IATEFL Web Conference: “Why we should be taking the fun out of the classroom” – Diana England

On the 22nd November 2018, I managed to watch a grand total of one of the sessions from the IATEFL Web Conference. No time to watch them all, and the title of this one really intrigued me!

Diana England works at IH – Torres Vedras/Lisbon. She starts by saying it, as in the title, sounds a bit strange but that it is about taking fun out and putting in something much more valuable. Again, intriguing!

Talk outline:

  • What fun and enjoyment mean
  • How these words are used in everyday English
  • The lures and dangers of fun
  • The science of enjoyment
  • The psychology of enjoyment
  • The connection between learning and enjoyment
  • Ideas for going beyond fun

She hopes to give us some interesting perspectives on we teach, how students learn and offer a different way forward.

What fun and enjoyment mean

Diana’s hunch was that fun and enjoyment are not the same thing. Similarities and indeed differences between them exist. She looked them up in 3 different online dictionaries: Macmillan, Cambridge and Collins. Here are the words which she italicised in the definitions she found:

  • Fun – not important or serious, amusement, diversion, gaity, merriment
  • Enjoyment – pleasure, happiness, benefit and use, possession of something satisfying and beneficial

So, both include pleasure, fun is more trivial and light-hearted while enjoyment has a greater sense of depth to it.

How these words are used in everyday English

How do we apply them in everyday English? What connotations and attitudes are inherent? Here are some examples:


  • The kids made fun of her – mocking
  • We were only having a bit of fun – trivial
  • It’s not all fun and games – negative
  • It was fun while it lasted – temporary
  • We went on a picnic just for the fun of it – random, no principle behind it
  • Time flies when you’re having fun – pleasurable experience


  • Enjoy your meal
  • They really enjoyed themselves on holiday

–> more engagement

Diana couldn’t find any idioms for enjoy but the above expressions show how it is commonly used: for positive, pleasurable experiences.

The lures and dangers of fun

We then looked at things that Diana has overheard or said herself in the past, using the word fun. We should consider what the teacher’s concept of these three things is:

  • concept of effective teaching
  • concept of the process of learning
  • sense of relationships within the class

I like to start my lessons with a fun warmer.

=> Chia Suan Chong wrote an article for ETP magazine entitled warmers, fillers, what on earth – she is skeptical of the need as they may be random and of little value to the lesson. It might be “fun” but how does it relate to the programme, how does it help them learn, how effective is it?

I like using a bomb timer or random points generator when we are playing games in class.

=> It might be a bit of fun but Diana isn’t one for these kind of gimmicks, she thinks they can be potentially quite detrimental because some children might get overly excited and it might take over the language purpose of the lesson. So do they result in improved learning? Probably not.

Has anyone got something fun I can do with my teens class?

=> she is skeptical when she hears it, she wonders what is going on in the teacher’s class. Are the lessons usually boring? Is it linked to a learning objective or will any old fun thing do? Will the teacher be able to ensure that effective learning takes place? Does the teacher feel she is losing control? Does she want the students to like her? Won’t necessarily happen.

It was a good lesson, the students had a lot of fun today.

=> Does fun equal good? Maybe, maybe not. Students laughing and playing games does not necessarily make for a productive, valuable lesson.

I see myself as a fun teacher

=> is that all you are, fun? What do the students think of you? Do they think the same? Do all students have the same opinion? She’d question that. Does being a fun teacher mean you are ale to achieve better results than another kind of teacher? Should the emphasis be on the teacher or on the students and environment?

If you’re good, we’ll play a game at the end of the lesson.

=> Trying to get the students to behave and get on with stuff. So this is a carrot in terms of the carrot and stick approach. Should games be seen as the fun element of the lesson? There are other ways of having fun. And should it be a carrot/add on? They are important not just a filler you put in. Diana would sometimes say this, and even though they’d been good as gold and worked hard, time management meant that there wasn’t time to have fun at the end of the lesson. So next time, why should they bother if they know chances are it won’t happen due to time constraints?

