Games in the Classroom – pro or con?

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By Mark Hershey

Mark Hershey has lived and taught in Asia for over a dozen years and is currently teaching in Vietnam. He has a Master’s Degree in TEFL and is especially interested in theories of learning.

One of the first workshops I attended in language teaching could easily have been called “Language Teaching Through Games.” Or perhaps, “Games!!!…..and a bit of language learning to boot!” Every activity involved a competition of some kind – a race to the board, a puzzle to solve in the fastest time, a slapping of hands so quickly on the table all I saw was a blur of flesh. Shortly after this workshop I came across a fascinating book by Guy Cook titled “Language Learning, Language Play.” Cook’s definition of play went far beyond competitive games but the themes in the book touched on similar underlying themes of that workshop: games were fundamental to the human condition as all cultures engaged in some form of game playing. Much of the maturation process of the child is sparked and mediated through role playing games. Therefore, it would be quite odd to suggest that game playing and classroom learning remain in separate spheres.

On the other hand, game playing in the classroom has its detractors. Some critics, for example, have wondered if slower learners have more to lose than gain by competitive game playing.  But rather than exhaustively limn both sides of this debate, I thought it would be more interesting to hear from the teachers on our blog.

What’s your view of game playing in the classroom? To what extent do you think it is essential to or a distraction from learning? Are there types of games that are conducive to learning and other types that hinder the learning process? Do all students benefit equally from game playing? Are there contexts or periods of time or amounts of time spent playing that restrict your own use of games?

Please respond to one or more of these queries in the comments section below.

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About MarkHersh

A blog about living and working in Asia and other random musings

9 responses to “Games in the Classroom – pro or con?”

  1. Sam Graham (@samgrah) says :

    One of the most challenging aspects of teaching for me is balancing fun – and for many this means games – with efficient, productive sessions. As soon as I swing too far towards games, feedback tells me that the workshops should be more ‘practical’ – but when they become ‘practical’, i.e. to the point discussion, practice that is close to the task they are preparing for, feedback says it should be more fun!

    It seems that the ideal would be to be practical *and* fun, but with games this is often very difficult – maybe impossible. I think a lot of teachers don’t like to say this, scared they’ll be labelled uncreative or just lazy. Perhaps a more reasonable goal would be to blend practical and *interesting*.

    Another issue underlying this discussion for me is that learning isn’t always fun. It can be incredibly hard work, frustrating but stimulating, sometimes boring but (in the end) rewarding. For example, I hated *learning* economics at university but loved/love *knowing* it. I’m not convinced that these negative aspects of learning can (or should) be removed – in the case of my economics studies or in general.

  2. John Wheeler says :

    I think Mark has raised some very interesting points for language teachers. I think game playing is a fundamental element in language teaching. The key thing is that, like all activities we do, the game should have a clear focus and objective, which should not be just to play a game. As Mark points out games are universal but we do not spend all our times playing games. We spend some telling stories, chatting, reading quietly to name but a few examples.
    I remember once hearing the slightly preposterous idea that games were not suitable for adult or business classes. Of course they are an essential part of the menu. They are a great de-stresser and there is plenty of evidence to show that you cannot learn a language if you are stressed. However, always make it clear to adult learners why they are playing the game. Oh, and be ready to explain to the parents of teenage students or kids why you are playing games too.
    Mark makes the point of how the language classroom can relate to the real world. Just as in the real world, competition exists and you cannot pretend it does not, but it is just one part of life. Thanks for starting the discussion Mark.

  3. Caroline Hutchinson says :

    Depends what you are teaching. While games are very much of a mainstay of grammar practice, in other places – wherever deep processing is required – I feel they detract from the process and distract students from learning. I also find it somewhat patronising to try and pass off citing and referencing as a game, or research skills as a game… And it’s unlikely that I’ll have my history students playing “the Japanese Imperialist game” or the “Reintroduction of patriarchal notions as a means of reinforcing patriotism” game. At some point we have to wean students off the expectation that only perpetual motion can produce learning.

