korea, were here for the party. In fact, I remember one recruiter in South Africa who showed some slides to prospective teachers of a young man wearing a belt stuffed with the green bottles in which soju (the most popular drink here) is served. And told them how the weekends are a nonstop party. And how much money they’d earn to spend on the party. Oh, and how they’d be able to save enough to return to their home country with a substantial nest egg. But that’s not what got me in the industry.

I came to TEFL teaching rather late in life. My initial entry into the world of TEFL came about after spending almost two months in hospital following a pulmonary embolism (actually, several dozens of clots in both lungs). Survival is generally only 30% of those who get it, so during the time that followed I got to thinking about my life up to that point and what I’d like to do with the rest of it. I was always torn between science and language at school, and up to then science had won, and so I decided to pursue the language side. And here I must admit there was an element of going into TEFL as an escape from the high pressure of responsibility (I was the administrator and buyer for a large department of a university, the chair of one of its managing bodies and sat on the committee that ran the pension fund), because at that time it was being advertised as something you could anywhere in the world, for good money, and while being a tourist in that country.

However, once I started my innate professionalism took over, and I worked hard at the TEFL certificate course I took, so much so that they asked me to teach it following the resignation of their regular lecturer. I made a point of using the resources of the language college so that TEFL trainees taught actual language classes as part of their training, as I felt that this was an essential part of preparing a professional teacher. I had full classes and glowing reports from the employers who took on the graduates I helped train. This happy state of affairs continued for two years, and then a big chain bought the college, and almost immediately we had problems. I could no longer use the practical approach I had developed (they felt that the paying language learners could not be exposed to ‘untrained’ teachers), they had a specific methodology they adhered to that everyone had to use, and the manager with her fancy car and with enough money to buy a house in one the best areas of Cape Town cut teaching hours and compensation with a liberal hand.

Severing ties with them brought me and my daughter to contracts in South Korea at the height of the TEFL boom, with promises that by 2010 (this was in 2007) there would be an English speaker in every English class in the public schools. I started at a middle school and she at an elementary school.

Since then we’ve witnessed the virtual collapse of GEPIK (at one time employing over a thousand teachers just in Gyeonggi-do, now with barely three hundred on the books and news that further cuts are imminent), the shut-down of having any native speaker teachers in high schools, and calls for Korean English teachers to ‘Teach English in English’.

Many foreigners who came as public school teachers then found employment at the hakwons (private cram schools), and for some, the hell-like conditions talked about in the article became reality (among them my daughter). To avoid paying the severance packages written into most contracts, hakwon owners resort to fair means and foul (ask my friend John Wurth for some of his stories of helping people to access legal recourse). At some places teachers are expected to work long hours, not permitted to take a break even for lunch, and live two or three in a studio apartment. They are threatened with being fired if their classes are not ‘fun’ for the students (and my daughter actually was fired for that!).

There are also people who found work at places that supports and nurtures them, such as was the case with my late friend, Peter J Venter, whose employer kept him on the books, helped fund medical costs and remained a firm friend to him during his last year of struggle with cancer.

In the public school system, I have had a wonderful time, being lucky enough to be placed among people who appreciated me and made me feel welcome. I have had opportunities via KOTESOL to grow professionally and personally, and after seven years in the profession, I am very committed to it. However, even I have my frustrations, when I am scolded like a child by someone for correcting a student (not your job, Korean teacher job), or expected to suddenly rehearse endlessly for the ‘open class’, or told that a student who cannot understand anything I say, and cannot answer any questions during an oral exam, has to be given a base grade of 50%.

I do feel we need a way forward. We need to somehow have all TEFL teachers themselves become professionals – in engineering that’s done by writing an exam for the governing body and getting letters to put after your name, in law you pass the bar – and then to be treated as such. The ‘one-year contract’ needs to be revised and people should be offered a choice of length of stay and compensation. I realize that will also mean a revision of visa regulations since most working visas are only for a year, but maybe something like the USA’s green card could be developed?

And articles like the one we are talking about need to be balanced by articles from people like Chuck Sandy, Josette LeBlanc, Malu Sciamarelli, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto – all talking about how it became their career choice and why.

This is because, sad fact, many of us feel like my friend Mandy Sands who taught in South Korea for many years. A true professional down to the tips of her toes, she recently moved to Hong Kong and is now a TEFL teacher there. In her own words: ’5 years in Korea blessed me in many ways but, sadly, made me so insecure as a teacher. Here in HK, I have had to learn to hide my surprise at trust and respect received, and rediscover that I am actually darn good at my job. I watch my colleagues in wide-eyed shock – they take personal days! last month, for the first time in 6 years, I stayed home for 2 days with flu!! – and no-one treated me as a leper!’

While I think it is true that if you behave with dignity and respect towards your bosses, you get it in return, as a native speaker teacher in the TEFL industry, in many cases, you are the foreigner, the other, the alien, and you are never completely a part of the culture. You always are a little apart, a little bit of an outsider, and in Korea this is perhaps exacerbated by their history of invasion after invasion. But we are none of us asking to be totally integrated, just to be treated with dignity and respect, without having to fight for it. We should be able to do what we love without having to fight the conditions in which we do it.

The Korean culture where the principal is the absolute boss, no questions asked, and no reasoning or debate allowed, places not just the foreigner, but also the Korean staff in a frustrating position. When arbitrary decisions are made and you are treated like a child, and your sense of what to do in a teaching situation is constantly questioned or denigrated, it is difficult to remain positive.

