The cases for and against classroom games

As a French teacher in Grimsby, reporter Dave Speck relied on bingo, quick-fire quizzes and rewarding Tic Tacs to get through the working week. It worked for him, so why, he asks, are so many influential teachers, theorists and consultants opposed to using classroom games?
26th April 2019, 12:03am
Can Games In The Classroom Work?


The cases for and against classroom games

As a young French teacher in Grimsby around 15 years ago, I used to model my lessons on TV game shows.

They were a mixture of bits from The X Factor, Bullseye and University Challenge, among others - and they made me a “legend” among Years 7 to 9.

Throughout each lesson, pupils would be trying to excel in one way or another to win a place in “bootcamp”, in which the select few would stand at the front and not “sing at the judge’s house” but answer quick-fire questions in French using target language we’d learned in the lesson.

The initial knock-out round would lead to a semi-final, and then a final - with a winner who’d leave the lesson with a prize, usually a box of Tic Tacs.

Some days, I’d borrow my colleague’s Nerf gun with which pupils would fire a sucker dart at a target in the style of the prize board on Bullseye (“Keep out of the black and in the red…” etc). There was bingo, of course, and games of word association in the style of Mallett’s Mallet on Wacaday.

And if there was any time left over at the end of the lessons I’d select individuals to challenge me to the “Yes-No game” (made famous by Des O’Connor on Take Your Pick!) which, as we played it in English, had less to do with learning French than creating a happy and fun environment.

It was 2003-4. I was flying through the graduate teacher training programme, writing essays on the VAK (visual, audio and kinaesthetic) approach, which advocated that teaching in every lesson should be differentiated to suit different learning styles.

The games, of course, were engaging the “kinaesthetic learners” (so I believed). And despite costing around £10 a week, the Tic Tacs were an essential part of my toolkit, just as a carpenter has a box of screws to hold together a cabinet they are building.

Even today, looking back with the knowledge that VAK has been discredited, I am convinced that the games were helping hard-to-reach pupils learn.

So my jaw dropped the other day here in the Tes newsroom when someone said game-playing in classrooms was now frowned upon in many circles.

I left teaching to return to journalism in 2005, so I admit I’ve been out of touch with current teaching practice - apart from what I’ve come across while writing for Tes over the last six months. And I was amazed to find that many influential teachers, theorists and consultants are opposed to using games.

Yet, at the same time, I have discovered that much of the profession still uses them on a daily basis. Are those teachers so wrong? Or are the theorists out of touch, sitting in ivory towers - with little understanding of what it’s like to teach French to bottom set Year 8 in a tough school on a Friday afternoon?

My first call was to educationalist author, blogger and speaker David Didau, a former English teacher of 15 years. I asked him about the types of games I used to play (without admitting I used to play them).

“With utter frankness, I would refer to those types of games as shite,” he replied.

“You have to think about the opportunity cost of playing games. The kind of thinking where you see children as not having the academic language to engage with the academic curriculum so you get them playing games instead - as well intentioned as it may be - is an act that increases the disadvantage gap, and from a social justice point of view is unforgiveable.”

The problem is that when children play a game, they’re likely to be thinking about the game itself and not its content, says Didau, explaining the case against.

So why do so many teachers still play the games that worked so well for me?

“I think it requires some nuance,” he says. “There are likely to be instances where it’s a good idea and this warrants further investigation, but unless we’re prepared to test those claims I think we should be sceptical.”

Here we are now, entertain us

Tes columnist Rebecca Foster is another opponent of game-playing as a teaching strategy. The head of English at Wyvern St Edmund’s Learning Campus, a C of E secondary academy near Salisbury, recently wrote about how “teacher training was full of gimmicks 10 years ago”. As a trainee, she was taught that “outstanding” lessons were “showy, whizzy, fun”.

She was “forever trying nice little activities” such as “whipping out some candles and turning off the lights” when reading the final lines of Romeo and Juliet.

But aren’t those gimmicks a way of engaging children and managing behaviour?

“I’m sure students do enjoy the gimmicks - who doesn’t like a bit of fun?” Foster concedes. “But is that what we’re here for?”

“[The gimmicks] weren’t a useful way of managing behaviour. If you’re mucking about with candles or sweets or whatever else, the behaviour won’t necessarily be good. Also, aren’t you creating an expectation that students will be entertained in your lesson?

“What happens when you then want them to sit in silence for an hour? These kind of gimmicks can actually make behaviour worse, and I imagine that’s especially true for a new teacher.”

I’m wondering if English might be a subject where teachers can survive without having to play games. We all love a good story, and as Foster says herself: “Having a class deeply engaged with a text can be pretty bloody enjoyable.”

I may be seeing the past through rose-tinted specs, but I don’t recall games ever making behaviour worse. However, I do admit I hardly ever tried to get kids sitting in silence for a whole hour. As a new teacher in that school, I wouldn’t have attempted it.

These were tough pupils, some of whom, I was told, only ever interacted with grown men in their lives when they were shouted at by fathers or their mum’s boyfriends. In short, I didn’t want to do battle, but to be a fun role model, and of course I was told by colleagues who observed me that my game-playing was good.

But what are trainees taught today? Despite the growing arguments that it distracts from real learning, teacher trainers don’t deny the games-based approach is still sometimes advocated.

Professor Sam Twiselton, director of Sheffield Hallam University’s Institute of Education, says game-playing may depend on the school in which a trainee is placed as well as subject or age group.

