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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Games Absolutely Have a Role in Teaching and Learning!’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 14, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Do games have a role in teaching and learning in the classroom? If so, how should they be used?

Part One‘s contributors were Susan Lafond, Eric Schildge, Michael Fisher, Jen Thomas, and Adam Powley. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Susan, Michael, and Eric on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today’s responses come from Abby Shink, Andrew Kozlowsky, Dr. Michael Young, Bradley Witzel, Heather Stinson, and Andrew Miller. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Abby Shink

Abby Shink is a K-5 math interventionist at a small rural school in central Maine. She has been teaching for 10 years, focusing specifically on math for the last four. Abby is currently working on her master’s in teaching mathematics K-8 at Mt. Holyoke College:

Games are an awesome way to get students discussing their strategies, working toward fluency, and solving problems together. I think that games can be used as students are just learning about a new concept, as they are working to flesh out their strategies and find strategies that are more efficient, and as a way to build procedural fluency. I love the way that the Well Played series by Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch introduces games. Each book, focusing on grades K-2, 3-5, or 6-8, gives ideas for introducing and using the games in your classroom. Several of the games can be played in teams of two to three students. This format pushes students to discuss their thinking and work collaboratively with their peers even more than playing one on one with each other.

Introducing games to students should be more than just a rundown of the rules. I have found that selecting a portion of the game (the game board, a card from the game, the recording sheet, etc.) and facilitating a Notice and Wonder discussion can help bring students’ attention to important parts of the game and can allow students to construct their understanding of how to play the game in a meaningful way. Sometimes, playing a turn or two along with the class, doing a think-aloud to model the kind of talk that you expect students to use can be helpful as well.

The best games, the games really worth your time creating materials for and introducing to students, are games that they can play many times. When games allow differentiation by changing the range of numbers, or the operations, they allow more students to play them for a longer time and give you a bigger bang for your buck. For example, the game Close to 100, in which students choose from a set of cards to build two-digit numbers that add up to a number as close to 100 as possible, can be adapted to have students adding to 1,000, 10,000, or subtracting to 0. Once students understand how to play, they can continue playing even as they start adding with larger numbers or thinking about subtraction.

Response From Andrew Kozlowsky

Andrew Kozlowsky is a teacher at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Md., where he currently teaches AP U.S. History and ESOL U.S. History. Andrew’s education passions are standards-based grading, restorative justice, and educational technology. Andrew can be found on twitter at @mrkoz31:

Games absolutely have a role in teaching and learning! Gamification has a way of bringing out the best in both students and teachers alike. You probably have experienced a form of gamification in your daily life without even realizing it.

Apps like Duolingo let you win badges and points through learning a new language. Starbucks (and pretty much every other major company) has a customer-loyalty program in which you can access things that “regular” customers cannot. Social media provides the user with instantaneous feedback (through likes and shares). All of these programs tap into our basic psychological desires of autonomy, achievement, access, and status. These desires are the reason a kid will play a video game well past midnight. Gamification attempts to leverage these basic psychological desires into student learning.

Gamification, by definition, is using game mechanics like XP (experience points), narrative, health points, power ups, side quests, boss battles, etc., to turn your class into a game. This year, I gamified my U.S. History class. I call it Zombie Nation. In the game, students can pick their character, which gives them an increased sense of buy-in to the class. Students work with their squads and classmates to complete side quests (extension activities), complete missions (classwork), and defeat bosses of each level (unit tests). Students earn XP throughout the game that translates into gold that they can use to purchase items in my item shop. The items are laminated cards and give students different privileges such as the ability to charge their phone in class, preferred seating, and even a donut party! I even created an item that students can purchase that requires me to sing a song of their choosing (they forced me to sing the song “Barbie Girl,” and I’m sure it is floating around the internet somewhere).

Since rolling out the game, I have noticed a distinct spike in historical interest from my students. The most common compliment from students is that they like having so many options in the game. They are exploring topics that they may not have had the chance to investigate in class (i.e., historical recipes, medical innovations, historical weaponry, etc.) The game allows them to give meaning to a subject that is traditionally viewed as too dry and too content-focused. Furthermore, I have seen an increase in collaboration from students, as they work with their squads and houses (their class) to defeat the other houses. Students love the competition, academic choice, and creativity that the game affords them.

