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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Use Games Effectively in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 12, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

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?

Games are often used in the classroom. However, what makes them effective learning activities and not just time-fillers? We’ll explore this topic in a two-part series.

Today’s contributors are 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.

My contribution to the discussion can be found at an extensive collection of games, and ideas on how to use them, here.

Response From Susan Lafond

Susan Lafond, a national-board-certified teacher in English as a New Language (EAYA - Early Adolescence Through Young Adulthood - ENL), has 20 years of combined experience teaching ESL and foreign language. As an assistant in educational services with New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), she focuses on regulations and educational issues related to English-learners (ELs) and ENL/bilingual programs, as well as creating and organizing professional development across the state on ELs. Susan has been serving on the AFT National English Language Learner Educator Cadre since 2004 and is an expert practitioner and adviser to the bilingual site Colorín Colorado:

Games and game playing can have an extremely valuable role in teaching and learning in the classroom, as long as the game design and inclusion in the lesson is crafted with deliberate thought versus playing a game as a reward for good student behavior. The trick is to follow guidelines in order to maximize their inclusionary impact.

Planning criteria

The games you choose should:

  • Engage and motivate
  • Increase students’ skills, whether they be the modalities (reading, writing, speaking, or listening), thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills (e.g., working with a team, taking turns, etc.)
  • Be inextricably threaded with content. After all, isn’t this part of a class? This is a great opportunity to informally assess students’ understanding of important ideas. The game can serve as a review of content and an application of key concepts, when possible.
  • Require the participation of every student in some way. You shouldn’t have a situation where only certain students are chosen to represent a group. If the game can’t involve all the students, then it shouldn’t be played.
  • Be both educational and FUN so learning is equated with pleasure.

One thing I liked to do was to incorporate movement and music while repurposing worksheets into something that was novel with an activity called “Musical Chairs.” How it worked was I cut the worksheet questions into separate slips of paper. I placed each of these on the students’ desk in an envelope. Each student was given a handout with a specific number of blank lines. For example, if there were 24 students, there were 24 questions/slips and 24 blank lines on the handout. At the cue of the music, students would take the slip out of the envelope and follow the directions (solve the math problem, answer the question, etc). When the music stopped, students would place the slip back in the envelope and move to the “next chair.” They would continue like this until they had interacted with all the slips.

What game-playing skills to target

I mentioned several important content- and standards-based skills around which to ground games, but I would also include:

  • Incorporating strategy so kids play smarter each time they play. This is a skill that remains consistent across games, yet varies based on each game depending on the goal.
  • Working in teams, though this doesn’t have to happen every time. The social interaction and communication skills involved are so beneficial to English-learners.
  • Utilizing students’ creativity by having them design the entire game from scratch (the board, pieces, cards, and even the rules). The bonus is that they and their classmates get to play what they developed.

Recommended games

Board games are easy to pick up at garage sales or donations from families who no longer use them. Again, follow the criteria above for what you choose to use. These are the games that I have used or would recommend using with English-learners. Many of them can be adapted to align with content.

Board games - Guess Who?, Scrabble, Clue, Scattergories, Apples to Apples (Junior), Taboo, Catch Phrase, Balderdash

Online games - Funbrain, National Geographic Kids, PBS Kids Games

Computer games - SimCity

Response From Eric Schildge

Eric Schildge is a 10th grade English teacher in Boston. In addition to teaching, he oversees an actor-educator program in collaboration with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company that brings students and professional actors together to take Shakespeare “from the page to the stage!” Each spring, he directs an outdoor Shakespeare play at his high school and he takes improv comedy lessons in his spare time:

Play Games, Build Community

All morning, the classroom phone was ringing. It was the office manager calling another student down for dismissal. An unsubstantiated rumor had spread through social media the night before that a student was planning to attack the school, and parents were pulling their kids one after the other. I was planning to give a quiz that day, but after a few minutes, it was obvious that this wasn’t the right activity for the situation. I collected the quizzes. We pushed all the desks to the side of the room and circled up for some “stupid summer camp games,” as one student would later describe them to his mom.

Before long, students were laughing uproariously as they darted across the circle in a zany interpretation of musical chairs that involved them screaming as they waved their hands over their heads like those inflatable tube people at the car dealerships. When the bell rang, everyone had forgotten the fear and anxiety that had plagued them all day. They had stepped away from the confines of their own ruminations and became part of a community living entirely in the moment.

I use games like this to introduce students to improv comedy—the best method I have found to build confidence and community. There are three basic rules to improv: 1) Support your scene partners; 2) Completely commit to what you’re doing; and 3) Say “yes, and... " to everything your fellow players contribute to a scene. These principles also form the building blocks for a healthy and safe community. The well-worn phrase for beginning improvisers is “everything you need you already have.” This is an empowering concept for anyone who might be nervous about trying something for the first time.

