Paul Rogers, award-winning author of Little Bridge, explains how game-based learning helps teachers and students prepare for more productive and effective lessons. Join his webinar on 25 February 2016.
Effective learning happens when you are fully involved in what you are doing. Similarly, when you want to get the most out of reading a book or watching a film, giving it your full attention makes all the difference.
But when you are learning, this is even more important, because the activity is not just receptive, but makes all kinds of demands on your memory and your understanding. If your mind is wandering, if you're bored, if you lose interest, the learning will not be effective and your motivation will wane.
A class is made up of individuals with different needs
One of the biggest challenges for teachers is successfully teaching large groups of students, all of whom have different personalities, different competencies, and different learning preferences. The French writer, Montaigne, recognised the problem more than 430 years ago:
'When, according to our common practice, a teacher undertakes to school several minds of very different structure and capacity with the same lessons and the same measure of guidance, it is no wonder that, among a whole multitude of children, he scarcely finds two or three who derive any proper profit from their teaching.' (Montaigne, Essays, On the Education of Children).
Today's teachers face just the same difficulties; no matter how carefully we choose our activities, there will always be some students who find them too easy or too difficult, with the result that they become either frustrated or bored.
The advantages of flipped learning
Language students are often at their most passive during the presentation stage of a lesson, such as when we are introducing new vocabulary items. We employ – quite legitimately – all kinds of techniques and devices (flashcard games, for example) to overcome or disguise the fact that we are asking students to work with content that is banal, such as when memorising the words for furniture or food. It is also clear that some students will learn things much faster than others.
For all these reasons, it seems far more logical to allow students to work through this input phase in their own time, and at their own pace. In this way, they will all have a better chance of getting to grips with it.
This is the essence of flipped learning, which entails students tackling new material, to the best of their ability, on their own, before coming into the classroom. It allows teachers more time to support learners, guide personalised learning and set up collaborative tasks or games; it gives teachers the room to promote reasoning, problem-solving, and the expression of opinions – and all the many other things good teachers do anyway.
Of course, this input material needn't be a mere batch of vocabulary or phrases. Beyond the early steps in a language, it can be a dialogue, a text, a song, a puzzle – any number of things. But however simple or sophisticated it is, we need to provide some routine and challenge alongside it to give students a measure of whether they have assimilated it or not.
The more demanding or complex the input, the more support the individual will need. But this too can be built into the content we give learners.
Getting the content right
Many teachers are understandably concerned about the implications of flipped learning, in particular, how they are going to provide all the material that learners can use.
In a world of shorter concentration spans and high expectations of everything digital, students need a constant variety of activity types, rewards, surprises and humour to maintain their interest. Songs, poems or stories cannot be allowed to be second-rate just because they are there to help learners improve their English. They need to motivate learners and provide a real sense of progress.
Game-based learning can be highly motivating
Game-based learning (GBL), which combines subject matter with gameplay, is one means of achieving this. Rewards (such as stars or lives gained or lost) can be closely combined with immediate feedback on every choice made or answer given. This is much more effective than feedback at the end of the lesson or the following week, by which time any normal student has lost interest.
However, GBL needs to do much more than simply persuade the student that they are playing. It is a mistake to believe that students will only enjoy learning if it is presented as a game. Learning itself can be a pleasure when you're succeeding at it. The power of GBL is in the way it can push a student forward to the next level.
Without doubt, one of the most important cognitive processes is learning from your mistakes, and (let's face it) one of the predominant feelings in learning a language is that there are so many things to get wrong. So, one of the challenges is to motivate students to do something they would never normally do with a worksheet – to choose to do an activity again, in order to try to improve their performance.
Correcting your own mistakes is infinitely more valuable than having them retrospectively pointed out to you. Randomisation can ensure that a 'repeated' activity never feels the same. And the best part of all is that you can make all your mistakes in private.
A significant advantage of digital content over a worksheet or workbook is its ability to set every sentence and every dialogue in a visual context – in other words, to make it more like real life. Through graphics, and especially through video or animations, it can give the visual and auditory clues to support learners' understanding of the words themselves.
Getting students interested in the language for its own sake
But all these elements or strategies cannot in themselves ensure that the input material is interesting and motivating. We should ask the question: is the content merely a means to an end (i.e., learning English) or is it something students are interested in for its own sake?
This is the motivation behind CLIL (content and language integrated learning). No one in a language class, the argument goes, is going to be interested in hearing about someone's favourite music for the 15th time or giving yet another person directions to the station .
Yet, if they cannot do this kind of thing with absolute confidence, what's the use of learning more specialised and less common uses of English? The mundane, everyday topics – the language of ordinary life – is what any student first needs to master.
We don't get bored talking about these things in our own everyday lives, with our own friends – consider the success of social media. But that is precisely because it is a part of our lives. Hearing a stranger saying what they want for dinner is not interesting. It's different when it's your friend. A digital resource has the power to generate a realistic and engaging context so that ‘ordinary’ interactions don’t become boring.
Technology can bring all these ideas together, and in doing so, offer new solutions to long-recognised problems. As Montaigne wrote of the teacher and student in the 16th century:
'Sometimes he should prepare the way for him, sometimes let him do so for himself. I would not have him start everything and do all the talking.' (Montaigne, Essays, On the Education of Children).