  4. Sam Graham (@samgrah) says :

    Caroline: Although you say you won’t use those games, could you outline the rules of the “Reintroduction of patriarchal notions as a means of reinforcing patriotism” game? Though maybe not suitable for the classroom, it sounds like good fun for playing at home…

  5. Steve Walsh says :

    10 years ago I went to China to teach at a language school in Jinan, Shandong Province. I had a great time and learned a lot about the Chinese. Most language schools taught children from 8 to 14 or so and mine was no exception. We played board races and verb bingo ( can’t remember how that one went ) and the children loved it. Now, 10 years later perhaps some of my former students will be at university either in China or overseas studying their chosen subjects in English. I’d hate to think they were still being entertained with games.

  6. Stephen McGrath says :

    I agree with Caroline. I teach a technical subject with a requirement to stick closely to a very dry reference book. The students cry out for games, or at least a way to make the lessons more fun, but they only have 90 minutes a week of face time with me, and have proven time and time again that they do not retain key vocabulary nor develop a deep understanding of the topic on the few occasions when I am able to find a way to “gamify” a lesson. The best I can do is to be amusing, interesting and engaging as we go through each concept.

    Personally, I don’t find games in the classroom to be fun (sometimes they’re actually embarrassing) and don’t want my teacher wasting my time with them.

    In the end, I satisfy student demands by rewarding them with free computer time (games or Facebook for most) once they complete all assigned tasks and demonstrate adequate understanding of the concepts. Not creative, I know, but it works as a carrot.

  7. dominicmahon says :

    It’s an interesting question and I think there are a couple of strands to it. Firstly, how do you define a game? Is a debate a game? It involves competition and can be fun. There is a winner and a loser etc I am currently teaching undergraduate students, and the biggest problem I have with them is getting them to develop their own stance. Often, they tend to be good at relating the arguments from texts etc but not so good at using the texts and bringing in knowledge from other areas to form their own arguments. Subsequently, any activity (call it a game if you want) which causes them to generate ideas and relate different ideas together is a good one as this is the issue my current students have.
    Secondly, I am with Rogers on the idea of facilitating learning rather than teaching and believe that it is extremely difficult (impossible) for someone to learn something they don’t see the value in. To the person who mentioned referencing. This is a good example as it is possibly the dullest thing on earth but at the same time is essential. In my experience, students who are exposed to lectures on this early in their UG career take none of it in. It is only after they (or a friend) get a plagiarism scare that they take notice. Subsequently, I definitely feel that an activity which explores the issues and consequences can be a way to stimulate interest through generating understanding. Such an activity (call it a game) might involve moral issues, appropriateness of sanctions, university policy etc

  8. Mark Hershey says :

    I’m wary of overusing competitive games that involve some sort of race. My fear is that only the faster students are getting something out of it as they can come up with the answer before the slower students have had time to wrestle with it. So, I think it’s important to ensure that these types of games not substitute for other types of activities where all the students will be able to go at their own pace to problem-solve. If I do a competitive game then I want to follow up with another activity that allows for deep processing. Perhaps that could be a ‘game’ as well but it would have to be the kind that doesn’t penalize slower students. Also, while I use competitive games myself on occasion – for warmers or change of pace mostly – I do not see them as the only way for activities to be engaging, which strikes me as the underlying point. I often hear it said, especially for lower level students, that games are absolutely necessary for motivation. I do not think this is true. One of my most involving language learning experiences was in learning sign language. No games were allowed. The teacher used a story telling method that was absolutely absorbing in every moment. Had she resorted to games I do not know if I would have found it as motivating, as personally I am motivated when I feel that I am genuinely learning, and I’ve been around long enough to know that I’m not alone in that regard. In short, I think games are fine – I just wouldn’t substitute them for other sorts of activities that could allow for deeper processing of the subject to be learned.

  9. Julia Miller says :

    I used to use games a lot when I was an EFL teacher of children and teenagers in Portugal, and found it a productive use of students’ time. It took me a long time to prepare some things initially, but then I was able to reuse the resources often. We did picture pairs (for vocabulary), dominoes, snakes and ladders, bingo, noughts and crosses, grammar auctions . . . There are also some excellent books with photocopiable sheets. I did try not to make things too competitive, as I wanted the games to be fun and not humiliating.
    Now I only teach adults at university in Australia, and don’t do much ESL work, but one of my most popular activities is a building exercise using straws, where students work in groups to build the tallest tower. It is a great groupwork exercise, leading on to a reading activity where students work together to enter answers on a ‘Scratchy’ (IF-AT, card. These activities really help students to identify their preferences in teamwork, which is important for other activities in the program.
    I think games have a definite role in language learning and teaching.

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