On the teaching side, I’ve found a renewed zest for planning engaging lessons. There are so many ways to incorporate the narrative of the game into my class, which has added a newfound excitement to developing lessons and units. When things become stagnant, I as the gamemaster can decide to shake things up by incorporating a new type of challenge or opportunity for players. If you’re looking to dip your toes in gamification, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Michael Matera’s Explore Like a Pirate, which will give any beginner the tools they need to gamify their class. I would also recommend checking out the twitter chats #XPLAP and #games4ed for any support you might need. These are two of the most supportive communities that I’ve had the pleasure of finding on twitter. Good luck and game on!!

Response From Dr. Michael Young

Dr. Michael Young designs and directs UConn’s 2 Summer’s Master’s program in Learning Technology that is designed to help classroom teachers wisely integrate technology into their teaching. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, he joined the faculty in educational psychology in the Neag School, where he and his graduate students research how technologies, particularly games, enhance teaching and learning:

Of course games and other forms of playful learning have a place in classrooms! Board games, card games, video games, role-playing game, simulations, even Kahoot!™ quizzes with leaderboards and badges—they can all contribute to student engagement, motivation, and the creation of an interactive situated-learning environment. Games have always been a way that people learn. It can be argued that games, like playing house with dolls or playing war with toy guns, is the primary way children learn their culture. While it is hard to imagine a kindergarten class where students are not playing games, it is much harder to envision a high school AP Latin class where the entire course is a role-playing game to save the world. But that does exist, and it works for more students than one might at first imagine. Not just the hard-core gamers can benefit from playful learning.

But many teachers worry that if students are playing games, they might not be learning the important curricular content identified in state and national standards and thus may not be spending class time in a way that improves their test performance. Games may also present behavior challenges for some learners. Games, particularly commercial video games, often have violent content and sexist themes. While the same could easily be said of Homer’s The Illiad, teachers, particularly in the younger grades, need to be as careful with choosing games and setting boundaries as they are with selecting books for students to read and creating time in class for quiet reading.

Games often feature elaborate backstories. So while the story of Mario™ the plumber and his quest to save the princess is rather thin, the backstories of World of Warcraft™ and Diablo III™ are the epic stories of good versus evil and require substantial reading, while the play narrative of Call of Duty™ and Civilization™ parallel history directly. Games are not just fun entertainment but are a modern digital medium for interactive storytelling. And storytelling, with its appeal to our emotions as well as our logic (think parables, fables, and case-based learning) is an understudied but classic tool for learning that fits in most classrooms. Thus, we study the classics, and some video games are becoming classics as well. For example, the game Portal 2™ has been used in the college general education curriculum as required readings.

So games in school are good ... but, I would caution that it is impossible to characterize all games as if they are one instructional intervention or guarantee that a particular game in a particular class will help a particular child learn. The educational usefulness of games is situated and complex—context and how game play unfolds in each instance matters. The same player cannot even play the same game the same way twice. Try it. Try to play your Monopoly game exactly the same twice. Games feature chance, and the actions of other players make each round of game play unique. Players can change their strategies and goals for playing even midgame. This makes the educational outcomes somewhat unpredictable, and advice about all games, all students, and all classrooms is speculative at best. But the same is true of the educational outcomes from a good lecture. It’s impact is also probabilistic for any individual listener.

Games should be used to stimulate and inspire learners, to create playful yet realistic activities in safe environments. When you lose your life in a video game, no big deal. But you can learn and improve after each death. And the gamer’s persistence through difficulties, interest in failing forward, motivation to grind, boredom with easy tasks, and drive for harder and harder boss fights would be a welcome change in students’ attitudes in the classrooms of many teachers.

Response From Bradley Witzel

Bradley Witzel, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and researcher who works as a full professor and program director of the M.Ed. in intervention at Winthrop University. Dr. Witzel has authored 10 books and delivered nearly 500 presentations on strategies for students with academic needs:

Games have always been a part of the educational system. However, for many years, there have been educators for and against their use in the classroom. Recent research has shown that games can benefit learners across age or grade level. When planned properly, games provide many benefits, from making an inviting introduction to a content unit or as a way to vary practice of a learned skill. Games may also encourage reasoning skills.

