Let the games begin!

Anyone who has ever been asked to delay dinner for a few minutes so someone can get to the next level of a computer game knows how very compelling those games can be.  Imagine teaching a class that engenders that kind of dedication.  Apparently we can offer classes that capture the excitement and motivation of computer games, just by incorporating the rules of game design into our teaching practice.

It’s called “game-based learning” or “gamification” and in 2012, it was targeted by the NMC Horizon Report as one of the key trends in education.  The report identifies why computer games are so appealing to players of all ages and genders.   Players have “…the feeling of working towards a goal; the possibility of attaining spectacular successes; the ability to problem solve, collaborate with others and socialize…” (Johnson, Adams & Cummins, 2012, p. 18)  As described, game-based learning aligns pretty closely with we have learned about the requirements of adult learners.    Add digital literacy to the mix, and you have a strong focus on skills that will prepare our students for success.

What does this mean to an ESL classroom?  Are English language teachers now required to add “games master” and “game designer” to their collection of instructional roles?  To a certain extent, possibly – but it’s important to look at the needs of an individual class, and the individuals in the class, to determine how gamification would be of most benefit.  Young, international students probably already play games on their own time.  Because they may have grown up playing computer games, they may find the pace of face-to-face learning in a classroom environment slow and not supportive of the way they need to learn.  Immigrant students, and older students  may not have the digital native’s short attention spans or familiarity with computers, but they can still benefit from the principles of game-based learning.

In his TED talk on “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley”, Sir Ken Robinson likens the education our children are getting to doing “low-grade clerical work”. (Robinson, 2013) He’s talking about children specifically, but he is also referring to a passive learning experience, which can be detrimental to the education of children and adults alike.

In her article, “Gamification for ESL Teachers”, Deborah Healey describes gamification as, “…using game elements in non-game contexts to motivate and persuade.”  (Healey, 2013)  Healey notes that ESL teachers have long-used communicative activities (or games) in their practice, and asserts that studying the components that make computer-based games so compelling will serve to “…improve learner motivation, collaboration, and willingness to spend time practicing.” (Healey, 2013) Healey goes on to give some examples of what ESL teachers routinely do in the classroom and how they fit into gaming mechanics. For example, what a game designer might call, “Community Collaboration” is known as “group work” in an ESL classroom.  “Points” are what we might call “grades”.   The gaming element “Cascading Information Theory” is the component of curriculum design where the instructor starts with a measureable outcome and works backwards, breaking the information to be learned into manageable chunks.  (Healey, 2013)

The trend towards gamification of curricula reflects an effort to make learning more meaningful to our students.   Other trends echo this sentiment.  For example, the move to portfolio-based language assessment gives students the opportunity to test their language proficiency in a holistic manner, and in many cases to have some choice in the tasks they select for their portfolio.

In the end, there’s no need for all of us to learn code and design our own games.  Even the most technology-resistant can incorporate game mechanics and use some games that are already available on the internet.  “Free Rice” is an example of a vocabulary game any student can play, in class or in their own time.  Players correctly guess the definitions of words, and each correct answer puts ten grains of rice into a bowl.  The rice is donated by the game provider.  Students can compete with each other and themselves for higher level scores and the number of bowls of rice they donate.  I’m going to use Free Rice levels as an accomplishment to be fulfilled in an assessment portfolio.

Someone who is not a teacher may think that these two important trends will lead to a more relaxing time for instructors.  On the contrary, they just indicate a further move away from the teacher-centered classroom and towards a curriculum and teaching methodology that is more relevant to our students’ learning needs and preferences.

Healey, D. (2013). Gamification for EL Teachers. Tesol.org. Retrieved 28 November 2015, from http://www.tesol.org/connect/tesol-resource-center/search-details/teaching-tips/2013/11/19/gamification-for-el-teachers

Johnson, L., Adams, S., & Cummins, M. (2012). Game-Based Learning. The New Media Consortium. Retrieved 28 November 2015, from http://www.nmc.org/pdf/2012-horizon-report-HE.pdf

Robinson, K. (2013). How to escape education’s death valley. Ted.com. Retrieved 28 November 2015, from http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_how_to_escape_education_s_death_valley

Here is a link to Free Rice


Changing roles of teachers in the ESL Classroom

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I attended an in-house professional development workshop given by a colleague who had been teaching for decades.  She was very excited about the idea she was presenting to us, and had spent a long time researching and preparing.  In the middle of it all, it dawned on me that she was talking about student-centered learning, something that was a given when I took my TESOL training at VCC.

In light of what I have been studying in the PIDP 3100 program, and recent research on topics such as the flipped classroom and gamification, I have to reflect on my own trajectory as an instructor.  Have I kept up to date enough?  Are my own ideas about teaching outdated and in desperate need of an overhaul?  Have I become a dinosaur?   Bearing in mind that a teacher’s most important function is to support the learning of students, it follows that there should be continuous exploration and examination of how best to do this.  Part of this reflection would be a good, hard look at the instructor’s role in the classroom and how it is impacted by changing technology and industry best practices.

The greatest change in the fifteen-plus years that I have been an ESL instructor has had to do with technology.  Because this PIDP 3100 program has been fully on-line, I have been continuously challenged with new ways of being a student.  Navigating the Moodle platform and creating this blog have taken me outside my comfort zone as a digital tourist.   This is a reflection of a new reality in classrooms these days.  In Canada, at least, students and instructors alike must be prepared to embrace technology.

For ESL teachers, this will be felt more acutely in classrooms where instructors are dealing with immigrants and older students.  International students generally come prepared with their electronic devices and a better knowledge of how to navigate them that I likely ever would.  For immigrant students, however, introducing the basics of digital literacy is often necessary, and must be incorporated into an ESL program.  When I first started teaching, the school where I worked had a computer lab, but there was no internet.  At that time, “literacy” had a very specific meaning and was related to pre-beginner level students who were not literate in their first language.  The word literacy has now been expanded to include digital and cultural literacy, and as ESL instructors, our role has expanded to introduce or enhance our students’ skills so they can participate in an increasingly tech-dependent classroom.

According to an article by A. Syam Choudbury, traditionally a teacher is viewed as someone who is, “…the organizer and controller of all classroom activities, but also as the evaluator of the learner’s performance.”  (Choudbury, 2011)  In 2015, this is still true, but the meaning of each word and the method by which these tasks are fulfilled has changed.  The teacher is still responsible for planning the curriculum and activities, but “control” of a classroom has shifted.  While an instructor may set a task to be in line with expected outcomes of a course, it is more likely that students will contribute and collaborate, often reaching their own conclusions instead of sitting passively.  The means by which students are assessed has changed to include more holistic assessments such as a portfolio in place of standardized tests.  Measurable outcomes are in the form of “can do” communication-based statements, rather than separate testing of reading, writing, speaking, grammar and listening.  In the late nineties, the “U-shaped” classroom was standard in most ESL classrooms, a throwback to more teacher-centered times.  Nowadays, most classrooms are configured into pods, to facilitate easy conversation and collaborative task-based learning.  The teacher’s role has shifted from “all knowing” to “facilitating”, encouraging students to make realizations on their own.

The ESL teacher is becoming what Vygotsky described as, “…a true facilitator of learning for the language learners, guiding them through dialogic communication as they co-construct knowledge with the teacher.”  (Vygotsky as cited by Choudbury, 2011)  In addition to being more in line with the ruling ideas behind andragogy, this better reflects the process by which we learn our first language.  Realizing this ideal in an ESL classroom is a work in progress, but one worth pursuing.