That’s the 3rd time Sam’s done ‘backs to the board’ in as many lessons.

=> (This activity generally relates to content of previous lessons.) Why are they doing it 3 times in as many lessons? The students appeared to like it, so it makes him feel good, but doesn’t necessarily mean that effective ongoing learning is happening. Perhaps Sam wants students to like him and is putting this ahead of ensuring effective learning?

So, the lures:

  • lighten the mood
  • beneficial
  • breaking the ice
  • engaging learners
  • good atmosphere
  • raise energy levels

(from the audience)

  • They can be easy to include in a lesson
  • gratifying
  • make the teacher look cool
  • motivating
  • Teachers may think that is what students want and so they will be popular with students
  • easy to prepare
  • good fallbacks.

(from Diana)

Diana would argue the reverse. She says there are dangers => it could result in random, coincidental learning, it may be restricted to games, warmers and fillers, it may not be relevant to the course/programme, it may not suit all learning styles and may not be the best way of maximising learner opportunities. Finally, it may end up alienating students, students may get bored and demotivated, and disengage.

The science of enjoyment

Diana is arguing that there is a difference between fun and enjoyment. We need to take out the fun and put in the principled enjoyment.

The first question is, what happens in the brain to enable you to derive enjoyment?

Dopamine =>the joy of finding what you seek.”  This motivates you to take action, encourages the persistence required to seek reward and approach a goal. Dopamine release enables you to move towards the goal and another hit occurs as you hit the goal. To harness it, you need to create a series of small successes/goals. To avoid dopamine lag, you need to set new goals before you achieve the current one. What are the implications of this for us as teachers? We need to help students to set achievable goals. We should scaffold their learning – guide and help them, slowly take away our control and give them control. We need to inspire students to move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. We need to provide a supportive classroom environment. We need to recognise our students’ class and individual achievements and provide judicious praise. It’s not the quantity but the quality of the praise. What effort have they made that warrants the praise. Be specific! (This last bit about specificity connects with the M.A. findings that triggered the creation of our scholarship circle here! That was in relation to positive feedback.)

Serotonin => “The security of social domination”. This is the confidence molecule which flows when you feel significant or important. When you feel respected by others, you feel it and your brain tries to replicate what allowed you to experience it in the past. Remembering success produces serotonin, so does gratitude and positive thought. What are the implications for teachers? Ensure that you establish an inclusive atmosphere where everyone is equal, you value everyone, no one is demeaned. Try allocating roles to promote self esteem, be genuinely positive, bring the outside into the classroom by exploiting outside classroom experiences.

Oxytocin => “the safety of social bonds“. This is the cuddle neurochemical, which is released though closeness with another person. It helps induce intimacy and trust and build relationships. It can be triggered through social bonding such as eye contact and attentiveness. When needs are met, you get an oxytocin hit. What does this mean for teachers and students? We need to implement student-centred discovery-based interactive learning. Lessons and lesson stages need to be cooperative, constructive and take place in a caring atmosphere. Not touchy touchy feely but there can be a non-inclusive atmosphere if games are too competitive, for example, as students may feel left out. We need to enable students to enjoy each others’ successes. Help them see they are individuals but they are working towards a common goal. There should be opportunities for genuine communication, not just page turning and the language in the course book. Nominate consistently – using students’ names with correct pronunciation. Using names is important as the person feels good and noticed. Closed pair/group work is also good.

Endorphin – “the oblivion that masks pain.” This chemical is associated with fight or flight response, gives you the oomph to power through any situation. It is self-produced morphine. Laughing and stretching can cause you to release endorphins because they agitate your insides. Anticipation and expectation also increases levels of endorphins. The implications of this are: Physical movement is good when appropriate. For example, kinaesthetic activities, which use hands and bodies may be quite important. Brain breaks and light hearted moments where students can smile and have a laugh (with, rather than at, each other). We need to provide variety of activities and pace.

The psychology of enjoyment

The psychologically based definition is that enjoyment is an affective state of pleasure.