In several research studies, games are useful for teaching initial concepts, especially with the potential for digital platforms (Clements & Sarama, 2015). From Clark et al (2013), “Properly designed, these features of games can provide powerful affordances for motivation and learning. Individual studies have shown, for example, that well-designed games can promote conceptual understanding and process skills (e.g., Annetta, Minogue, Holmes, & Cheng, 2009; Clark et al., 2011; Hickey, Ingram-Goble, & Jameson, 2009; Ketelhut, Dede, Clarke, & Nelson, 2006; Klopfer, Scheintaub, Huang, Wendal, & Roque, 2009; Moreno & Mayer, 2000, 2004), can foster a deeper epistemological understanding of the nature and processes through which science knowledge is developed (e.g., Barab et al., 2007; Neulight, Kafai, Kao, Foley, & Galas, 2007), and can produce gains in players’ willingness and ability to engage in scientific practices and discourse (e.g., Barab et al., 2009; Galas, 2006; McQuiggan, Rowe, & Lester, 2008). Leveraging these affordances, however, appears to depend on careful design (Clark, Martinez-Garza, Nelson, D’Angelo, & Bellamy, submitted)” (p. 1).

Set a purpose for a game and, at an appropriate time, use a game to improve student interest and performance.

Response From Heather Stinson

Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master’s degree in education of the deaf from Smith College in 2006 and a graduate certificate in children, families, and schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. Heather has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech:

Games have a role in learning both in the classroom and during one-to-one sessions. As an itinerant teacher of students who are deaf or hard of hearing, helping students with self-advocacy and self-awareness, such as understanding their hearing loss and building confidence socially, is part of my role. I work with students in the classroom and also individually outside of the classroom for customized support. While we can certainly role-play and practice skills related to advocacy and interactions, it’s not the same as interacting with peers! Games are a great way to help my students work on skills with classmates while still addressing their specific needs as indicated in the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

There are several games that help students who are deaf or hard of hearing learn about their amplification technology. Adding language frames as in the examples below, either on notecards or on a dry-erase board, allows me to simplify or make the game more challenging, depending on the needs of students. I can also have students complete a diagram of the hearing device as they learn each piece for extra practice.

For instance, I may write a frame on the board like, “Do you have the part of the cochlear implant that__(function)_____?” The student then has the relative clause model and can fill in with the function of the part while also working on asking questions. A more complex frame may be, “Do you have the part of the transmitter that _(function)___ before / after the sound travels through the_(transmitter part)___?” This frame includes a relative and a temporal clause and requires the student to think about how the sound travels as well as the function of the implant part they need. Additionally, students work on auditory skills while listening to their playing partner use the same type of language. When we do small-group activities together, classmates with typical hearing come to play, and my student gets to lead the game as he or she may be the only one initially who knows the names of the cochlear implant parts!

Another way to modify educational games is to include the students! Some games have scenarios that ask students to think about particular situations in which listening or socializing may be difficult, and state how they could handle such a challenge. I have a deck of cards with a variety of scenarios. Students select a card and share an experience about how they have addressed that scenario or suggest a solution.

I often select the cards that best apply to my students but also invite students to create their own cards. I now have a bank of cards created by several students who don’t necessarily know each other, but who are eager to see what challenges other kids face. This shared experience also inspires students who may be uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss their own access difficulties. They become more motivated knowing that their scenario on a card will be read by other students with hearing loss and that they may be helping peers.

And as always, including peers with typical hearing on occasion is valuable for everyone. The peers learn about the challenges of hearing loss without directly focusing on the personal experiences of my students, which creates more understanding and awareness.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

One of the most powerful ways games engage us as humans is they situate learning in novel and authentic contexts. Consider one of my favorite games, “Settlers of Catan.” In it, individuals must compete against each other to gather resources to build cities and roads and also purchase cards in order to reach victory points. Players have to consider where they place their cities as that provides access to resources you need or might limit that access. Different structures require a variety of different sources, and thus players must strategically think while still relying on what the die will roll and reward them. Whether a player knows it or not, students are engaged in not only critical thinking and problem-solving but also content around economics.

Games not only build success skills but also help teach more traditional content depending on how the game is designed. As educators consider using games in the classroom, they need to play them themselves and consider what learning is occurring for them. From there, educators can decide if that game is an appropriate fit as a scaffold that leads to deeper learning.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Abby, Andrew, Michael, Brdley, Heather, and Andrew, and to readers for their contributions!

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