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Post date: Friday, 5 August 2016

Advice from game-using teachers

By Rachel Bolstad

My last post discussed the diverse ways that teachers in the Games for learning project used games in their classrooms.

When we talked with these teachers in late 2015, it was clear that they had already learned a lot from their own exploration and experimentation with game-based learning. We'll be writing more about this soon.

At the end of their interviews, we asked each teacher what advice they would most like to share with other teachers. We've summarised across their answers to share eight of their top tips.

1.   Be open to the possibilities of using games for learning

Some teachers felt that their colleagues were dismissive of games and gaming culture and didn’t see these as having a place in the classroom. The Games for learning teachers wanted their peers to reconsider their attitudes towards games.

Number one for me is to have an open mind.  (Secondary digital technology teacher)

2.   Discuss games and gaming with your students

A major driver for game-using teachers was to connect with their students’ interests and motivations. Tapping into students’ prior knowledge and experiences with games was one way to do this. 

[Teachers need to] know the interests of their students. (Secondary digital technology teacher)

Some teachers talked about how much they learned about students’ game knowledge and interests once they began exploring games and game design in the classroom.

That was the first time I really noticed that there was a huge wealth of knowledge that existed in my class about games already, like, the way that they talked about the games. (Teacher, Year 3&4)

3.   You don’t need to be a gamer yourself, and you don’t need to know everything about games

Some of the teachers in our project were avid gamers, but some definitely weren’t. Either way, game-using teachers felt that a lack of expertise or knowledge of games on the teacher’s part needn’t be a barrier to using games for learning.

[Teachers] need to know that they don’t need to know everything. (Secondary English teacher)

That is what I am always telling the [other] teachers. You don’t have to be a gamer. You see I am trying to be an example. (Secondary digital technology teacher)

Game-using teachers were also comfortable seeking students’ advice and suggestions during game-related learning activities.

I think that just being really open with students, like, in terms of letting students having agency and voice over the activity because actually they’re probably going to have a lot more expertise than you. (Teacher, Years 3 & 4)

4.   You do need to be clear about your purposes for using games for learning  

The teachers in our project were all strongly motivated by the role of games and play as a means to engage their students. They all valued students’ interests in games, and saw games, fun and play as legitimate routes to learning. But they were always thinking about their educative purpose and their role as the teacher.

It has to be that it is more than the kids having fun …that’s not primarily why they are at school, they can have fun at the weekend. [The] purpose has to be educational…. It is about being able to identify the learning, make those curriculum links, [and] be able to justify what we are doing. (Teacher, Years 7 & 8)

You do need a clear purpose and it does matter what it is.  If the purpose is to keep the children quiet then that’s not good enough.  But, if the purpose is to improve oral language acquisition in order to increase numeracy skills or develop social skills, I think it has to be an educative purpose because we are still teachers, and we are still called to teach. (Teacher, Years 0-1)

Most of the teachers in our project saw games and game design as a vehicle for the development of students’ thinking and other key competencies. The teachers knew what kinds of competencies they were trying to develop in their students, and they thought about how to set up game-using activities to maximise the opportunities for students to practice and develop those competencies.

What [teachers] need to know are those skills that we’ve been talking about [developing in students].  How do I encourage students to solve problems themselves?  And have those structures set up within the classroom so that the students can maximise whatever abilities they’ve got. (Secondary maths teacher)

Because they knew what kinds of learning they were aiming for, the teachers were conscious of what sorts of things to look for and listen for as their students were engaging in game-based learning activities. They thought about when to step in with a question, and when to step back and let students think their own way through a problem or challenge (see advice #6 below).

5.   Think deeply about how games can contribute to your curriculum

Game-using teachers thought about how to connect game-based learning activities to the intentions of the curriculum, but they were equally interested in connecting the curriculum with students’ interests.

Know the interests of [your] students and with that [teachers] can actually relate that, tailor that to the curriculum. There are just so many online games now that you could actually weave into your curriculum. (Secondary digital technology teacher)

This means thinking about the affordances that different games offer. For example, what underlying messages or ideas can be drawn from different games? How can those be connected to different disciplinary learning goals?

I think the game that you are using needs to be fit for a purpose as well.  Like, [an] economics [game like] Monopoly might be great but for someone [in another subject area] but it would be absolutely useless, you know, in terms of the majority of things I would teach. (Secondary science teacher)

It also means looking “beyond the label”. Several teachers in our project were quick to point out that just because a game is marketed as a science or maths game doesn’t mean it is a great fit for purpose, nor matched to what their students actually need.

