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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?

“Special” tricks Part 2 — repetition (by David Deubelbeiss)

If you missed the first part of this article, start here

Previously, I outlined how much I’d been changed as a teacher by the realization that language students would benefit from a lot of the instructional practices of “special” needs teachers. Accommodations and modifications of content, behavior, use of models, explicit teaching of learning strategies, small class size, differentiation and what I’d like to talk about today – “repetition”.

To begin, see an example HERE. I’ve been cheerleading Gary Bishop’s amazing Tarheel Reader for a long time. Developed for students with learning disabilities, it is outstanding for ELLs. Why? Because of the intense use of repetition.

Repetition is needed to learn a language and it is a basic remedial technique. Language is NOT a knowledge laden subject but is performance based. We have to do things over and over, listen over and over to achieve mastery. Just like driving a car or learning to pack a parachute. As a child, that’s how we learn too. Here’s a photo of the math notebook of the amazing mathematician, Kurt Godel. Look familiar? Even Godel had to master the basics and we should be doing this with our students. [as an aside, I really do hope one day to write about the implications of his incompleteness theorem to language - it is fascinating ] I’m sure you remember lots of this in your younger days, lots of copying and “mastering”. Godel

But I’m not advocating that teachers set up classrooms like this infamous Chinese way…. full of parroting and useless repetition. No. There are better ways to do this and here are a few of my ideas on how you can best make “repetition” part of your instructional toolkit.

On the Lesson Level

1. Chants and Drills. Yes, don’t do them a lot but do them! The key is to make them so the students have some freedom and personal input. Always allow for students to change the words or omit words (substitution).

2. Controlled Practice. This is a standard lesson component and should allow students to repeat basic grammatical structures yet “push in” new content. Make sure the structure is always on the board for reference and get students used to repeating it (by rewarding them, ringing a bell etc..). Example. “Yesterday, I went to the ………. and ……….. ” – that’s the target language for use with a set of flashcards of places and things.

3. Repeat student’s phrases often in class. We call this echoing. It allows other students to hear the language again but also gives students a chance to process the language and repeat inside their own heads.

Teacher: “What did you do yesterday Mirka?”
Students: “I went to the mall”.
Teacher: “Oh, you went to the mall!”

Even better if the teacher doesn’t repeat but another student does. Recycle the language during the lesson. For example, in the above exchange, the teacher could ask other students – “What did Mirka do?”
Disappearing dialogs are also a great way to repeat language!

4. Review! Every lesson should at least end with the question – “What did we learn today?” Then, list the vocabulary, structures, ideas covered. Even better if you have time to end in a game, quiz. Even better if the students make the review questions! You could also make it standard to review the previous lesson at the beginning of the next.

5. Lesson Sequencing. Students really, really need to know what will happen each class. Make an agenda and stick to it! Meaning, every class, the students know what will happen the first 5 min. / the next 10 min. etc…. You do the same things EVERY class but with different content. I really, truly think there is too much variety and too much “different” coming at students in our English language classrooms. A predictable lesson sequence is vital and students need this kind of “repetition”. An example lesson sequencing might go like this.

0-5 min: Chit – chat, check student attendance, problems…
5-15 min. Review of the previous lesson.
15-25 min. Elicit background knowledge: Song and brainstorm
25-40 min. Controlled practice activity: Flashcards
40-60 min. Performance, presentation using target language.

On the Curriculum Level.

1. Recycling. Recycling of content or “spiraling”  is done by textbook writers but it isn’t always done well. Teachers need to be aware of the need to recycle into new units, the grammar, vocabulary and functions previously covered. Students need to encounter them in new situations, in order to master them.  Jerome Bruner first outlined these curriculum and constructivist principles and his thoughts are very pertinent to ELT.

So for example if the previous unit was about “Telling the time”. In the next unit, “Shopping”, the teacher should make sure to use a lot of “time” references and prepare lessons which insert this. Thus, the dialogue from the textbook could be changed to include times about meeting/opening/closing of shops.

I know I’ve just touched on a few of the ways you can “repeat” and get your students learning more effectively. I think it an important thing for every teacher to think about and this summer might just be the time for such reflection.

David Deubelbeiss is an EFL teacher and teacher trainer living in Seoul, Korea. He runs a social network for teachers called EFL Classroom 2.0 and a website of teacher-submitted teaching ideas called Teaching Recipes. You can also follow David on his blog, Teacher Talk and on Twitter.

Formative Assessment (by Matthew Spira)

I was thirty-two years old the first time I stepped into a kindergarten classroom as an English instructor. Because I previously had fairly extensive leadership experience as a military officer, the general manager of a multi-million dollar software company, and as an operations manager within a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, I just didn’t think teaching children was going to present all that much of a challenge. How hard could it really be?

As you are probably guessing, those were indeed famous last words.

