Each year more and more pressure is put on teachers to meet longer and more complex sets of educational standards. It is up to the teacher to figure out how to motivate their students to tackle what seems like an impossible amount of material. Anyone can come up with a long list of things for kids to learn but to create learning experiences that will engage students and develop deep understanding; that is the hard part.
The most powerful tool I use as an educator to create great learning experiences is a game.
“What?” you say, “A game? I don’t have time to play games; I’ve got standards to teach!”
With what games can accomplish you can’t afford not to play games. Let’s look at what a game is, what they can accomplish and what games you can use in your classroom to enhance your instruction.
So what is a game?
“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” – Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play
Two elements of this definition explain why games are such an invaluable tool to the educator. First of all, in a game “players engage in an artificial conflict.” Games involve a competition of some kind and competition engages students. In order for students to participate they need to get involved in the activity, they cannot spectate or disengage they have to and want to be a part of that activity.
The usage of competition in learning is too often avoided, especially in elementary schools, often replaced with an “everybody wins” approach or an avoidance of any sort of competitive activity. Which brings us to the second important aspect of a game; a game “results in a quantifiable outcome.” It does not take long for students, even very young students, to realize when their accomplishments in a classroom don’t seem to matter. Whether they complete the reading or not, get all the questions right or none they will simply move on to the next lesson tomorrow and the quality of their participation has no quantifiable results, so they stop participating and engaging in that class. This means that when “everybody wins,” nobody learns a whole lot.
However when students know that the quality of their performance has an achievable result, they will strive for those results. When the educator creates a system that challenges all of their students with achievable quantifiable goals, they will engage in that activity, they will meet those goals and they will learn. This is why games teach.
So how does an educator teach using a game? Games can be as short as ten minutes or as long as ten weeks. They can be used to teach any subject matter from appropriate social interaction to parts of speech to democracy. But they all involve using some system of competition. There are many ways to set up a competitive game system; either by having groups or individuals compete against each other or groups or individuals playing against the game itself by trying to earn points or accomplish various goals.
A few simple examples would include a math fact race against the clock to achieve a personal best time, a boat building competition to create a tinfoil boat that will hold the most weight without sinking or a game show style vocabulary review possibly even with clues devised by the students.
To enhance the game and provide a backdrop for connected learning activities you may consider applying a theme. Instead of just a math fact tournament, make your classroom a math fact dojo, learning from their sensei to become the black belt multiplication grand master! Instead of just a car building competition using building sets, each group is a famous engineering firm who needs to develop a company name, logo and advertising to sell their product.
To go one step further, a very powerful tool is to give your students an identity with which they can connect within these games. For example, in my secret agent themed Geography unit, “Fiona SanFrancisco” students are each given a secret agent personality who needs to train by learning world geography in order to be able to succeed in taking on secret missions to chase and capture criminals around the world. One of the prime motivators in the unit is the ability for students to advance their characters by earning fame points and higher ranks by accomplishing missions. Students are motivated to study hard because of their desire to achieve these goals.
If this is starting to sound a little like a video game, well that is not entirely a coincidence. Why are video games so popular? They allow players to engage in activities that result in quantifiable goals and achievements. This is why video games are more interesting than some teachers’ classrooms.
It is my hope that teachers will consider utilizing the power of the game to inspire and motivate their students. You can do it! Try out designing your own games to meet your educational objectives. Start with simple competitive activities and experiment with applying themes and using identities and you will be amazed what can happen. Games aren’t just for fun, Games Teach.
Ryan Sturm is an elementary educator of eleven years known for his work in incorporating games into education and educating about games. This fall sees the release of Ryan’s first self-published unit “Fiona SanFrancisco” a secret agent themed World Geography Unit. Learn how to purchase or support this unit on Kickstarter by visiting Ryan’s website GamesTeach.com.
Check out Ryan's kickstarter for "Finding Fiona SanFrancisco" here
And watch the intro video here:
The best of the bad
This is a picture of a published game designer
This is so clearly a direct rip off of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I wonder if you meant to release this April 1.
Please contact me about board gaming in Orange County.
One more factor: Immediate feedback. No letter at the end of the semester. The result is not just quantifiable, it's immediate.
I agree that games can be a great way to learn, especially when done well. In this video, you have several teams of agents - all with their own scores. How well have the kids handled not being first or being last? Does that tend to discourage them or spur them on to try harder? I know that there is a lot of an "everyone wins" attitude in schools that's hard to shake and totally unrealistic once those kids leave school. I'm curious as to how you've handled that situation or if it's even come up when you've tested these lessons.
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