You can have a group of six year olds who already know their alphabet.  You can make them play an alphabet game but that’s not actually going to do anything for them.  It’s having an understanding of where the children are at and where they need to be, or where you would like them to be, and what’s going to get them there. (Teacher, Years 0-1)

There are many, many maths games that are very basic low level skills but they won’t teach you anything like these [other kinds of tabletop and roleplay games] do. So you’d have to make sure that the game’s linked to what you’re doing and it doesn’t have to be a maths game at all. (Secondary maths teacher)

The overall advice from game-using teachers was this:  think carefully about how to match games to purpose, pay attention to what students are getting out of it, and above all, talk to students about what they are thinking during and after playing games.

6.   Be curious. Know when to step back and let students take the lead, and when to step in with a productive question

A few of the game-using teachers in our project had early childhood education backgrounds and/or a prior interest in play-based learning. They were comfortable with the idea that sometimes it is best to step back and listen and observe students as they are engaged with an activity, rather than stepping in too soon to control and manage it.

Stepping away, you know, giving kids time and opportunity to try and experiment without rushing in and rescuing cos I think in the time constraints that we have put upon us so often, we’re really tempted to just jump in and go that’s not how you do it. (Teacher, Years 0-1)

Other teachers had also to step back and trust students, rather than having to constantly control and manage learning.

I think that is a really difficult thing for teachers to give up is complete control. I mean I was terrified when I first started teaching and they had computers and I would be wandering around [saying] well what are you doing, what are you looking at? You have to be able to trust them and yes my kids do go on sites that they are not supposed to at times…but you have to look at the, at the bigger picture. (Teacher, Years 7&8)

The game-using teachers in our project talked about how and why this was often difficult for teachers. They also noted that sometimes it could be difficult for students, especially when students were used to their teachers stepping in to direct them or solve problems for them. Some teachers had learned how to ask very open questions that challenged students to keep exploring and iterating on their ideas, rather than steering towards an immediate next step or end point.

I’ve really had to think carefully about my questioning.  You can’t have really flippant questions.  Your questions have to have a purpose. (Teacher, Years 0-1)

Some of the secondary teachers talked about needing to support students to move past a dependency on teachers and “giving right answers” as well. 

One of the themes that has come up is that sense of being willing to take risks and then being willing to be wrong. For whatever reason the kids have got it in their heads that being wrong is dangerous and …[they’re] trained to choose the right answer. We’ve [teachers] got so good at helping kids that we’ve taken away some of their agency. (Secondary English teacher)

7.   Don’t be afraid to try different kinds of games

The teachers in our study were were open to experimenting with different kinds of games in the classroom, and soliciting students’ feedback or asking students to test out games or game-related learning activities.

If you are unsure putting it out there going, “Oh, I don’t know what this is going to be like – who’s happy to trial it for me?  Who’s willing to give this a go and give me some feedback?”. Get feedback from the students. (Teacher, Years 3 & 4)

I think you just give it a try.  I think you would actually have to sit down with the kids and figure out where they’re at in gaming and what they would like to see in games and then don’t be afraid to ask for help. (Teacher, Years 4-6)

This also meant being prepared for some game-related learning activities not to succeed or to lead to immediate short-term outcomes, and taking the longer view.

[A barrier would be] being unwilling to unclench enough time to make it doable. [Teachers need confidence] to say: “You know what, if we spend two periods doing this that’s not directly linked to achievement standard, that’s actually okay.” (Secondary English Teacher)

8.   It can’t hurt to play a few games yourself!

Finally, game-using teachers thought there was no harm in teachers expanding their own knowledge about games, whether this was by finding and playing games that they (the teacher) found fun and engaging, or looking into games that they know their students found fun. This seemed to be particularly important for the teachers in our project who don't see themselves as "gamers" per se.

I think definitely like finding some games that you can enjoy yourself so that you can unpack them I think is really cool.  I’ve done that myself this year where I’ve found a couple of games which I’ve played and tried to look at it from that perspective and “why do I enjoy this so much?”  (Teacher, Years 3 & 4)

I try to relate it to a game they are familiar with. See that is why teachers should be aware of the games they play. (Secondary technology teacher)

If you're a teacher or student, what do you think about the advice given above?

Does it resonate with your own experiences in the classroom? Let us know by leaving a comment!

Games for learning


Agree and thanks for the article - I think point number 8 should be at the top! (and it also tackles point number 1). The single best way for people to adopt (and 'invest') in games is through them seeing and feeling their effectiveness themselves. Sounds obvious...'cause it is. I see play for learning in the adult education industry as all to easy a concept to dismiss as the 'I like it, but I'm not sure = I won't spend money on it' option. In the adult world don't say "game", do say "simulation"....and know that it all adds up to play and learning through trial and error (and fun).

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