Should lessons be fun?

This question was one of the final topics for the #eltchat at the end of the summer semester of 2014 and has been running through my mind ever since. When I started teaching over thirty years ago, it was all new to me and was certainly more fun than some other jobs I had had. I worked with adults in the evening and discovered that providing entertaining instruction was essential to keep their attention and to encourage them to continue taking classes.

Several years after I started I was trained in the so-called ‘superlearning’ or ‘suggestopedia’ technique and was introduced to the idea of fantasy identities, language games and material appealing to different learner types. This method was the one I used for many years. Coming from a theatrical (opera) background, acting a part was very natural for me. By choosing names that German-speaking students had trouble pronouncing (Yvonne, Beth, David, Nathan, etc.) this gave the learners extra practice. In addition, because they had chosen these names themselves, they were careful in how they said them, an excellent way to make pronunciation personal and important. Taking on the fantasy identities also allowed them to create their own ‘English’ persona. They could leave their daily lives behind and be whoever they wanted once or twice a week. They also set up relationships with others in the group in an egalitarian manner, leaving aside the formal behavior which was often found among adults who were essentially strangers to each other. Many of them told me over the years that this made the lessons fun and also made them less inhibited as when a mistake was made, they did not make it themselves, but it was instead made by their alter ego. And, as we all know, learning a language means taking chances and trying things out.

eltpics masks @Sandymillan

eltpics masks @Sandymillan

 

I also had my own persona in class. My name was Theophilia, I was an actress, was on my third marriage to a rich man named George, lived next door to Tom Selleck, and had a mother-in-law named Thelma who came to visit regularly. In addition, I had a companion called Phil, a stuffed animal which was actually the mascot for a baseball team in the US. Phil played an important part in class; we threw him around in speaking activities, he featured in worksheets I wrote or in stories we told. And to add to the mix, I also had a pet gorilla named Richard who was Phil’s good friend. These two characters were so important to my students that one group sewed a new set of clothes for Phil and another group gave me a ‘Richard’.

Phil and Richard

Phil and Richard

Over time, this method began to be difficult to implement for a number of reasons. As we also used the relaxation techniques and the reading of vocabulary to special music at the end of the course, we needed a place to do this which became increasingly difficult. My students also changed over the years and using first names became more common so that the fantasy names were less necessary. But the ideas of making lessons fun has always remained.

eltpics dice and cup @aClilToClimb

eltpics dice and cup @aClilToClimb

Today I teach corporate clients in their workplace and some of them comment that the lessons can’t be considered ‘work’ because they are ‘fun’. I feel personally that this comes from having rapport with the learners, showing that I like them as people, and making them comfortable in the classroom. We all feel that we can tell each other jokes and, although the topics we deal with are serious, we can find the ‘fun’ element in them. When I come across interesting or funny videos related to business English I send them the link and they often comment on how they enjoyed them.  At the university, where I work mostly with undergraduate students, the atmosphere is also ‘fun’. One of the first things I praise them for is understanding my jokes which encourages them as well to send me video clips they find in the internet or to make jokes themselves. I try to find activities in class which are fun – the drills for grammar and the learning of vocabulary is done at home.

eltpics playtime @senicko

eltpics playtime @senicko

In thinking about this for the last few months, I would also like to add that just because something is ‘fun’ it does not mean that it impedes learning. But in addition to being ‘fun’ I also try to make entertaining, relevant, lively, intriguing, fascinating as well as provide enough food for thought for learners to keep coming back for more.

 

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6 thoughts on “Should lessons be fun?

  1. Adult education in a corporate learning environment, as well as in an academic learning environment, requires the integration of “fun” into the learning process. Who would knowingly choose a boring/dry teacher? Knowing and using a blended approach when it comes to learning is great, but humour and “storytelling” skills can really help to make dry topics interesting, and this can lead to fun. Experience has shown me that when it comes to “fun in learning”, adults not only want to have fun when learning – they need to have fun when they learn!

    • Thanks Ron. A presentation I gave a few years ago was called ‘The fun side of business English’ based on experience of working in New York City for major advertising agencies as well as my 30 plus years doing in-company courses. I can remember playing ‘musical chairs’ with a group of upper-level government employees who got so into it, that they broke a chair running for their seat. (Disclaimer: ‘No people were injured during the course of the class.’) But I agree that it is much more conducive to learning when people find it enjoyable, for whatever reason that may be. And after years of teaching classes that ended at 9.30 pm to people who had been up since 6 am. I always maintained that keeping them awake was part of the job. 🙂

  2. A lovely post, Marjorie. I think that teaching is not just about measurable outcomes but also about emotions. It’s important how people feel in the classroom. I like Ron’s question: who would want a boring teacher? And I add: who’d want boring lessons? I dare claim that people learn better in a relaxed atmosphere and pleasant environment, where serious work is occasionally spiced up by fun activities, such as jokes or storytelling. They say that suggestopedia and learning styles have been discredited; they are referred to as pseudoscience. But we aren’t robots and we love to take on fantasy identities from time to time; we love to do crazy stuff when we play with our kids, for example. I don’t mean we need to be funny at all costs but we shouldn’t feel guilty for trying to make our lessons enjoyable just because someone has doubted the value of ‘fun’ in teaching.

    • Thanks Hana. I wouldn’t say that learning styles have been discredited. This is a counter argument by some but others feel strongly that we all have preferences when it comes to how we remember and process information best. In speaking to scientists in the field of psychology and neuroscience, they are actually surprised that educators debate the topic. And what is ‘fun’ for one person may not be ‘fun’ for another. I feel that we all have our own style of teaching and ways in which we like to learn – this is not to say that we can meet the needs of every person in a classroom, but recognising and accepting differences is part of what makes us educators and helps to keep our jobs exciting and motivating.

  3. Should classes be fun? Where possible, I’d definitely agree. Whether or not one subscribes to learning styles as a concept, I think learners need to enjoy learning and feel part of a cohesive group. Fun can help build bonds between learners, and I agree with your earlier post on adult learner motivation.

  4. Thanks Philip, And I don’t think this has anything really to do with learning styles necessarily. I think it is a general characteristic of the human race that we do like things we enjoy and things that are fun can be more memorable. Of course the difficult things are remembered as well, but working out of a lesson thinking that something was fun is certainly more motivating and brings them back for more.

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