As teachers, we are always reminding students to be prepared for class, but how freeing would it be for students to hear, every now and again, that they don’t need anything to jump right in? When I talk with my colleagues about games in the classroom, they inevitably assume I mean competitions. Games with a winner and losers have the opposite effect from what I’m describing. For high-achieving students with a healthy sense-of-self, it might be possible to separate the outcome of a classroom competition with their own sense of self-worth, but for students who struggle academically and socially, losing a game in class is just another in a long line of confirmations that they will never measure up to their “smarter” and more “talented” classmates.

The games that work best are games that everybody plays and no one loses. Games like “Red Ball,” where students see how many imaginary colored balls they can toss around the room at the same time, and the “Emotional Telephone,” where students seek to heighten a feeling as it goes around the room using only gestures, sounds, and facial expressions. These are games that have clear and flexible rules that can be forgotten and confused without punishment or elimination. They are games that encourage students to take risks, look silly, and support one another. These games give students the confidence they need to engage in a lesson, ask a question, give a little bit of extra effort on their next project without worrying about how their efforts might be judged by you or their peers. Give your students a few moments to play, free from your judgment, and you will have given them the greatest gift: the freedom from judging themselves.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher who is now a full-time author and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction in immersive technology. His latest book is The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement, published by Solution Tree. For more information, visit The Digigogy Collaborative (digigogy.com) or find Michael on Twitter (@fisher1000):

Games, in and of themselves, definitely have a place in the classroom. At the base level, they provide opportunities for engagement, for sandboxing ideas and trying things out, and at their highest level, they ultimately provide students with critical- and creative-thinking opportunities as they figure things out, problem solve, learn to cooperate, learn to compete, simulate scenarios, and more!

Teachers can also Level Up to using Game Design Theory as they plan lesson experiences and Units of Study. The real value of using games in education is the balance they offer between problem- solving and engagement. Games and game-designed classroom experiences help to eliminate failure and offer students opportunities to learn from mistakes, persevere, work toward different types of goals for the sake of achievements, unlocking new tasks, and ultimately, mastery. The lenses that Game Designers use in order to create their games can be used by teachers to create engaging and dynamic learning experiences.

For instance, in Jesse Schell’s book, The Art of Game Design, he describes more than 100 different design lenses through which a game designer would look to create a game. This includes lenses like Fun, Surprise, Curiosity, Novelty, and Secrets. With each of the lenses, Schell asks the reader some associated questions to help them realize that lens in the pursuit of the creation of a game. Let’s take Novelty, for instance; the associated questions include, “Do I have the right mix of the novel and the familiar?” “When the novelty wears off, will players still enjoy my game?”

Teachers can shift the lingo a bit here, replacing words to make these lenses edu-worthy. “Does my curriculum or lesson experience have the right mix of the novel and the familiar?” “When the novelty wears off, will students still enjoy the learning?”

Gaming and Game Design are, in my opinion, one of three huge shifts when thinking about contemporary classroom practices. My colleagues, Marie Alcock and Allison Zmuda, and I wrote about these practices, which also include Networking and Inquiry Models, in our recent book The Quest for Learning.

Response From Jen Thomas

Jen Thomas is a former English teacher who is trying to make the world a better place in a different way these days. She misses the classroom every day:

I learned how people say “I told you so” in Spanish when I taught my ELD newcomers to play Scrabble. It has since become my favorite expression. “Te dije,” said with the right emphasis, is not just a conjugation of “I said,” it’s an emphatic and triumphant “I knew it!” that meant my students were amiably bickering over the rules of a game that required them to think and spell and assert rules—in English.

Like using movies or websites, using games in the classroom can be a gamble. They can seem academically weak; the pedagogically snooty sometimes stamp them with the dreaded “lacking rigor” designation; I once had an assistant principal require that I fill out a form that would ostensibly have had Scrabble go through a board-approval process. Games aren’t without controversy. But we love to play games because they bring us together, and the best ones inspire participation and create natural opportunities for making meaning out of ideas that might otherwise only exist in books.

In addition to providing an opportunity for review and learning, games make students feel like they have a shot at something. Anyone can play a game. Games are for kids. Students know they can probably remember something from a past lesson. They know they can probably shout out something that sounds like a right answer. The possibilities are endless, for once. And there are prizes! Teaching teenagers doesn’t mean that they have any more delayed-gratification capacity than elementary school kids, and they have no less desire for some trinket or treasure. For students who regularly are successful in the classroom, learning and praise from the teacher is a prize. For a student who struggles, it never hurts to add some bauble we picked up at a dollar store or got free at a conference. (I hope to write a future post somewhere: Why do we love Post-It notes so much?)

