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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Do you grow out of playful learning?


A selection of my language games


"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (The Bible,  1 Corinthians 13.1,2).

This post was inspired by a #creativeHE post by Will Haywood published on his blog yesterday. Will raised the point that perhaps once we move to teaching in a different context (e.g. from school to HE) games and play in learning get a little left behind. I have been teaching French in HE for 15 years, with students who are often highly motivated, some on accelerated courses where they have to make lots of progress in a very short time. I need them to listen and imitate sounds accurately, using their voices with a new rhythm and tuning their ear to a new musicality, they have to make new connections quickly in order to acquire lots of new vocabulary in order to react appropriately in a language and culture that is not their own. Not unlike the process we all went through as little children. I try to make it fun. I describe an early lesson activity here where we play with the sounds we make, a playful ethos is crucial to the success of this activity. 

The toybox shot above shows a range of the games I use in class. Word cards and dice allow us to practice tenses and rhyming sounds, board games and role play help us to exercise our memory and strengthen the links between individual lexical items and meaning. The inflatable globe has lots of uses and often flies around the room to reduce focus on how silly you may feel making strange utterances in front of your classmates. There are lots of commercially made games too but I have found that the best ones are the ones that meet a specific learning outcome. More important than the game itself though is the establishing of a playful, non threatening ethos to play together. I remember a particularly exciting CD-ROM game I used in schools which was called Granville. It was an early form of SIM (simulation) where students had to navigate a small town in France (virtually of course) with a small set of coins, type the correct language into the computer in order to get what they needed (buying food, tickets etc) and then get back to base before time ran out. This was back in the 1980s though so it was not terribly sophisticated by today's game standards. You could even pay to hire a bike but you had to return it (using the correct words) or face penalties. The sort of thing you could do in a virtual world these days as long as you don't mind learning to move "in world" first. You can easily spend 20 minutes below the sea or stuck in a tree somewhere!

There's always a tension when you are designing learning using playful techniques - or serious games - between the time invested and the learning achieved. As a practitioner you get to judge this with experience and feedback from your students. So, do we need games less as we get older? I don't think so, indeed I would argue that we need permission to connect with our inner child even more if we are to free up the headspace we need to learn effectively. The biblical quote above may be misleading. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (if my rusty memories of bible study are correct) because he wanted to remind them of their responsibilities towards each other. As teachers we have a responsibility to support effective learning, that may well include the wise choice of a suitable playful activity or two. Laughter has a place in a classroom as it does in life. When we are older we can also reflect and analyse how the experience can help us break out of our learning ruts. Asking learners to create a game can be a really useful way of challenging assumptions about learning too. Play can support teaching excellence even in Higher Education.