The Importance of Gameplay in Student Engagement
By Bill Kearney, Former Educator & McGraw Hill Sales Rep
I never planned on being a teacher. As an undergraduate in upstate New York, I studied Philosophy and English Literature and planned on being a lawyer or maybe a professor someday. Alas, here I was, and teaching is exactly what I was being asked to do. I had a lot of blank faces looking back at me in anticipation of something great. I had taken a total of two education classes in college, so the nerves and sweat glands were activated. I had coached a bit and taught swimming lessons, so I was comfortable in front of a group, but this was a HUGE group!
Remembering My First Day as an Educator
I still remember my first day of teaching very clearly, as it may have led to a slight case of PTSD. I had just arrived the night before at Kimpo International Airport in South Korea as a bright-eyed twenty-three-year-old looking for some novel life experience before getting on with the real business of a serious job and career. My first day of teaching started early Saturday at 8:00 a.m. sharp at the Bu-Whan Boys Middle School in Pup-Yong, South Korea. The day’s agenda consisted of four hours of teaching Conversational English to seventy-five middle school boys. It was truly a sink-or-swim moment, and the pressure was high.
The number of students and the lack of preparation were extremely intimidating, but the principal of the school, a very kind older gentleman, offered me some sage advice — to make the day fun! With that, he gave me four piles of worksheets (one for each student, for each hour), and armored me with a very small but mighty cup of instant coffee. They have these cool little coffee and tea vending machines all over in Korea, and they are a staple of work life, especially on early Saturday mornings. We stand around the water cooler, but they stand around the instant coffee vending machine.
At first, I tried to work with what I was given, and after a short explanation and introduction, I handed out the worksheets. The students actually got busy and worked on them, but they weren’t engaged, and I was losing about half of them quickly. The boys were not having the busy work of the worksheets and were already starting to get a little rambunctious and antsy. I knew from my experience coaching and teaching swimming that I was going to have a full-on insurrection on my hands momentarily. I did a quick pivot, remembered what the Nice Older Principal said, and decided that we should try to make this FUN. After all, what did I have to lose? From my sports experience, I knew that fun usually goes hand in hand with competition and games. Nobody likes busy work, they like games, scrimmaging, and friendly competition!
My Lessons Learned from Teaching
Make It Fun: Games Work!
During our first ten-minute break, when the boys went out for recess (one hour down) I grabbed another coffee and quickly devised a game that I thought we could play with the whole class: Password. (Yes, that same game that Jimmy Fallon is trying to bring back to the mainstream.)
When recess was over, I divided the boys into four groups of around twenty each. Then I choose one boy from each group to come to the front. I started describing an object in the room, like a fan, in very simple English, and the first one to guess the object correctly won a point for their team. I then gave the winning boy an opportunity to describe a bonus word to the entire group, and whichever group choose the correct word won another point.
It was hilarious, because the boys would intuitively make eye contact, and even physically face their own team, screening out the opposing teams, to try to get their points and increase their chances of winning the big game. This went on and on through several rounds. It also broke some of the tension and barriers that naturally existed for me by being a stranger in a strange land. We went back to worksheets for the last period, but I did my best to make those interactive with the same teams.
At the end of the day, the principal came up to me and with some kind words, handed me forty thousand won — around the equivalent of $50 US. I thought to myself, That wasn’t so bad. So, I kept doing it, or some version of it, for the next seven years.
Engagement is the Key to Effective Teaching
When I think back on the classes that I loved in school, the memories that stick out involve experiences of deep engagement with the subject or learning target. These would sometimes involve simulations, such as play-acting (dressing up as your favorite Revolutionary War Character), engaging in active debate with your classmates on a controversial topic, or playing a competitive and fun learning game. As Bob Marzano (2011) states in the Highly Engaged Classroom, “Games help trigger situational awareness and have the potential to capture and hold students’ attention” (p. 15). We all know that engaging students is key to teaching success and academic outcomes, but finding the best way to engage them, while still holding true to the curriculum and subject matter, was sometimes challenging.
Typically, I would try to incorporate at least one game per week into my teaching, and these were usually on Fridays. I found that students enjoyed them and it ratcheted up the engagement levels for the day. One key to effective gameplay is that you as the educator should also participate and enjoy it. Your passion as a teacher is their passion as a student, and it is a beautiful feedback loop.
Some of the games that I found most engaging were Jeopardy (this requires a more intense level of preparation, as you have to create appropriate topics and questions and allow enough time to complete the game), Password, Charades, Family Feud, and The Telephone Game. We had a set curriculum at the school where I taught, and I followed it consistently. But when time allowed, or a game that was relevant made sense, I did my best to incorporate it into my teaching. It was fun for the students, and I loved it too!
Experts encourage incorporating gameplay into teaching when appropriate. Tim Shanahan, one of the authors of the Common Core State Standards for Literacy, suggests gameplay even for foundational literacy skills, such as phonemic awareness. In his blog Shanahan on Literacy, he says, “Play word games: For example, I spy with my little eye something that begins with /m/. Recently, while dining with my grandchildren (a PreK and a K), I’d say a word, “Big,” and they would try to change just one sound in the word to make a new word (dig, or bib, or bag, etc.).”
The Role of Play in Curricula
When I eventually left teaching for educational publishing and joined McGraw Hill, I was struck by the opportunity we have as a company to build games and engagement into curricula. At McGraw Hill early on, I started working with the Everyday Mathematics program from the University of Chicago. I was so excited to find that there was a heavy emphasis and encouragement on gameplay to support learning. Everyday Mathematics uses games as an engaging way for students to get the frequent practice required to build strong mental arithmetic skills and fact power.
The teachers I partner with in my role face so many of the same challenges I did, especially in keeping students engaged while addressing important subject matter. While I no longer have to make up fun games on the spot for my classroom, I hope that the work I do helps teachers from across the country bring a bit of fun to their classrooms every day!
Bill Kearney worked for seven years as an English as a Second Language Instructor in South Korea teaching Elementary, Middle, High School, and College Students in a Private School and at University. Upon returning to the U.S., Bill studied for a Masters in Business with a focus on Marketing. His plan was to explore the intersection between Education and Business. He has spent the last eighteen years working in K-12 Educational Tech & Publishing in the midwest and has been with McGraw Hill for eleven of those years. He lives in the Iowa City, IA area with his wife Mija, and three boys. He gets his teaching “buzz” from coaching Soccer and Basketball these days. Bill is passionate about education, and students, and particularly how technology and games can enhance student outcomes and achievement. Everyday Mathematics is one of his all-time favorite resources!
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Heflebower, T. (2011). The Highly Engaged Classroom. Marzano Research.
Shanahan , T. (2017, November 26). Time to tell parents the truth about helping their kids with reading. Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/time-to-tell-parents-the-truth-about-helping-their-kids-with-reading#sthash.aWbd8e7b.dpbs