Learning from games

Who am I?

My name is John, I’m an English teacher, an MA student, a musician/composer, a part-time astronomer,  a philosopher that doesn’t exist, and a gamer. I have been teaching English for over ten years now, working with a wide range of students and levels. But as all teachers, I try to carve out my own identity within this context by integrating my interests and passions.

John the Gamer

I’ve always enjoyed games, especially computer games. It all started with the arcades in the early 80s, which fired my imagination. Because consoles and computers were quite expensive at the time, I used to draw out sprites and level designs on paper. I specifically remember creating a small book of ninjas with frame by frame animation in my French lessons. My French teacher often left the room crying due to our bad behaviour and disinterest in the subject. Anyway, since then I have owned most of the consoles from the Atari 2600 to the PS3. I have indulged less in PC/Mac games and online MUDs. My concern is that I’ll be sucked into a virtual world and neglect my real life. Despite this, I have signed up to the trial version of World of Warcraft and completed a few quests just to see what all the fuss is about. Anyway, I’ve recently decided that perhaps it’s time to apply my continuing gaming experience to teaching.

So, What’s in a game?

Six Features of Games

Jull, J. (2005, p.36) defines games using the following six features:

  • Rules
  • Variable, quantifiable outcomes
  • Valorisation of outcome
  • Player effort
  • Player attached to outcome
  • Negotiable consequences

Four Traits for Defining games

On the other hand, Jane McGonigal identifies only four defining traits for a definition of games. She sees these traits as ‘the defining features’ of games, with other features, such as narrative, simply enriching their qualities.

  • Goals
  • Rules
  • Feedback systems and
  • Voluntary participation

(McGonigal, J. 2012, p21).

Why should teachers be interested in the essence of games?

Over the last year or so, I’ve made various attempts to get students to engage in collaborative tasks/projects online. I set up wikis, blogging communities, edmodo/facebook groups and encouraged students to participate in creating knowledge and sharing ideas. To my dismay, I found that few students made time to engage in these activities. In contrast, it’s known that people are prepared to spend incredible amounts of time and energy engaging in complicated time-consuming video games. So, why is this? Is it points, challenge, fun? I mean, in education we have goals, feedback, voluntary participation (with adult learners), and certainly rules in the classroom. So, what’s so special about games?

Gee claims that video games are effective learning machines due to the fact that they have evolved in response to consumer demand (Gee, J. P. 2005). He believes that we can learn from their emergent design to redesign learning in education (ibid. 2005). He identifies some of the features of games that make them powerful learning machines.

Empowered Learners

  • Co-design
  • Customise
  • Identity
  • manipulation of distributed knowledge

Problem solving

  • Well-ordered problems
  • Pleasantly frustrating
  • Cycles of expertise
  • Information ‘on demand’ and ‘just in time’
  • Fish tanks
  • Sandboxes
  • Skills as strategies


  • System thinking
  • Meaning as action image

(ibid. 2005)

Power to the learner (and the teacher, please)

Language teachers have always had to design their lessons or courses, or at least adapt the material to their learners needs. This is usually informed by research into SLA, which often discusses issues of motivation, personalisation, learning in context etc. After reading Gee, it is clear that there is much to learn from good game design too. Especially in the department of empowering learners; with active agency, customisation, ownership, identity investment and the manipulation of tools for learning. This is an area that is especially relevant to teenage learners who are given a sense of control in video games that’s often lacking in school and other areas of their lives. I would also add that empowerment is essential for the well-being of teachers too (or almost any profession), enslaved by prescriptive syllabi, course books and/or misguided learning management systems.

The sound of inevitability

Gee admits that if we are to implement these positive features of games into our schools, significant restructuring will be needed (ibid. 2005). He also suggests that modern technology may even dictate this change, whether we like it or not. Despite this claim, Gee doesn’t go into the details of why this is. Perhaps he is speaking of the normalisation of web 2.0 technologies and the empowerment it might bring for students to choose what, how and when they study. Or the fact that learners will become ever less dependent on teachers to provide them with answers and look to games instead. Nevertheless, a video game doesn’t make itself (unless it’s procedurally generated), someone needs to make the game. Could this be a new role for teachers?  Even without teachers becoming fully-fledged game designers, Gee’s checklist for good learning is an interesting alternative view on how to design more engaging lessons and courses.


Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines. E-Learning, 2(1), 5. http://doi.org/10.2304/elea.2005.2.1.5

Juul, J. (2005). Half-real: video games between real rules and fictional worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McGonigal, J. (2012). Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Vintage.

