Games in the Classroom

Back when I was an Assistant Language Teacher at a Japanese high school, teachers would constantly ask me to develop a game for the students.  It didn’t really matter what it was but I was clearly in charge of making this game, preparing all the materials, and then briefing my fellow Japanese teacher of English for final approval before using it in class.  So I would just go to one of the many English teaching resource websites out there and find a game that vaguely matched what was being covered in our textbook that week and away I went.  On game day, the students would come to class and put in a wide range of effort in playing the game as intended and I left the class feeling quite satisfied with myself.  The students seemed to enjoy it and I was convinced that I had effectively taught English for the day.

That all stopped  when I attended a conference and heard a JTE talk about classroom activities. He said, “You know, quite often when I play a game in class, the students will come up to me later and say something like, ‘I really had fun today but I’m not sure what I learned.’  I started to realize that the general feeling among students and teachers was that games were taking up a portion of their classroom time for what they felt was a questionable gain in knowledge.  It all started to click as to why ALTs are commonly left out of third year high school classrooms.  Like it or not, we were perceived as taking up valuable classroom time with “fun English” that was of no obvious use to passing the impending university entrance examinations.. During their 1st and 2nd years of high school, the students were seen as able to afford this occasional luxury but there was no time for “fun stuff” in the third year when everyone had to knuckle down and prepare for the upcoming university entrance examinations.

I hated this idea and disagreed that the activities I was doing were a waste of time but I must have felt there was some truth to it. When I started teaching at the university level, I banned games completely from my classroom.  I was afraid that if I had tried to use them, the class would be perceived by students as frivolous.  I had also seen the complete loss of control over a class during a game with students using the time to chat in Japanese with their friends rather than even try to play the game I had set up.  So in my university classes, I spent quite a bit of time lecturing or presenting information in a purposefully dry way so as to drive home the seriousness of the class.  It only helped to drive up my absences and lull the students to sleep. To bring back some form of balance, I have been using pair activities with slower pacing so as to give the class a lighter atmosphere that allows for a bit of socializing and learning while still retaining overall control of the class.

Despite my best efforts to loosen up, I still have an aversion to games in my classroom or anything that smacks of “fun time” with no obvious purpose. I find myself (over) explaining to students why I want them to do an activity, trying to justify it in their minds as well as their own.  I know other teachers at my workplace, however, do successfully use games on a regular basis in their classrooms.  I think it’s a comfort level issue with many teachers and their approach to gaming in the class hints a little at their overall teaching philosophy.  I also think it’s entirely possible to have a good class where you can have fun and learn something even without doing a game.  I recently tried an activity in class where students had to work in pairs, using their smartphones to find the locations of certain World Heritage Sites and write down facts about them.  Although my students were working quietly in pairs and there was no competitive element to the activity, I could see they were enjoying it.  I’ve started to realize that I’ve probably overthought the issue of “having fun” in a classroom through games when instead it was all about enjoyment – and there are many pathways to get there if you’re willing to try new things in class.