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Why don’t games always work in the classroom?

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I know a lot of brilliant teachers who work with primary students and are enthusiastic about using games in their classes. If you have a look at coursebooks for primary schools and attend workshops on teaching young learners, it’s all about fun and games.
But as soon as our students go from primary to secondary school we as teachers also switch to a new mode.

We still use games from time to time to spice up our lessons, but students are often reluctant to play games. So, we conclude that our students are too big to play and, games are more appropriate for primary than for secondary school.

Why do teenagers refuse to play in the classroom but spend hours playing computer games at home then?

Aren’t we too fast with the conclusions?

So, rule # 1. Start with teambuilding activities first.

Once I asked my students, who I’d been working with for two years, to write down what they disliked about my lessons. I expected complains about homework, tests and other academic issues. But the answers really astonished me. For example, some younger girls didn’t like the way the older girls looked at them. Some boys couldn’t get on well either. Students were too absorbed in the personal problems, to think about classes, curriculum, exams and their teacher.

Games can’t make our lessons great, unless we solve most of our students interpersonal problems in the first place.

It’s normal for any person to experience moments of uncertainty and low self-esteem. But for teenagers the question of self-confidence becomes crucial. When a teacher suggests playing a game, a teenage student thinks about the way he or she will look in the game. Will I look stupid? What if I fail? Teenagers unlike primary schoolchildren are afraid of making mistakes in front of the others.

If students in the group don’t feel comfortable and safe with one another, they are not ready to play.

You will need two or three lessons playing teambuilding games to help your students build up relations. And if a new student joins your group, you’ll have to start teambuilding once again. This is not a waste of time. Building a team will contribute to better results in the end.

Let me give you an example of teambuilding activity from http://www.ventureteambuilding.co.uk/

Robots
Total time: 30 minutes
Group size: 6 to 12
What it is: In this fun blindfold activity, sub-teams compete against each other by guiding their blindfolded teammate to retrieve a ‘bomb’. The first sub-team to retrieve the ‘bomb’ wins the game.
Why it’s great for teens: This activity encourages trust between team members and helps teenagers to develop their communication skills (verbal and non-verbal). It also highlights the power of cooperation and how working together can help achieve a goal. Robots can be a frustrating activity for teams that do not communicate well, so it can also teach teens how to better manage their feelings.

You can modify this activity by adding tactile elements. Ask a girl to hold a blindfolded boy on the shoulders and guide him round the classroom and the other way. This modification really helped me to release the tension between girls and boys in the group when a new handsome student joined the group and half of the girls fell in love with him.

Team building helps teenagers to get engaged, connect with each other and increases efficiency of group work.

Rule # 2. Choose games suitable for experienced players.

How do we understand that this game is childish and not suitable for teens? Usually we look at the pictures and the setting of the game. «Feed the animals in the zoo» or «save the kitten» along with cartoon-like flash cards make us understand that we deal with the game for little kids.

And how often do you pay attention to game mechanics in the game you choose?

Do you personaly enjoy playing tic-tac-toe with your friends when you get together for a drink? Probably it is not that entertaining anymore since you discovered poker!

In primary school your students were happy enough with games based on dice rolling mechanic. Secondary school students already know that they can’t influence the results on the dice and thus the result of the game. It becomes boring. That’s why all types of “Snakes and ladders” often fail in secondary school unless it is the only alternative to grammar exercises.

If to advance in the game you must give a correct answer, it also reduces enthusiasm of the player. Imagine running 100 meters race with your athlete friend everyday. If you are not skilled enough, it sooner or later becomes obvious that you cannot win and the game becomes boring for you. By the way, it is neither interesting for your skilled friend.

That’s why I don’t like playing with my students games, where they must make grammatically correct sentences in order to move along the board.

Choosing games for our lessons we never think of our students as players. We look at grammar, vocabulary and what pedagogical result the game will provide. But a good game is a series of meaningful choices made by a player. A game must give him a number of possible strategies of winning. That keeps player engaged and motivated, even if he’s not skilled enough. Otherwise he or she doesn’t want to keep on playing.

Hangman is a good example of a simple game where students make meaningful decisions. They decide if they want to start with a vowel or a consonant, the first letter or the last. Students can evaluate how many vowels there are in the word or start with the most frequent ones. Actually, you can find even websites in the Internet devoted to best strategies in Hangman.

Will your own teenage son or daughter agree to play an original version of “Snakes and ladders” with you on holiday intentionally? You’d better not try! You’d rather suggest “Carcassonne”, “Evolution” or “Mafia.” So, what then makes you choose “Snakes and ladders” for your English lesson with teenage groups?

Along with getting older, the students we teach get more and more experienced in playing games. Probably their first encounters with video and board games were at the age of two or three. Since then they have spent countless hours playing really cool games made by the best game designers.

Do you think a teacher can compete? It is extremely difficult to catch students’ interest with educational games, which are mainly created by teachers not experienced in game design.

Rule # 3. Behave as a “good” game master not as a “bad” teacher.

There is a big difference between playing a game and running a game. As an author of games I do know that even an excellent game can fail because of the poor game master – the person who runs the game.

Let’s have a look at some common mistakes of running a game in the classroom.

Imagine that you play football, and every time you score, the referee stops the game and asks you to give parameters of the ball trajectory. And if you fail to give a correct answer, he doesn’t score. The player has worked out how to
He managed to pick up the ball in his own penalty area before running the length of the pitch to slot past the opposition goalkeeper. On his way he evaded three defenders with consummate ease.

If the player’s aim in the game is to collect two matching cards, award the player with a point no matter if he can or cannot make a grammatically correct sentence afterwards. It’s a game, not a test. As an English teacher, of course, you care about proper grammar, but why don’t just give an extra point for a correct sentence?

Good game masters love their players and try to avoid unnecessary punishment in their games. They reward students for successful moves rather than punish and fine for mistakes.

Scientific research proved that teenagers and adults learn in a different way. When teens learn they prefer to seek rewards rather than to avoid punishments, whereas adults learn to seek and avoid both equally. *

Award rather than punish in your games.

Rule # 4. Don’t diminish the importance of victory in the game.

In the 21st century we care too much about unity, cooperation and support. We don’t want too much competition in our classroom because defeat can upset some of our students. To make all students happy teachers sometimes favor weaker students, give them extra points for attitude and hard work. When you support weak students in this way, other students understand that the game is not fair and lose motivation.

These problems occur only if you substitute games, where any player can choose his or her own strategy for winning, with contests, based merely on students skills, such as knowledge, speed of reaction, etc.

I don’t want to say that you must avoid highly competitive contest. But they are good only in groups where the teacher has spent enough time on teambuilding, where students are supportive and respect one another.

If your students still need some time to build up a team you can always choose a noncompetitive game. Have a look at PvE (Person versus Environment) games, where students fight against external enemies or threats.

Rule # 5. Remember to have fun.

When you play the game with your students don’t correct too much. Every time you make a pause the dynamics of the game slow down and students lose interest. Enjoy the game and don’t be obsessed with the discipline. Children shout and jump around because they are alive.

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