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Real Fun and Fake Fun

The InnovateELT 2018 conference theme was: Fun?! Delight and Struggle in ELT. In this post I will reflect on some key points which emerged for me, inspired by the talks I attended and conversations I took part in.
In the pub quiz conference ice-breaker activity, I quoted this from the Demand High website (Scrivener and Underhill). In the quiz this was a gap fill task incidentally, but here I quote in full:

“We launched the Demand High meme at IATEFL in March 2012. We argued that communicative language teaching had painted itself into a corner, encouraging a lot of “fun” and familiar ritualized activity types, work groupings and materials but with limited apparent engagement with the “dirty” part of dealing with language and learning…” .

Reading the quote I started wondering what those familiar ritualized activity types might be?
Here is one I think they may have in mind. The students are given slips of paper with sentence halves and their task is to find the person with the other half of the sentence. The sentences usually exemplify a grammar structure, so for example, one student has “If I had a dog…” and will eventually pair up with a fellow students who has “…I wouldn’t feel so lonely”. Students are then asked to stand next to their partner and possibly read the sentences aloud for the rest of the class.

The reasons this is a popular ELT activity I think are:

  1. It gets students moving around and interacting with other class members
  2. It practices grammar in a “fun” way.
  3. It is student-centred, not teacher-centred

Three tenets of the communicative approach we might say. I think this activity might be an example of what Scrivener and Underhill have in mind when they speak of “ritualized activity types”. Here is why I think it might not be as effective for learners as we suppose.

  1. Lack of what I think of as density. The students in these five minutes (or more) read each other’s sentences but don’t say them, the cognitive load of the activity is very low, with very little product or purpose. Compare this to the density of spending 5 minutes doing a traditional written gap fill task or participating in a teacher led drill of the target language.
  2. Lack of Flow. The term flow comes from psychologist Mihaly Csistekmihaly (1975) who described flow as a state where a person is in the optimal state of challenge doing an activity. They are challenged enough not to be bored, but not so much that they become anxious. In language teaching this is echoed in some ways in Krashen’s Input plus one hypothesis or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.
  3. Excess work for the teacher. Copying and cutting sentences takes time. I suspect the teacher is sweating before the class has even started! Maybe that energy could be better spent on “… the “dirty” part of dealing with language…” drilling, correcting and explaining, the target language.

Could it be the case then that for language learners flow is the real fun? And those activities with fun trappings such as kinesthetic, social and game elements, but without the dense practice and focus on language that provides challenge, are fake fun?

This position I think was reflected in talks by Sarah Priestly, Scott Thornbury, Violeta Stefanovska, Nick Robinson and probably others I didn’t get to see. Sarah pointed out the pervasive and largely uncritical use of the word fun in the ELT industry in relation to teaching, materials, course books, grammar, well pretty much everything. Does this job ad look familiar? “Fun school seeks fun teacher to teach fun lessons to fun students with fun materials”. No doubt they offer a “fun salary” too!

The idea that the communicative approach has in some way contributed to this state of affairs, as suggested by Scrivener and Underhill, was echoed by Scott Thornbury, in “No pain No gain” revisiting a talk he first gave in 1993 (I think) where he pointed out that in communicative classrooms he was observing as a trainer at the time students were often stuck in second gear or even “idling”, not really working hard enough in other words! 40 years or so of communicative approach fake fun may have left some students stuck in the car park then?

Backwash is one possible cause for these outcomes. Teachers are likely to be influenced by how they are assessed, in particular lists of criteria in teacher training courses such as CELTA/Trinity CertTESOL and DELTA/Trinity Dip TESOL courses and in the formal observations they undergo in their schools.

In the 41 CELTA teaching practice criteria, for example, the word “challenge” is not used, “appropriate” appears with some frequency though it is not explicit what is considered appropriate. In my own informal research gathering feedback on what students valued in a class (Foord 2017) “the class is the right level for me” was second on the list! In my own experience of observing classes excess challenge is rarely if ever cited by learners as a complaint or observed by me as a weakness in the teaching. Lack of challenge on the other hand is one of the weaknesses I have observed most frequently in teaching observations. What would happen, I wonder, if teachers taught instead to these four criteria:

  1. Did my students work really hard?
  2. Did they have opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them?
  3. Did they learn new language and improve their pronunciation?
  4. Did I get a good return on the time I invested in preparing?

Students will probably find all the fun they need in class if they have opportunities to work with the language at the right level, have relevant practice and learn from their mistakes.
To pick up on the motoring metaphor, fun might be a popular passenger in the lesson, but shouldn’t really be allowed near the wheel, if we are to create effective and indeed affective learning experiences for our students.

Demand High Teaching Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill, (website 2013)
Power to the Learner, Duncan Foord (blogpost 2017)
No pain No gain, Scott Thornbury (conference talk, Innovate ELT 2018)
Do Students really want fun in the ELT classroom? Sarah Priestly (conference plenary InnovateELT 2018)
Flow-the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1975)

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