However, you may end up seeing the difference you’ve made to one person, one life, one student, and that’s worth it all. It has been for me.


Leonie OverbeekLeonie Overbeek was born in South Africa when it was still a British Proctorate, saw it become a republic, lived through apartheid and voted to abolish it, saw Mandela freed and democratic elections come to pass. She blames all of this for her passionate defence of human rights, fighting for the underdog and lack of sympathy with plutocrats. She has qualifications from Johannesburg University in Analytical Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and holds a Masters in Value and Policy Studies from Stellenbosch University. She loves writing, singing and acting, and uses them when teaching. She wants to see reforms in the education system and in teaching, and constantly strives to be the change she wants to see. She can be found on Facebook (Africawhitelion), Linked In and Twitter (@LeonieOverbeek).

Teaching less, recycling more

recycling language with cubes

In an education environment that screams ‘More! More! More!’ sometimes the smart teaching move can be to teach less. If you don’t have to spend your entire class explaining new language, students can spend more time recycling, reinforcing, and expanding the language they learn.

If this topic interests you, I will be giving an online webinar for Oxford University Press on Thursday, May 8th, at 12:30 BST. (That’s 7:30 am in New York, 8:30 am in Brazil, 3:30 pm in UAE, and 8:30 pm in Japan). The webinar is free, but you must register to attend. Even if you can’t attend live, registering means that you’ll receive a link to the recording after the webinar. OUP usually closes registration 24 hours before the online event, so I encourage you to register soon if you would like to be included.

Click this link to register for the webinar:

Recycling, reinforcing and building on new language for young learners



If you’d like to read more about this teaching approach, and how it might work in your own teaching context, you might enjoy guest posts I’ve recently written for the iTDi Blog and for the OUP ELT Global Blog:

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

Teach less to help young students learn more

Hope to see you online May 8th!

Spring Blog Festival

Have you ever wondered why people blog? Are you interested in learning more about blogging? Are you already blogging and wanting to become a better blogger? Then you will definitely want to plan to attend the Spring Blog Festival! This is a free, 3-day, online event organized by Nellie Muller Deutsch, Shelly Sanchez Terrell, and Sylvia Guinan.

Spring Blog Festival

Read more about the event on the WizIQ blog.

When? March 14-16, 2014

Where? Online via the WizIQ Virtual Classroom

What? A 3-day event showcasing bloggers, their work, and valuable tips for using blogging for reflective practice or with students

Register: SPRING BLOG FESTIVAL (Registering allows you to receive a certificate for participation)

I’m excited to be part of this event! I’ll be part of a panel about authors who blog, along with Luke Meddings, David Deubelbeiss, and Chuck Sandy. Our panel discussion will take place on Saturday, March 15th at 1 pm GMT (10 pm in Japan). You can get more information about our panel here.


You can see the entire program here, with an incredible line-up of authors, teachers, trainers, and projects that are sure to inspire.




Why I love Teachers 2014

I'm in love with teaching

A few years ago I wrote a simple little post about the reasons I love Teachers. Since then, I’ve had a chance to work with some amazing Teachers through the International Teacher Development Institute. So, I thought it was time to bring the post out,  dust it off, and update my list of reasons. (more…)

Would you please do me a favor? Thank you!


When you look around online these days, it seems as if there always something happening for teachers. There’s so much that at times it can be a bit overwhelming to choose from the number of webinars, courses, workshops, conferences, chats, and blogs available. Much of it is free. And yet, whenever I travel to do face-to-face workshops, most of the teachers I meet are still not online for their own professional development.

Using cell phones in the classroom when computers are not available (by Fabiana Casella)

Fabiana Casella_nd Advanced 2013_Argentina
Fabiana Shortlisted

Congratulations Fabiana! Click this image and “like” the facebook image to vote for Fabiana!

Everybody is talking about 21st Century skills and preparing students for a whole different world. The truth is that our students have become digital and there are a whole lot of educators around the world who are still “analog”. That is why I would like to share my work with my two secondary school groups with as many teachers as possible. Internet and Technology in the Classroom have made a huge change in my daily teaching experience.

My story starts right after my first online presentation for The Future of Education Reform Symposium 2013, (RSCON4)  where I was kindly invited to participate by Shelly Sanchez Terrell. Some hours later, I got a message from Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, who asked me if I would like to write for this High Tech Ideas in the Low Tech Classroom section in Teaching Village. I was flattered, and accepted immediately, but it really took me quite a long time to put ideas together and I thank my dear friend, Rose Bard, for giving me some support.

Teaching Pronunciation that Matters (by Nina Septina)

Nina on guitar

Pronunciation is like an art to me, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It is like learning how to play guitar, where we have to figure out when to use different picking strategies or strumming patterns to produce the desired sounds. In pronunciation, we also need to use many different techniques and tongue positions in our mouth to produce the right sounds. Another similarity is that we’ve got to know when to change how hard or softly we should hit the guitar strings when playing a song. The same thing happens when we have to figure out how hard or how soft we should stress certain syllables in words, or some words in sentences when speaking. Finally, there’s the use of rhythm as the main component that shapes the flow of the song, just as it also shapes the flow of the speech in pronunciation.

Help! I just got another new student!

pick me

What happens when a new student enters your class at a very different level than the students who are already there? That’s the question a teacher would like to ask Villagers (that’s you!). Have you ever been in this situation? What advice can you share?  (more…)