Fun in lessons: like chilli in food.

“Sir, are you a fun teacher?”  So asked one of my Y13s a few weeks ago.

She’d been in my class for the best part of two years and knew very well what my lessons were like.  She also knew pretty well what I am like, at least in the classroom.  So she also knew that this question would wind me up.

It did.  “NO! I am not a FUN teacher!”  She looked a little taken aback, and in retrospect the ear-splitting volume of my reply, the frenzied pounding of the table and the anguished cry as I crumpled, Wicked Witch of the West-like, to the floor may have been a bit OTT.  But goodness me did that question push my buttons.

In my mind a “fun teacher”, a male one anyway, probably wears a spinning bow tie at least once a year.  Homer Simpson socks will feature regularly.  “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!!!” will be a guiding philosophy.  Exclamation marks will proliferate.  Students may well be given amusing nicknames: one of my near contemporaries at school was called Elteeb by our form tutor, because his initials were WV, which is VW backwards.  That tutor also used a pair of scissors called Miranda as a doorstop.  He was definitely fun.

By that definition I, who wear sensible suits, sober ties, rarely use exclamation marks, eschew nicknames and certainly do not personify my stationery am not a fun teacher.  But my lessons are fun.  At least, the students seem to enjoy them and so do I.  So what’s the difference?  How can I possibly have fun lessons without being a fun teacher, beyond wearing my serious teacher disguise? And should I care about fun anyway?

Tom Bennett has recently written a proper article on similar matters for The Guardian.  To my mind one of the key lines is this:

“Play might be fun, but learning often isn’t. You just can’t avoid it: learning is often hard work.”

I agree.  There’s no point pretending that you can make every minute of every lesson, or even every lesson, thrillingly exciting and nor should you try.  It’s not so much the content, though no doubt we all have our less favourite bits.  It’s more that some things need practice, which usually isn’t the most popular thing ever.  Others need careful and meticulous explanation, which is unlikely to have ’em rolling in the aisles.  You get the picture.

That probably means these lessons, or these parts of lessons, aren’t fun.  They can though offer other, more helpful, positive feelings: satisfaction from working hard to reach the right answer; pride at completing today what seemed impossible yesterday; excitement at uncovering an additional layer of complexity.  This is, perhaps, what some people refer to as “the joy of learning.”

A fun teacher probably wouldn’t see things like that.  Where are the opportunities for YouTube clips, felt tip pens, scissors or ipads?  Too much struggling, not enough smiling.  More confusion than “progress”.  Much better and more accessible, therefore, to ask students to make a board game or build a castle than to analyse the views of an historian.

And yet we should not banish fun.  To some extent I think we are making life too easy for ourselves if we just rely on “the joy of learning” to provide the excitement.   I certainly want my Politics students to engage fully with the question of whether Congress is the “broken branch” of US government, including by reading academic articles and other learned tomes.  There’ll be struggle before satisfaction there.  But I’m missing a trick if I don’t start the topic with, say, this Huffington Post video: “Congress Approval Rating Lower Than Cockroaches, Genghis Khan And Nickelback.”  Augmented with a couple of articles about, say, the 2013 federal government shutdown, the students have around 20 minutes of stimulating and (in part) cerebral material which will fire their enthusiasm, start the process of acquiring knowledge and provide a reference point for future lessons.  It will probably be fun, too.

Where I’m getting to is this:

  1. a fun teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure the students have a good time; if they’re enjoying their French lessons, they’re enjoying French, right?  Wrong; and besides they may well not be learning very much French at all.
  1. a good teacher will use all sorts of techniques to ensure students have an exciting, satisfying and challenging education which fills them full of knowledge and the ability to use it;
  1. a really good teacher will recognize that in aiming for (ii), there will be times when a little bit of (i) is required, for atmospheric and/or pedagogical reasons.

True to the name of my blog, I know that many will disagree.  Traditional teachers are legion in the  twitterverse and committed to their views; I’d be really interested to hear them; although I don’t know the answers, instinctively I feel the above is right.  Because to me fun is like chili powder.  Too much and it obliterates the meal it’s supposed to enhance.  Too little and the meal will be functional but bland.  But in just the right amount it can make a dish sing.  Provided the chef isn’t wearing a spinning bow tie.


4 thoughts on “Fun in lessons: like chilli in food.

  1. I’m inclined to agree with what you’ve written, but I feel like the obvious (traditional) counter is: every time you deliberately stick in a bit of fun to engage and motivate, you are therefore excluding a different activity which will include less fun, but more learning. Or do you think that there are tasks which can be extremely fun, without any compromise in terms of learning?

    I really appreciated the bit about pride and satisfaction. Too often on Twitter the debate becomes a black and white issue of teachers who care and want engagement/fun vs. teachers who are all about knowledge and don’t want fun. It’s good to hear someone point out that there are other positive emotions besides engagement/happiness, and that these can be brought about without felt tip pens, group work, and funny YouTube clips.


    1. I think you are right that that is the traditional counter. My counter-counter (!) would be that as long as your fun activities aren’t only there for fun, and as long as they actively promote learning, then they can be just as effective as traditional methods, albeit perhaps in a different way. It may (may) be that a YouTube clip doesn’t put over as many facts as a ten minute mini-lecture, but chosen well it can spark all sorts of relevant questions which put the class in a much better place for learning. Thus solid, non-trad foundations can accelerate the process.

      Thanks for commenting; you are my first!


      1. I’ve just been put onto your blog by Michael Fordham. It’s actually quite interesting to see how you view traditional teachers on twitter and in blogs!

        I’m primary but have a history/politics background in terms of degree/masters (and taught the opposite extreme, undergraduates, first).

        Interestingly I think my main issue with the fun peddlers was always what I considered to be their dishonesty (I should say in advance this is not aimed at you or what you’ve said just outlining where I’m coming from).

        1) Being fun should form the basis of a good relationship between teacher and pupil – which goes like this: I have to be fun so children will like me, if they like me they will respect me and be bothered to learn. It is an emotional relationship that I consider to be driven by the adult’s needs and dressed up as the child’s. Also if people don’t want to grow up that’s their personal issue not one for the education system.

        2) Fun is universal and we can therefore create fun lessons that each and every pupil will love and therefore learn from. If they don’t learn then lesson wasn’t fun enough and so teachers should go to the ends of the earth to create the most fun lesson ever. All of this is BS. Ever been to a party which is “fun” but isn’t? I think this was what these lessons ended up being for children.

        3) Need to be fun so need novelty all the time. This means that children don’t get the practice they need which is particularly problematic for young children who need to do so with fundamental skills. If we don’t do this then it gets pushed up key stages and means they learn less.

        I may have worked in some crazy progressive schools but I think it’s clear that what I object to is a concept of fun which in my opinion originates not from what I consider to just be really bad ideas.

        I also think it would probably help bear in mind that social media has given people the chance to actually discuss practices and issues which they would not previously have felt they could, especially if they felt challenging them would affect becoming a teacher or keeping their job. On either extreme only total conformity will do but I’m not sure I know anyone who wants that in reality given their own experiences even if it does come across that way in tweets and blogs!


      2. That Mr Fordham has power!

        If I read you correctly, we are as one. Fun should not be an end in itself. A good lesson (and what that means is a whole other subject) will be stimulating; perhaps not exactly the same as “fun” but a pretty good proxy in a profession whose primary aim is to educate, not entertain.

        Liked by 1 person

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