All fun and games

A while ago, I knew a teacher who prepared and collected a bunch of games including card sorts, loop quizzes, posters for information hunts, etc. When a fellow teacher saw this, they said: “Oh great, that’ll be perfect for our low-ability groups”.

This disturbed me greatly. I’ll be the first to admit that at the start of my teaching career, I would have shared that sentiment. That a box full of games would be perfect for my bottom sets as they struggle so much to remember all the facts and content in Science.

I remember (not so fondly) using a Periodic Table murder mystery game with my Year 7 classes as their introduction to the elements. Even while using it, I knew it wasn’t helping but I still kept going. At the end of a rather frantic lesson in which my students struggled to make sense of colourful cards with clues about each personified element, perhaps one group of 4 would give me the answer I was looking for: that (spoiler alert!) Sodium was murdered by Hydrogen and Oxygen. The following week, not a single student remembered any details from the game. All they remembered was sitting with their friends and trying to solve a puzzle they had no way of understanding.

I am not saying that all games are like this. On the contrary, I use Quizlet Live as part of a revision lesson occasionally. I’ll talk about why I think that is acceptable while a card sort is not, at the end.

If using games to introduce a topic or concept, the cognitive load of such a task would be overwhelming for any child but even more so for those that struggle with their memory. They would need to remember the rules of the game, how to play it and answer the questions that should be the focus of the activity. But what about a card sort? I remember (with shivers down my spine) trying to create a card sort during my training year. I thought I’d be able to cut up the cards quickly during my lunch break for Period 5. I barely managed it and then mixed the cards up anyway! So I had to ditch the dreaded cards and guess what I had to replace them with? Actual teaching and questioning! Now that didn’t go well either because I hadn’t planned the questions in advance and my lack of experience meant that I was terrible at coming up with great questions on the spot (but that could be fodder for another blog).

Once a card sort has been prepared, though, surely it would work? Well, what exactly are students doing during a card sort? They are usually meant to arrange the cards into meaningful groups or perhaps in a certain way to answer a key question. While I agree, a teacher could quickly assess if the students got it right by looking around the room, there are still two problems with this approach: 1. the time spent handing out the cards and then collecting them back in is wasted time. 2. most likely it would be a group task, so who is actually answering the question? Is it the same pupil each time? Is it the one that always know the answers?

In TLAC (Teach Like A Champion- get the book already!), we read about reducing transaction costs and how every minute matters. If the students are not thinking about the content, they are not learning. And I seriously doubt they are thinking about the content when we hand out cards or collect them back in (even if we get our transition from one task to another to a minute, you have still wasted a minute).

Or indeed when we introduce a revision game and explain the rules.

Or when students are walking around the room in groups, frantically copying information from a poster into their summary sheet. Again, I sadly recall doing an information hunt embarrassingly recently where students walked around the room collecting information about the various days of the menstrual cycle. I also remember using a Countdown style timer to “keep up the pace”. It was this lesson that jolted me and resulted in me not using an information hunt since. I didn’t know it at the time, but a student in the class was in the process of getting a diagnosis of Autism and anxiety. She panicked so much during this lesson that she had to step outside. I have never felt more sad and disappointed with myself.

There will, no doubt, be teachers out there who think I am wrong or who think they can use a game in a lesson effectively. In my opinion, this depends on the game and how it is executed. The reason I like using Quizlet Live sometimes is because there are no complicated rules. All the students have to do is answer the questions collaboratively. Yes, they are still answering these questions in groups but I think there is benefit in the questions coming to them in a random order and accountability when they get a question wrong (it resets their score to 0). There is also a way for students to use Quizlet individually, which I do with my groups that may struggle with the questions. They work through the questions themselves, at their own pace and once they are familiar with them, I get them to play the live group version.

The gist of what I am trying to say is this. If you truly believe a game will replace straightforward teaching and questioning to assess understanding, then bear in mind that it must have a low extraneous cognitive load (it shouldn’t be difficult to grasp and play). At the end of the game, what have your students been thinking about? If it was the game itself or the fun they had answering the questions, it was a waste of lesson time no matter how engaged they were.

5 thoughts on “All fun and games

  1. Oh this chimes with me, particularly the card sort. Flaming hours they take to prepare, minutes to hand out and barely appreciated but I trained in a time when it was all fun and games and if I don’t spend hours preparing a lesson I feel I’m slacking! Getting much better but will be happier still when I’m no longer a slave to the PowerPoint!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Like you I much prefer quizlet live to the likes of Kahoot.
    However I also find time for card sorts. A nice simple one for year sevens over ‘group these into living and nonliving’ always sparks very good discussion in the small groups.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I can see the benefit of some activities like a card sort but it is tricky for some (me!) to get my transitions between tasks perfect with tasks such as card sorts. And the collecting back in gives me nightmares!

      Liked by 1 person

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