Then and Now: Game Based Learning

Part three of a three part series (Click here for Part I and Part II):  How I implemented Games in my first year of teaching with minimal tech and how I do it now in a 1:1 environment. This small little series will look at different learning strategies, how I implemented them year 1 of teaching (with minimal technology) and year 12 teaching (with 1:1) and reflect on what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Year 1, Grade 9 Geography at St. Joseph Academy in Brownsville, Texas, 2001

When I first started teaching, games were used for reviewing information or when I needed to fill time. I had three favorite games.

Game 1: 

  • Arrange the seats in a circle. Place a trashcan with a basketball hoop attached in the middle of the circle. Create two teams.
  • Review questions were asked. Everyone had to write the answer on individual whiteboards*. If it was your turn and you got the answer right, then you got to shoot a paper ball into the hoop. Bonus points for your team if you got the basket and we could vary the distance of the basket for more points.
Game 2  
  • Write country names on a cheap plastic ball with a permanent marker. Pass the ball around. Whichever country your right thumb landed on, you had to name the capital. Also works for states. 

Game 3 (AKA Poor Teacher’s Cranium

  • Split class into teams. (Boys vs. Girls is always intense) 
  • Students come up with terms for the other team to guess.
  • Roll a dice. If you roll an even, you play pictionary . If you roll an odd you play charades. If Poor Teacher is feeling a little bit generous, clay could be added and you have to mold the term out of play-doh. 

These games are no better or no worse than any other review game ever invented. Days we played were incredibly fun. I still use them sometimes to review. And the winning really didn’t matter. I didn’t offer bonus points on tests or really celebrate the winner. It was basic review, a bit of fun before the test, and a way to relax.  Games weren’t part of the curriculum…it was an add-on. 

Year 12, Grade 6-9 Humanities at Yokohama International School,  Yokohama, Japan 2012

Gamification is something that I’m starting to think about. I am not a gamer, unless you count playing Bejewelled on the train. My sister refuses to play Wii with me, because I am terrible. Gaming is not in my wheelhouse. I also realize games don’t have to be online, but what tech can do really does enhance the gaming experience and it’s a space that many of my students already occupy.  And the more I learn about it, the more intrigued I am about the opportunities.

  • Using games to teach content and concepts: I used Ayiti: The Cost of Life Game when I started the development unit in my grade 9 MYP Humanities class**.  The game challenges its players to manage a rural family of five in Haiti over four years and keep them healthy, get them educated, and help them survive. This was the only way I discussed problems with development leading into the microfinancing project. My kids got into it***. They were playing on the train, taking screenshots of high scores, and complaining about how difficult it is to survive with three kids in Haiti and whether they should sacrifice education so that someone could farm. This game is not low-level knowledge test, but one that require abstract thinking, decision making skills and vision. There are so many of these games out there for humanities teachers and I need to do more of it.
  • Use games to assess learning: At YIS, lead by Alex, we’re considering bringing Minecraft**** into grade 6 and 7. The idea is that they could create worlds in Minecraft that reflect what they are learning in class. So for instance, they could build a town that is pre-Industrial Revolution and post-Industrial Revolution and demonstrate an understanding of the impact of that change overtime. I’m equally excited that Frank, the grade 7 Design Tech teacher, may work with us on a cross-curricular unit. We’d assess humanities concepts, he’d assess the design process, and it’ll all happen in a virtual world my kids enjoy exploring.
  • Using games to teach real-world skills.

 “I’m a gamer. I’m used to failing.” Jane McGonigal, interview in the New York Times

My most consistent worry about my students is that they lack a stick-to-it attitude towards their work. They pick the first three sites on a google search. They ask for tech help before they try to fix it themselves. They pick the easy questions when they get the choice. If something is too hard, I feel they give up too easily. Games give students the opportunities to fail AND want them to reboot and try again. If games create a sense of resiliency in my students, then I’m all of for it. Add in collaboration skills, problem solving skills, and analytical thinking, then I think it’s worth me exploring.

  • Using games to change to world. My goal as an educator is to help my students become change agents. Jane McGonigal has created games that “challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace, for example”.  That sounds pretty major.


I still have things I need to consider before I more formally introduce games into my teaching.  How do I make it more meaningful than than the games First-Year-Teacher-Me played? How do I track and monitor student progress and understanding? Can I achieve the same goals by implementing simulations that actually have my kids move around a room instead of being on a screen? What games actually challenge my students?  Am I actually taking something that students love and ruining it by making it educational*****?  One of the reasons I have so many questions is that I don’t play games and I think it’s hard for me to teach with something if I haven’t tried it out and messed around with it myself.

I try not to work during my summer breaks. Instead of a dreadful “to-do list” I have a “to-play list”.  So this summer I’m going to play some games, because I need to know if  gaming is something that will help my students learn, grown, create and change the world. 


*Whiteboards is a fancy term for what was shower siding bought at Home Depot and cut into one foot by one foot slates. You’re welcome.

** Grade 9 geography in the US: Memorize state capitals. Geography 9 in MYP, discuss issues of sustainable development. No wonder I love teaching overseas.

*** I wish I would have encouraged them to blog about it. Lesson for me for next time.

***** Everyone (kids and teachers) who plays Minecraft seems enamored by it. I still don’t quite get it. However people I trust do “get it” and believe in its educational merit, so I’m excited to see what it can do.

*****Actually a real worry I have. The lines between school and play is so blurred now. What spaces to they have to just play independently without it being monitored and supervised by adults?


About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
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2 Responses to Then and Now: Game Based Learning

  1. This point really resonates with me: My most consistent worry about my students is that they lack a stick-to-it attitude towards their work. I think it could be a general statement, but I also think it relates to the lifestyle our students lead, and perhaps a little bit about where we’re currently living (although this is the exact opposite of how I’d describe Japanese society in a sentence. I like the idea of finding ways to make it ok to fail and try again, and to make the way we learn more “sticky”. I’m super excited about this project! Can’t wait to see where it will go!

  2. Hi, Rebecca. I enjoyed reading your post—I remember those “white boards” too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how using old school games in the classroom compares to the newer concept of gamification.

    I will be keeping an eye on your blog to hear how the Minecraft unit goes next year. This year for some reason, I had three fifth grade boys, in the same class that were spending 30-60 minutes a day on Minecraft. I had difficulty competing with the engagement that Minecraft had to offer these students. In the end, due to my lack of depth with Minecraft, I could only encourage the students to take screen shots from their Minecraft screens and incorporate them in our Japanese presentations whenever possible. I look forward to learning more about how to meaningfully integrate Minecraft into the curriculum.

    While you might have already seen these, here are a few Japanese related Minecraft constructions.
    My Minecraft House (Japanese style)

    Minecraft Time-lapse: Byodo-In Temple

    Have a great summer!

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