There are four concepts of pleasure:

  • flow experience: happens when people are totally involved in an activity. All of their minds and bodies are completely involved, concentration is deep, they know what they are doing and what they want to do, not worried about failing, time passes very quickly, they lose the ordinary self conscious gnawing that characterises daily life. Like “getting into the zone” We can apply this to activities in the class.
  • Cessation of anxiety: absence of negative emotional factors e.g. stress, lack of control
  • Satisfaction: positive relationship between expectation of outcomes and outcome achieved
  • Security of belonging: positive social relations leading to a sense of belonging

There are obvious links and connections between the psychological aspects of enjoyment and the scientific.

Temporaral nature:

  • in the moment: state emotions experienced in the present and refer to a specific activity or lesson
  • in retrospect: trait emotions built up over time and refer retrospectively to cumulative experience. “I really enjoy my lessons” – feelings derived not from just one activity but consistent occurrence of pleasurable activities/events.

The connection between learning and enjoyment/ideas for going beyond fun

Diana shared three ways of connecting learning and enjoyment with us.

Firstly, she told us about an action research project she did. She marked her students work based on these five descriptors – possible max of 5 for each:


  • Content
  • Accuracy
  • Range
  • Organisation
  • Target reader

For the second piece, she kept the marks to herself, students marked each others and they used the same descriptors, then compared their assessment to my assessment and then discussed the assessment with their partner. Involving them in the whole area of evaluation of writing. They were A2+ level, so they gave feedback on the lesson in Portuguese. The feedback was very positive.


She also suggested that we could change boring activities into “fun” by making them enjoyable, engaging and beneficial. We need to look out for the enjoyment learning potential rather than assuming boring and compensating with another “fun” activity Working in pairs and doing transformations that practice non defining relative clauses could potentially be boring.

This is what Diana did:

Get students to work in pairs, they do the sentences, check the answers together as a group. Then get the students to test each other. Pair AB. Student A’s look at the board and say the first sentence in each pair. Student B is not allowed to look at the board/notebook/coursebook. They have to listen to student A and do the transformation. They need to use exaggerated intonation to emphasis the additional “interesting” information. Then they swap roles.

Finally, she shared an activity she did with a higher level group.

Higher level group – put words on the board from CB:

Teacher says, “I bet there are 4 words here you will mispronounce.” Students, in pairs, go through the words and discuss how they think they are pronounced in terms of sounds, wordstress and weak forms. They could be words met earlier in the unit/course or new words. Next you play beat the teacher. They all play against you. The teacher nominates a student and if they say it correctly they will get the point. If they make a mistake, T gets the mark. There is competition but it is not against each other but against the teacher and they have had a chance to work in pairs first so no one is put on the spot. By scaffolding the staging carefully, they should do well. Thus, this activity is biased for their success.

What aspects of the science and psychology of enjoyment do these activities include?

  • Scaffolding/micro-staging managed carefully: helps sustain the effect of dopamine as there is a clear goal that is achievable; sense of flow as less anxiety
  • Sense of achievement
  • Bonding
  • Interactiveness
  • Healthy competition
  • Positive, cooperative atmosphere
  • Inclusive
  • Creating positive bonds
  • Opportunities for genuine communication
  • Concentration is deep
  • No worry about failing
  • Group belonging

Quite a lot of things can be game-like as well, as long as they are managed in a principled way. Criteria for assessing the engagement factor of the activities you use:

Enjoyment is beyond fun:

Nothing wrong with the word “fun” as long as it has a deeper, more principled sense.

It was a very interesting talk, rooted in theory, practical and most engaging. Thank you, Diana! 





4 thoughts on “IATEFL Web Conference: “Why we should be taking the fun out of the classroom” – Diana England

  1. What an interesting perspective. I’ve never thought about it in these terms, but now I agree that too much fun at the lesson might be destructive, whereas “enjoyment ” is just right… This is what I’ve always pursued thinking “it might be fun, but what’s the point of it? what will they take away?”
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: 2018 Self-Reflection Challenge – Lizzie Pinard

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