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?

Note: This article by Leonie Overbeek originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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11 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    I like the phrase you coin here — the pedagogy of fun. I’ve seen classes that seemed planned as if children can’t handle anything that isn’t “crazy fun” (high energy games followed by songs, with no clear learning goal in sight). Fun is no more a pedagogy than technology is, or than testing is, for that matter.

    The teachers you mention who were fired because their classes weren’t fun? Ironically, if they had created classes the children described as “fun” their students’ parents might have taken their kids out of the class because they failed to do well on exams (because the teachers weren’t serious enough). Some days, it feels like teachers can’t win, doesn’t it?

    I don’t think you’re arguing for an environment that says if learning isn’t painful it isn’t really learning, although I know you’re hitting a trigger point by arguing against “fun” 🙂

    Luckily, some teachers (and schools) place “fun” in the context of creating an enjoyable environment in which to learn. You can still have activities and songs that are fun, but serve a lesson’s objective. It’s a balance we need to find, I think. Pleasant enough that students look forward to coming to class, and challenging enough that they learn enough to make it worth their while (and worth their parents’ tuition fees).

    Ironically, we may feed into a distinction that parents and students also make. They send their children to the “fun” classes (and prefer native speakers as entertainers) but also send their children to cram schools that are not at all fun, for “real learning” (and prefer teachers who share the same first language for these classes).

    Really interesting topic, Leonie! Thanks for taking it on.

  2. Hi Leonie,

    I respect your beliefs about teaching but they are only that, a set of your own personal beliefs of what a teacher is / does, what students need to do and act.

    Flip side, I think there are many teachers with a differing and as valid set of teaching beliefs. You should recognize this in light of not addressing the fact that students learn lots while having fun, while playing. Nothing wrong about that and it is all in how the teacher does it – just like when a teacher delivers a lesson in a more serious fashion. There are many ways, paths to “effective” teaching.

    There are few things I completely disagree with and where I think you go to far. Just a few.

    1. Learning a language is hard, boring, tiring etc…. Not at all and this is a bigger fallacy than those you mention. “hard” in the context we are speaking is completely subjective.

    2. You can’t plan, organize and control “fun”. Untrue. A good teacher with strong rapport with students and management skills can both have a class full of fun / learning and control.

    3. Having no choice means you can never have fun. I’ve many times not wanted to do something. However, once underway, completely forgot that and had fun. Happens all the time and in many classrooms everyday as teachers perform magic.

    Of course, I don’t think any teacher should be fired for not having “fun” classes. They have a different belief system and should be able to teach in the fashion they believe. Most of this happens because the teacher is mismatched with the school philosophy they work in. So many reasons for this and it is something that causes so many problems in education. Best advice for any teacher is to work where your educational philosophy has a match, as much as is possible. Damn money though and having to make a living gets in the way.

    I think back on my best teaching. It was always where we had fun, where I planned for fun and where students forgot the classroom and enjoyed learning as something natural, automatic. We need to value fun. Doesn’t mean chaos but means “learning with a smile”.


    • Leonie Overbeek says:

      David – sure, I am approaching this from a personal perspective as indeed are you. If you are a teacher who seems to have the knack of having fun in class while engaging students in the learning process, that’s great, and I’m not arguing against that.
      What I am arguing against is the idea that ‘fun’ is one of those magic bullets that will automatically remove the drudgery from learning or working or any other repetitive actitivty.
      And if you feel there is never any drudgery attached to any activity, you are indeed an amazing person. For the vast majority of students, trapped in school systems that seek only to churn out clones (and I’m drawing on Ken Robinson here, and I know many disagree with his views on education as well, that’s fine, I happen to agree with him), the opposite is true.
      I also agree that learning with a smile is better than learning with drudgery, but I find it interesting that you regard those classes as your best classes. In order to really judge their efficacy we need to do some longitudinal studies of those teachers who regularly have fun classes and their students performance and the perfomrance of those who present classes in a different way, and then compare long term retention of information. And such studies I have been unable to find referenced – if you have some, let me know.
      Thanks for your comments.

      • Hi Leonie,

        Thanks for the elaboration. But I think you are judging “teaching” solely by learning outcomes. Teaching, the act of being with students and nurturing them has a large set of other goals. I believe “fun” as a way to achieve these other objectives that are so fundamental to what we do as a teacher – helping to grow and develop happy, content, well adjusted citizens.

        I recall all my great classes as those which were “fun” not solely based on the fact that students were learning. I base them on the idea that teaching is about so much more than just learning. Your own belief system doesn’t see things as that. I respect that but I don’t respect any opinion that suggests teachers who make “fun” a main focus of their class are not doing a great job. It’s more complex than that, less black and white than that.

        Of course, “fun” shouldn’t be viewed as a “magic bullet”, just like any method/approach/activity etc… Classroom teaching is a transactional, multi faceted activity. No one thing brings about a result, in and of itself.

