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Let’s Play! Transforming My Teaching to Match My Students

Miranda Salguero is a Dual Language Immersion Teacher at Sandburg Elementary, a 4k-5 elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin. The article below is a chapter from our eBook How to Teach with Games, featuring stories and resources from educators who are using games in the classroom. Miranda played an instrumental role in the creation of the eBook and developed engaging curriculum for Diffission. Download a preview of the curriculum at the end of her article and make sure to download our free How to Teach with Games eBook!

Children love to learn about new things, they memorize every name and fact about dinosaurs and can explain in amazing detail the intricacies of the world of Pokémon. The first day of kindergarten, students come to school thrilled and ready to learn. Yet, not long after that, we see students who are disengaged, who struggle with learning new content, or who seem reluctant to attempt new challenging tasks. When we see this, as educators, we have to wonder what we are doing to make learning into a chore rather than something children cannot wait to do.

Walking into the classroom every morning, I have many things in mind. I think about learning objectives, each student’s learning needs and how to address them, and most importantly, how I will engage students in this learning. Engagement comes first – no matter the skill of a teacher, knowledge of content, or intention to provide students with the highest quality education available to us – if we cannot engage students in learning, we have failed. I know how crucial it is that I successfully communicate to students my passion for the things we learn about, and that I show them how this learning is relevant in their own lives.

One way to achieve genuine engagement in students is to provide them with the opportunity to experiment with scenarios in which they can examine complex issues and interactions. Games provide a safe and interactive way for kids to engage with complex ideas, put themselves in others’ roles and analyze issues from a perspective different from their own. This gives game-based learning incredible potential to provide students with a reason to engage with difficult content and to feel invested in the outcome of their work. The game can provide a space in which students become protagonists and in which learning will give them the tools to succeed, both inside and outside the game.

I have used games in the classroom to engage students in understanding complex systems and the interactions between their parts, to introduce new topics that may be unfamiliar, and to experiment with mathematics before we begin a unit that might lead to misconceptions. Using games in the classroom is still a relatively new practice, and as such, educators who engage in it have to justify their thinking and implementation.

What about the standards?

We live in the era of standards and accountability, and while certainly the impact of these ideas has not been ideal in classrooms, the framework of the standards does provide unique opportunities to transform our practice. The Common Core Standards provide us with a framework of what to teach, but not how to teach it. This can be a powerful tool as we make instructional choices, such as utilizing games in the classroom. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to understand the standards and how they develop from grade to grade. This knowledge is also my best tool to justify my use of instructional strategies. My goal is to ensure that students know what our objective is, why we are using a game to address it, and how it is helping us achieve the grade level standard we are working towards. By being transparent with students and making them aware of what and why we are learning, they become co-creators in their learning, as well as advocates for the kinds of teaching that will help them learn.

When we make the standards and objectives transparent for students, we empower them to be active in our learning choices as well. I have found that when students know what the previous year’s standard is and where we were headed in our learning, they are eager to co-construct our learning. Students care about being able to demonstrate what they know because they understand the journey. This kind of transparency also makes it much easier for students to advocate for themselves and explain why a particular project will help them show their progress in a way that makes sense for them.

This kind of engagement is what we want from our future citizens. I would much rather have a student who disagrees with me and feels empowered to advocate for the learning and the work that will best help them achieve their goals. We are making a choice, as a class, to reward engagement over compliance, and students appreciate that kind of respect and agency.

Which games? When to use them?

One of the concerns I have heard from families is in regards to screen time. Parents and administrators worry that students will be placed in front of a screen and allowed to play games as their only learning experience. I have found that students who understand our goals as a class, as well as the purpose of what we do, can be the best at explaining how and why we choose to play games in the classroom. My students were able to explain to me and to parents why the game was successful in our class. “It really showed all of the relationships in the lake system,” said one of my 9-year-old students. “I liked how it helps you build arguments, just like persuasive writing,” said another; when explaining our use of Citizen Science in our 4th grade classroom as part of our unit on systems and relationships.

I make it my goal that students and families understand that the game provides us with an opportunity to learn better, rather than it being a way to make boring things more palatable. We want a genuine dialogue with students in which we explain why this approach will help us learn, and why it may be the best option for learning in some instances but not in others.

My thinking behind using a game is based on whether the game provides something that other learning experiences might not. In some cases I have found that games can illustrate complex relationships in ways that I could not otherwise provide. In other instances, I shy away from games that don’t enhance the students’ experience. If a game is providing only entertainment, or if it is a worksheet disguised as a game, I would much rather have students interact with each other than with a game. In this area, the way games are designed makes a huge difference. There are many games in the market that try to disguise traditional content into something more palatable. This kind of game design makes one crucial mistake – it underestimates our students. We do not need to trick students into learning. We need to remind them of what they already knew before they came to school; that learning is exciting, interesting, a social activity, and that the skills they learn at school apply to their lives and enable them to learn more about the things that are interesting to them.

Supporting All Students

Games can provide powerful opportunities for differentiation as well as collaboration among students. When our learning targets enable students to be successful in the game, they provide students with a strong motivation to work collaboratively as well as to persevere through challenging tasks. In many cases, we see students work much harder on a game-based task than we do on traditional school tasks because they can see incremental progress much more clearly and tangibly than they do in school tasks. A student can see that they are closer to passing a level than they were before, and that progress towards mastery of a task makes them want to keep trying.

I have seen game-based learning increase motivation, help students by providing multi-sensory cues, and encourage collaboration between students who want to help their peers do better in the game.

What have we learned?

The measure of everything we do is in what our students have learned. Has their understanding of the topic increased? Are they better able to solve problems and explain relationships? Most importantly, are they able to apply what they have learned to new situations? Can they explain why a process works?

Utilizing game-based learning in the classroom also means that our thinking about how students learn and most importantly, how they think, needs to shift. When I have used games in the classroom, I have found that students are not only engaged in their learning; they are invested in the process and they understand the importance of showing what they know and explaining it to others. Furthermore, students became more interested in how they would show what they had learned in ways that made sense for them. Providing choice in assessing students’ learnings not only showed me what students knew, it showed me a depth of understanding that a simple pencil and paper text could not have shown.

Impact on Students

Using game-based learning in my classroom has been a transformative journey, and one that I have only just begun. It has reminded me of what my role is as a teacher and it has helped me build a community of learners in which my students help me learn as much as I help them. Game-based learning is a powerful tool in the classroom, and as any new tool, it comes with its share of concern from parents and community members. It is important for everyone to understand that as a new tool, game-based learning does not become an educator’s only tool for engagement, but rather one to be used when it fits the learning we are trying to achieve. At the end of each day, my students’ learning, their engagement, and how they feel about coming to school is my best measure for whether I have done my job successfully. Game-based learning has helped me in all of these areas and I look forward to continuing to explore how it fits into our learning.

Diffission classroom activity


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