The Ottercation Blog:

Harnessing the Power of Games in Education

Welcome to the first of many blog posts to come! The goal of this blog is threefold: to help teachers think more deeply about how to set up games in their classroom, to reflect on the core aspects of a game that work well and could be improved upon, and to simply have fun analyzing popular games of yesterday and today.

To kick things off, we’re going to take a trip down memory lane, and look at some of the Most Popular Classroom Games of Old. Each segment will analyze the pros and cons of each game, and give an Ottercation Score based on the game’s overall effectiveness and how applicable it would be in a 2017 classroom. Once each game has been examined, we will officially crown one of them with the “Timeless Award”, standing the true test of time 25+ years later. For today, we’ll start with a classic:

Heads Up, Seven Up!

In case you need a refresher or you’re unfamiliar with the title (it may be different outside the bustling farm town of Bow, NH, population 6,000, that I grew up in!), Heads Up, Seven Up was a game played in elementary and middle school, mainly used for indoor recess or simply as a time-killer.

The teacher would select seven students at random to come to the front of the board, while the rest of the class put their heads down on the desks with their thumbs in the air. The seven chosen students would then go around and secretly push the thumb down of one student at their desk, then return to the front of the room. Once seven thumbs had been pushed down, the teacher would let the students with thumbs down stand up and make one guess as to who pushed their thumb down. Guess correctly, and you get to become one of the “lucky seven” by switching places with the person who selected you. Guess incorrectly, and you’re back to where you started, head down on the desk with plenty of time to kick yourself about your poor choice.

As a shy, awkward kid growing up, I loved this game. I remember this one time, when I was one of the lucky seven at the front of the room, I did something absolutely insane. Instead of pushing the thumbs down of my buddies, as per usual, I went over to the girl I had a crush on in the class, and with my hand shaking and thumb sweating profusely, pushed her thumb down! Had I ever talked to this girl? No! Had we even made eye contact once in all of elementary school? Of course not! But thanks to Heads Up, Seven Up, I was blessed with that half second of thumb to thumb contact, and in my fourth grade mind, this girl and I were essentially going steady after that moment.

In case you’re curious, there were two profound “Nos” that came from this moment: No, she didn’t guess me correctly (remember the part about us never making eye contact? It continued!) and no, we never had a conversation. Basically Heads Up, Seven Up was where our relationship peaked, and then it was all downhill from there.

There were other fun moments as well. That anticipatory feeling while you waited at your desk, hoping that someone would choose you so you’d be in the action. Your mind racing when someone pushed your thumb down as you calculated the texture of their skin and ran through the lineup of who the most likely thumb pusher was. The expert poker face you quickly had to master if you were at the front of the room and someone you picked was guessing from the lineup. If you break it down, it really was a unique psychological study every round!

But how does it stack up educationally? Our Teacher Takeaway section of the blog covers the pros and cons of a game before revealing the Ottercation Score, with some tips at the end for incorporating Heads Up, Seven Up in your classroom.

Teacher Takeaway:

Pros: Heads Up, Seven Up accomplishes its main objectives: it’s a lot of fun, and it definitely helps pass time quickly. It includes fourteen students every round, which in a lot of classrooms is about two thirds of the room and is a solid engagement rate. The game also requires zero materials or technological presence, and can be played anytime, anywhere. Combine that with its simplicity to explain, yet complexity when it comes to making a logical guess, and the game has a lot going for it.

And clearly since I still have fond memories of the game many years later, it has a high nostalgia factor that can’t be overlooked.

Cons: One knock on Heads Up, Seven Up is that there is little educational value going on here. Other than deciding whose thumb to put down or which of the seven students at the front of the room looks most guilty when it’s your turn to guess, brain cells are not increasing at an alarming rate with this one.

Another issue is that the excitement for the game is divided into three tiers. It is super exciting to be one of the seven at the front of the room, especially because if the person you choose does not capitalize on their 14% chance of guessing you, then you get another round of staying in the most fun role of the game. The odds are in your favor that you could stay in this coveted role for the entire session of Heads Up, Seven Up, which is why I call this is the top tier of the game.

The second tier is those students who get their thumb pushed down. You’re in the action too, and you’re one great guess away from moving up in the world to the top tier, with a bonus of relegating someone else to your spot. Pretty cool, but only if you guess well.

The bottom tier is for students who don’t get picked. Not only is it fairly boring to watch others guess (why should I care if they’re right or wrong? My head is going back down either way!), it can be socially demoralizing for a student who keeps getting passed over while other students get picked seemingly every time.

So how do these pros and cons affect their chance at the Timeless Award?

OTTERCATION SCORE: (On a scale of 1–10): 7.

Debrief and Educator Tips: While the game has some flaws that limits its overall engagement and creates potential rifts within your classroom community, Heads Up, Seven Up scored well on the Ottercation scale because of how simple it is to run, how many students are participating, and how it provides a small amount of strategy as well.

There are some adaptations that I think would improve the game’s overall effectiveness in a 2017 classroom.

First, set a rule at the beginning stating that no student can have their thumb put down for a second time until each student has been chosen at least once. This will get some of your less popular students in the mix and force students to make selections outside of their friend group.

Second, pick a new set of seven students to come to the front of the room for each round. Yes, this takes some of the excitement out of stumping someone or guessing correctly, but I think it is worth the sacrifice of a small amount of excitement for a few in exchange for much more inclusiveness.

Lastly, try playing the game as a fun reward at the end of a lesson if the class had a productive period. That way it will better tie into your teaching and not just be an outlier on a rainy day.

Heads Up, Seven Up is currently our leader for the “Timeless Award”. Tune in for our next post when we discuss The Flyswatter Game from 10th grade!

Want to learn more about games? Visit Nate’s website to watch the Ottercation video and learn more about Nate!