“Our approach to trainees would always be to say: ask yourself the fundamental question, which is, ‘How is a game going to help children learn in a way that lasts?’” she says.

Professor David Spendlove says classroom games wouldn’t be a central feature of the teacher-training programme at Manchester University’s Institute of Education, where he is strategic director of initial teacher education. But he doesn’t deny that they are used.

“I’m not familiar with [the use of games in classrooms] being a particular area of pedagogy that people specialise in,” he says. “It would be part of a diversity of approaches to challenge pupils to learn in different ways.”

Could it be that some subjects are more suited to games - say, French and maths, both hated by struggling bottom sets across the land?

It’s a former maths teacher who emerges as the first keen supporter of game-playing in lessons that I speak to.

Tim Jay, a professor of the psychology of education, also at the Sheffield Institute, says team games in academic lessons can take the pressure off individuals and help children experience success, especially those who don’t experience it that often.

“Children have to be engaged to have any chance of learning and games are a really good way of doing that,” he says. “Children might be interested in the competition or beating a score, or just the novelty of it is enough sometimes, and the big thing with games is that there’s some kind of reward in store.”

Jay agrees that there has been a move back towards the old didactic “chalkand-talk approach” but doesn’t think it’s happening everywhere.

“If you have only quiet, focused, teacher-led work, that might be engaging for some children. But if you have some children who struggle to sit still, then you are not reaching those children.”

‘Twenty minutes of chaos’

Jay recalls his own school days, when his geography teacher used to split the class into two halves for “a pop quiz”. But Mark Enser, who heads the geography department at Heathfield Community College, East Sussex, takes a very different stance. He argues that games can in fact hinder disadvantaged pupils (see box, below) and prefers “calm and quiet lessons” and “really simple teaching” using principles of “recap, input and application”.

Like Didau, Enser says the danger is that pupils end up thinking about classroom games rather than the actual subject of the lesson. He gives the example of Kahoot! - the online multiple-choice quiz that pupils can do on their smartphones after logging on to the app on which teachers have set the questions.

“Behaviour is always worse,” he says. “It increases the stakes and energy because you have to do it as quickly as possible to get the points. It’s 20 minutes of chaos.”

Enser says the teachers who don’t advocate games in lessons are largely found on Twitter where as those who support them are on Facebook. “One of the differences is that teachers go on Twitter to discuss educational theories such as cognitive load theory, but Facebook is more social.”

And a quick look on Facebook reveals that for many teachers, games in lessons are still going strong. A shout-out to an MFL teachers’ group for anyone using games that “engage/motivate/promote learning” receives dozens of responses. Teachers from across the country reveal the games they use in lessons and how to play them. There’s Bob Up, Sleeping Lions, Trap Door, Pass the Bomb, Chef d’Orchestre, El Stop and Empire (see box, above), to name just a few.

I ask what Splat is and someone tells me it involves pupils using a fly swatter to hit icons representing words on the whiteboard whenever the teacher or another pupil calls out that word in the target language.

“Pass the Parcel is great with lower set Year 8s, and we always end the lesson in a good mood,” says one Spanish teacher, who explains that the parcel is, in fact, a soft ball, and the pupil holding it when the music stops has to answer a question in the target language.

Then there are “races against the clock, whether it’s translating, ordering or matching”, while another languages teacher says she likes “betting” on whether a phrase is spelled correctly and that “this works up to A level”.

“My pupils absolutely love Lotto [bingo],” says a French and Spanish teacher. “It can be used for numbers or topics such clothes or weather, and they never seem to get bored. They’re so engaged when we play it.”

Then there’s “good old Noughts and Crosses”, and someone mentions my old Des O’Connor favourite - or Ni Oui Ni Non as this French teacher calls it, which she says works great with Year 11s.

Another languages teacher, Kate Jones, even blogs about her favourite teaching games, which include Connect 4, Battleships and Snakes and Ladders. “I love playing games in language lessons - it’s a great way to engage students and make the learning fun,” she says. “However, it’s important to ensure that the games exploit key vocabulary and grammar as much as possible.”

So it’s clear why some teachers play games and others don’t. But I wonder whether the division comes down to those who work with challenging classes and those who don’t.

Unlike David Didau, I would say games-playing can narrow the disadvantage gap because it helps pupils without academic language to become included in the lesson. And I disagree with both Didau and Enser that pupils will necessarily think about the game rather than the actual subject matter. Because, in MFL at least, games are a brilliant way of practising listening, speaking and reading in the target language and of learning new vocabulary.

When I returned to the classroom as a supply teacher at the start of the decade, I used my games more than ever to ensure my survival in some tough schools in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire - and not just in language lessons, but while doing long-term cover in history and physics.

Even the worst-behaved Year 10s used to buy into the rituals with the same couple of questions at the start of the lesson.

“Are we doing bootcamp, sir?”


“Have you got any Tic Tacs?”


And then the baseball caps would come off more easily, books would open and pens would come out (not all the time, I admit, but more often than not). And in the meantime, other teachers would ask if they could drop in to see the legendary bootcamp, which they’d heard pupils talking about.

I was playing to my strengths as an outgoing, enthusiastic and energetic young teacher, who didn’t want to spend an hour after school every day filling out detention forms. I wouldn’t have survived as a teacher without games, partly because, for me, they were so effective in helping pupils to learn.

Dave Speck is a reporter at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 26 April 2019 issue under the headline “‘As a young teacher, I always had a game plan’”

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