What do you mean children don’t instantly do what you tell them to do? What do you mean they don’t sit still? What do you mean they don’t want to do the “fun” activity I meticulously planned? What do you mean they have “accidents?” What do you mean they cry… all of them at the exact same time?

My first month as a functionally untrained and unprepared “teacher” was as disorienting as the first few days of military basic training had been, which was the only other time in my life I’d felt so lost. However, something I’ve always understood is even when you don’t know what to do, you still have to do something. So I did what made the most sense to me: I researched. I sought out advice. I observed other teachers. I experimented with different combinations of methods and materials, and I tried to pay attention to what did and didn’t seem to be working. After a teaching session, I reflected on what had happened and worked to understand why. I continued to voraciously research, prepare, apply, assess and try to improve.

Once I got out of absolute survival mode I started to realize that I was, in fact, applying skills and techniques I had picked up in my previous professional lives. My approach to lesson planning was essentially the Army’s “operations order” and “after action review” combined together. It might be surprising to hear, but once I adjusted to the frame of reference of their concerns and needs, I found the dynamics of classroom management of children in a number of respects to not be all that different from what it takes to lead a platoon in the military or supervise teams of technical support agents and customer service representatives in a call center. It’s still leadership, which has many different styles but a fairly universal set of key characteristics. How I was defining and measuring what I was observing in my classroom, and then the effort to create a coherent narrative from the data to understand performance was for all intents and purposes what my job description had been as a manager of workforce planning, forecasting and analysis.

Six months later, just as I feeling like I was settling into the role of teacher, and even enjoying it, (but at the same time looking forward to the summer break scheduled to start the following week,) we were called into the academic director’s office and informed that the school was closed, effective immediately. So instead of being on vacation that next Monday I was in a new environment and starting the process of mapping what I thought I knew about teaching to an entirely new set of students… only to discover what I thought were my key hard-won “lessons learned” didn’t completely translate from one school to another.

Fast forward another eight years, and while I don’t by any stretch of the imagination feel like I’m an “expert” teacher, I now have around 12,000 classroom/teaching hours under my belt. I’ve taught kindergarten to adult, from 1:1 tutoring sessions to class sizes ranging up to 70 students. While I haven’t taught every type of English class, or every kind of student, I have covered a fair chunk of the ELT territory. I do feel like I have my proverbial legs under me. At the same time, I often get the sense I’m still just scratching the surface, and it’s absolutely a case of “the more I learn, the less I know.” Consequently, in many respects I’m pushing myself harder now then when I first got started.

It is that last point which is really the key to my theme. Recently, the professional basketball player Ron Artest had one of the biggest moments of his life: he made the winning basket in a crucial, hard fought game. What did he do to celebrate? He went to the gym and exercised. He prepared for the next game.

You can do internet searches for “formative assessment techniques” or “informal assessment,” “continuous process improvement, “principles of leadership,” or any number of relevant topics to what I’ve discussed. However, without the personal desire to try and get better on consistent basis it just doesn’t mean very much. It is a truism about leadership that it has to be demonstrated by example. Applied to EFL, this means we teachers need to genuinely model the behaviors we expect from our students.

I am going to finish this post by offering one specific formative assessment technique I find to be extraordinarily useful. If you have a young learner who isn’t a true beginner, but is consistently struggling with comprehension, simply ask him or her to write the entire alphabet from A to Z, big and small letters, and observe as he or she does it.

I’ll let you discover for yourself what you can learn about your young learners from this task.

My intention when I started writing this post was to discuss and make specific suggestions about “formative” assessment techniques for use with young learners in the classroom or other educational context. Formative assessment covers the range of diagnostic things a teacher, tutor, mentor or parent can do to assist and improve the process of learning by his or her young learners on an ongoing basis. As I kept thinking about my topic, and about my personal approach to continuous process improvement–which is what formative assessment essentially is–what I started to realize and come to strongly believe to be something “all EFL teachers should know” is that analysis–the steps taken to understand something–is more of a mindset and attitude, and not just a collection of techniques. (more…)

30 teachers from 16 countries (and counting!)

Earlier this month, I awoke to a lovely message telling me that Teaching Village was the TEFL Site of the Month. While always thrilled to get an award of any kind, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t sure what this award was for (I’m still sort of new to this blogging business). So, I went over to TEFL.net and learned Teaching Village was being recognized for having developed “a rich community of English teachers from around the world.” (more…)

What I’ve Learned from My PLN (November 14, 2009)

(Note: If this is the first post you’ve read in this series, and you’re mystified by the PLN acronym, start with What’s a PLN, anyway?)

The seven guest authors for the “Front Lines of EFL” series have been the members of my personal learning network I’ve shared with most intensively in the past few weeks, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from them. If you haven’t read all of the posts in this series, then perhaps it will provide a good summary as well, before moving on to more stories.