I invented a dozen games when I was in the classroom. A five-minute warm-up making as many words out of “unconstitutionality” as you can. A game based on a terrible game show where you worked with a partner to answer as many questions as you can and then voted whether to try to steal the other person’s points or not.

My best was a unit-long Romeo and Juliet “game” where the class was divided into feuding houses complete with team colors, songs, logos, and parts of the room to decorate where “houses” got points for basically anything they did to demonstrate their loyalty and academic prowess. With three different classes participating, the room was an explosion of decorations but, more importantly, poems, drawings, and kids volunteering to read, to help each other, to participate. They all did it thinking they’d get points for their houses, but they often forget to even ask, the game getting them swept up in the joy of just doing something that they wouldn’t be judged for. It was for the glory of the game.

Games were vital for students who had much more to learn than I could even think to teach them. When I taught ELD, I struggled constantly with how to give newly arrived students and long-term ELLs alike the background knowledge that so many students needed to engage successfully in a variety of contexts. I’m not talking about verbs or algebra or photosynthesis—I mean the ability to do things on-demand like identify the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids at Giza. They wanted to know their Monet from Picasso, to recognize some piece of classical music, to name capitals of the modern world on demand. Games were our path to the necessary cultural trivia that empowers confidence in many an educational context. The Jeopardy PowerPoint template became stuffed with famous works of art, world capitals, audio clips of famous classical music. We crammed photos of scientists in one category and, when they learned those, added their most famous discoveries to them. The kids amassed bits of knowledge that had lingered on the edges of their consciousness, and they could now identify things that made them feel “smart” with tremendous authority. And it was fun because it was fast, visual, meaningful, collaborative, and usually involved Snickers.

Games had the side benefit of showing the students that I cared whether or not they enjoyed our time together; it helped make up for the times I was cajoling them to power through the really tough stuff.

Learning requires being vulnerable; games have power to level the vulnerability playing field in the classroom both amongst students and from student to teacher. Teachers become coaches; classmates become teammates, and everyone gets a chance to hear or even to utter those magic words: “Te dije.” When that happens, everyone wins.

Response From Adam Powley

Adam Powley is a 14-year teaching veteran and is currently the dual-enrollment American history teacher at the 2017 National Blue Ribbon Award winning HCS Early College High School. He has presented at both state and national conferences and currently blogs at www.classroompowerups.com:

Rather than simply play games, I seek to understand what makes games so engaging and then apply those mechanics and motivators to create content experiences. Video games in particular are designed to quickly engage a player and then teach them the skills necessary to defeat the game. I am constantly inspired to adapt elements of my favorite games to enhance the classroom. Take, for example, the simple Super Mario Bros platformer game. As Mario the player is constantly assessed in his ability to stomp bad guys and jump over holes all within a time limit. When a player fails, they are able to immediately strategize and retry. This rapid feedback loop is a concept that I employ within a student-centered framework that encourages students to take risks and go off on their own “side quests” (independent self-assigned activities). Rapid feedback loops also help establish two other important game-inspired mechanics: the Angry Birds Star Mastery system and Boss Battle Assessments.

In Angry Birds, when a player passes a level, they receive a ranking of up to three stars. Similarly, many modern classrooms are seeking to replace traditional grading with something that better reflects student mastery of materials. This Star System encourages both players and students to see that simply being competent at a skill does not mean the learning has finished and that there is always another level that can be reached. Mastery can be demonstrated in many ways, but typically in a video game the final assessment is a drawn-out conflict with a final “Boss.”

A Boss Fight typically encourages a player to utilize all of the skills and knowledge they have gained throughout the course of the game up to that point. In a gamified classroom, a Boss Battle can be thought of as a summative assessment that goes beyond simple multiple choice. For the last several years, I have been using Boss Battles in a collaborative style to get students to work together to take on the content for a unit. I have dubbed these Battles “Dreadsheets” and have mashed tech tools like Plickers (a QR code-based quizzing system) and Google Spreadsheets to have students attack a boss. The students work in groups which have unique powers like “healing” or “chain attacks,” and the students must all “survive” the encounter or they will all lose. The Boss Battle requires content knowledge and skills from the unit to be effectively deployed in order for the students to be successful.

Some classrooms utilize commercial games like Minecraft or Civilization in order to engage students, and there are valid uses for game-based learning. In my situation, with a limited amount of time and a standardized test, I have not successfully implemented GBL. I have found that game-inspired designs work well with project-based learning, blended Learning, standards-based instruction, and other education reform initiatives to provide a layer of engagement on traditionally disliked subjects while maintaining high academic standards and creating a student-centered environment.

Thanks to Susan, Michael, Eric, Jennier, and Adam for their contributions!

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