        I often go back to the ancient wisdom of Heraclitus when judging things and right action – “It is not “what” what but the “how””. We should not condone edutainment itself but that edutainment which is done wrong, has no objective at all, is mismanaged etc… . Some teachers are made for it and achieve great results. Others shouldn’t be doing it without learning more about how to do it well.

        • Leonie Overbeek says:

          David, thanks for elaborating on your philosophy of teaching. May I ask, just what are the other goals you see for teachers? And schools? You’ve already said you see us achieveing these goals by having fun, can you give me an example of the kind of activity/shared experience this entals?

          • Leonie Overbeek says:

            Typing too fast – entails and achieving, not entals and achieveing…lol

          • A teacher’s or a school’s goal at any one time or in any lesson should always address 3 things. Knowledge. Skills. Affect. Too often the later doesn’t get any attention at all but is primary and should be first. We are custodians of the social, emotional and moral growth of students. Nel Noddings is a good place to start reading about the place of “care’ in teaching.

            Well, there are so many examples to share but I’ll share one that I learned from a teacher while evaluating her lesson (and so much of what I think is good teaching, I’ve stolen from other teachers while having the honor to be in their classrooms over the years).

            It was a typical lesson with warm up, pre teaching vocabulary and then an activity with students in groups of 3 practicing a set role play of friends making plans for the weekend. Groups presented their role play to end the class.

            There was a little freedom for students to change the dialog but not a lot. Lesson was a little stiff the first 20 min (maybe because I was there). However the teacher did a marvellous thing to inject “fun” into the lesson activity. She had a big box under the table at the front of the class. It has strange hats, scarves, muffs and other “heady” things. Students took one and put it on to perform their dialog. Everyone was laughing and a standard activity became special and “fun”. So props are one “fun” way to make fun in a classroom.

            In discussing this with the teacher after, she had planned for this “fun” and uses this box occasionally to decrease students’ affective filter and allow students to build their second language identity. Sparkling. But she also had an objective of using fun in every lesson as a way to lift the dull middle school drudgery most students (in Korea) had inflicted on them. For them to view English as not a chore, hard, frustrating. Her objective reached way beyond just the language functions and vocabulary learning of the lesson.

            Point is, she pulled this off because she did many other things besides the “fun” part of the lesson well. It’s not just about putting fun into the lesson but how you do it. And that’s an art, not a science.

            But if I had my way, beyond the usual language objectives of a lesson, a lesson should have the goal of “happiness”. Nurturing a warm, safe, comfortable learning environment and community. Fun helps do that but not always necessary.

  3. Interesting post Leonie, but I think you’re falling into the trap of failing to notice the difference between teacher “centred” fun as opposed to teacher “de-centred” fun.

    Teacher centred fun is bound to fail because it is usually quite selfishly focussed on and controlled by the teacher. Your colleagues “spare junk” auction is a classic example of this – “Hey kids, aren’t you lucky? Today, you might get some useless stuff that I don’t want any more!” It’s up there with the classic lesson that occurs when a teacher has been on holiday and they decide to show their students their holiday snaps, for fun. We’ve all done it, adults will feign interest, young learners will fall asleep, or find a stupid photo *they* can make fun of.

    Given the opportunity and trust from their teacher, young learners and teens are more than capable of making every single lesson fun, as long as the teacher is de-centred enough to permit it. If your colleague in Seoul had taken his old junk to the lesson and asked them to rank it in order of awfulness, or provide a short imagined history behind every object, or try to find as many uses for the items as possible (t-shirt = turban, flag, tablecloth, tent for cats etc) then fun would have been generated by the learners, not the boring old teacher.

    I’ve observed dozens of YL lessons over the past year and I’ve basically made the assumption that all lessons should be fun, but the teacher cannot define “fun” for their learners, the learners define what it is and the teacher should notice and exploit it. Young learners are imaginative, surreal, creative and adventurous. I leave every one of my YL classes with a big smile on my face because THEY have made ME laugh, not vice versa.

    • Leonie Overbeek says:

      Sorry to only get back to you now on this Stephen, and thanks for your comment. But, if you read carefully, I do make the distinction – especially in the final two paragraphs. What I’m complaining about is exactly the idea that teachers should be providing the fun, and held accountable when they don’t.
      It is the insistence on teachers planning ‘fun’ lessons, and teachers organizing ‘fun’ that leads to situations such as my colleague, since each of us has a different take on fun, idea of fun, and also a different way of implementing fun.
      I agree that teachers who can spot fun in the class and exploit it are lucky and gifted, but there as well, when we become prescriptive and demand that everyone be the same as those teachers, we fall into the ‘this is the pattern for a good teacher’ trap.

      • kamala says:

        Thanks Stephen In my country we are somehow in laughing position like your example It is usual for remote places When I teach my students I see they don’t understand fun They laugh videos As if its a cartoon We still used to learn theory not practical fun

  4. You raise excellent points about a point of view not frequently presented. Very relevant to all teachers.
    This is the sort of thing that should be discussed in teacher’s rooms.