Do Classroom Games Help Students Learn?

It’s been a long week, an endless winter. Students file into my classroom, looking weary.

“Can’t we just play a game today?” one of them asks.

In the last thirty years, many standard teaching methods have lost favor. We are discouraged from lecturing, drilling,  and other teacher-centric teaching methods because they do not ‘engage’ students. Group work, hands-on activities, layered curriculum, differentiated instruction are all the rage.

Games fit neatly into a child-centered classroom. But are they a valid way to teach? Do kids actually learn better by playing games than through other activities?

My answer: sometimes, but usually not.

In a foreign language classroom, we do many things: we read, we write, we listen, we talk. The goal is to form habits of memory and use.

There is a time limit for these activities: fifty minutes a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. Three years of instruction add up to 27,000 minutes (before subtracting announcements, assemblies, and other random interruptions.) As any language teacher (or learner) can tell you, this is barely enough to learn to communicate in another language. Many people think it would be nice to be able to speak another language, but have no idea of the time and effort demanded.

Where do games fit in?

As I plan my week, I ask myself: how do I want to spend these precious bits of time? The best way to learn a language is by using it — ideally in a way that comes close to a real world scenario.

Infants learn to speak by listening and playing. But infants have a lot more time to become fluent. By the time children are two, they will have spent over a million minutes listening and practicing. Even if you count half of that as sleep time, it’s still a lot.

My students are not infants. They would learn as quickly as infants if they were immersed in the language all the time, but they are not. But they have advantages that infants lack – the ability to reason, organize information, and think about how they learn.

Games can be a good supplement, a change of pace activity for students. Some games do help kids memorize words. Computer games are superior at this kind of teaching, but many classrooms lack the technology to use them. The problem with classroom games is that covering material takes more time and is less effective.

In a classroom game, usually a few students are engaged at any given moment – when it’s their turn. The rest of the class is in ‘pause’ mode. In a fifty minute period, a student may be actively engaged in a game for less than half of that time. If they are competing in teams, the stronger students dominate the game, and the weaker students contribute less.

And this creates another problem: in a game, there are winners and losers. Education shouldn’t be competitive. I realize that grades already make it so, but why make it worse by directly pitting smart kids against those who struggle, or marginalizing the weak students, who end up on the sidelines?

An English curriculum doesn’t lend itself to games. By the time they are in high school, students should be reading and writing, not singing songs about prepositions or memorizing facts. These are skills, and they need constant, intensive practice. Sometimes we play a game like trivia just to break the routine or to fill a few minutes at the end of class.

Children have been brainwashed. Learning is fun, but it’s also hard. Playing games is fun, but doesn’t necessarily result in learning. Students ask to play games because they don’t want to do hard things.

The longer I teach, the more old-school I become. The methods we are abandoning are time-tested – over hundreds of years. Granted, it’s a different world, and we are required to teach a greater variety of children that at any time in history.

But I believe that we have trained our children to pay attention only to what immediately engages their attention. No wonder they would rather play with their phones than read a book, and will argue that school is boring and irrelevant to their lives. We have substituted entertainment for education.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. theteachingwhore
    Jan 30, 2011 @ 14:15:58

    You hit upon one of the things that continually frustrates me with our admin–the idea that we have to latch onto every new concept that appears in the world of education. We NEVER seem to have a discussion about what we have been doing that works–and many of us do a lot that works. It seems silly to have to say it, but there it is. Your thoughts on games also made me think of the research I once read on classroom design–the fact that students learned more in traditional rows but that they felt better about themselves when arranged in a circle!


  2. Michael G.
    Jan 30, 2011 @ 14:20:02

    Whatever engages the student and effectively conveys the skill or concept will do me. If it’s a game, that’s fine. Games can be effective – they can also be a total waste of time.


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