Into the World of Research Week 1.1

What is to follow is basically a stream of consciousness as I panic over trying to do my first full scale research project. Any supportive comments and advice would be very much appreciated… 🙂 

Some Background

If you have been following this blog, you will know that I am currently in the second year of an MA in Digital Technologies for Language Learning. The first year was amazing and has totally transformed my approach to teaching. Unfortunately, it might take a while for the world of education to catch up with the affordances these technologies and web 2.0 offer. Who knows? Perhaps, something new will come along like web 3.0, web 4.0… and completely change the ideas I have constructed in my mind. All I know is that it doesn’t feel right to just ignore all these possibilities and carry on with face-to-face lessons confined within four walls as if nothing is happening.

The Dissertation

And this brings me nicely to the task for this year. The dissertation! Somehow I have to digest everything documented in this blog and funnel out a topic. The problem is there have been so many themes running around that it’s difficult to pin something down. Looking back, some the issues/areas/theories that really stood out were Game Based Learning, Transmedia storytelling, Virtual Worlds, Identity, Anxiety, Prosumers, Social Constructivism vs input/output theories and Pedagogy 2.0. HELP!

The First Steps

Apparently, the first step when writing a dissertation is to narrow your ideas down to two. This can be based on a problem you have addressed in your practice, or to evaluate the effectiveness of something, or purely for the sake of knowledge. For me, I’d imagine it’s going to be a form of action research based on one/some of my classes, or perhaps even a case study. I could address an issue and see if the use of digital technologies can improve the situation. This is of course the most general idea I can possibly think of and is in no sense narrowing down a topic.

The Research Question

When the topic is finally decided I need to create a very specific research question. And then make it even more specific. Then brainstorm around it to see where it might go, read some related books, articles, papers, journals…  and assess how feasible the idea is. This will be my destination and my fate for the rest of the year.


Featured image

Retrieved on 29/09/16 from http://www.picserver.org/images/highway/phrases/research.jpg


New forms of storytelling 2

More thoughts on teaching flash fiction

After introducing students to flash fiction, how can you help them write their own?

The first thing I would do is discuss the differences between, say novels and short stories and the considerations writers need to take in each. For example, one area might be eliminating unnecessary information or making sure details push the plot forward. Perhaps a simple wiki page could be used for students to systematically delete these excess details in class and outside. This is not the most creative idea but I mention it to highlight the simple advantages of editing functions in digital environments over paper.

For more considerations, a quick google search brings up a whole variety of advice like this https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-how-to-write-flash-fiction or this http://flashfictiononline.com/main/2015/04/thirteen-tips-for-writing-flash-fiction/ , but quite a lot of it is conflicting. So rather than ask questions or impose one way of writing flash fiction, it might be a nice idea to get your students to come up with advice for each other. Students could do some research online and come to their own conclusions, or perhaps create their own top ten tips. This could be followed by a pyramid discussion, where groups combine and reduce the number of tips until they agree on a top 5 list.

From choose your own adventure to interactive fiction

In my last post I used the terms ‘choose your own adventure’ and ‘interactive fiction’ interchangeably, but now I’ve come to realise that a distinction needs to be made. As far as I understand it, choose your own adventure stories have their roots in children’s books in the early eighties. At the end of each page or chapter the reader is presented with choices and corresponding page numbers. Interactive fiction (IF), on the other hand, comes from text based digital environments where the reader/player uses commands to explore and solve puzzles.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a piece of interactive fiction called Playspent and the way it uses point of view to develop empathy in the reader/player. I recently tried another story called Lifeline, which has a similar effect. In Lifeline you receive messages from a stranded astronaut and help him/her survive. Messages arrive over a couple of days to add to the realism and you engage in a kind of conversation as the astronaut describes the situations. This approach allows for more linguistic complexity than the standard present tense 2nd person perspective of most adventure stories. The astronaut acts as narrator and can therefore vary tenses to reveal backstory elements. But what I really like is the way you interact with the story and the character, giving advice or choosing supportive or motivational comments. I killed the astronaut a couple of times before getting to a happy ending. https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/lifeline…/id982354972?mt=8





New forms of storytelling

After working on a creative writing project recently, there have been two text types related to technology that have caught my attention; Flash fiction and choose your own adventure/interactive story telling.

Flash fiction

The thing I like about flash fiction is the fact that your students can read from their phones. This means it’s easy to use in class and might get them reading extensively. I tried some out ad hoc last week by pulling out the titles and doing a prediction exercise, then getting them to read different stories and report on what they had read and if they liked it. Now, I’ve asked them to write their own flash fiction and post it on our class wiki. Not quite sure where it will go but I will definitely get them to engage in peer-support/guidance to upgrade their language and develop effective creative writing techniques.


Interactive fiction

However, my main love is interactive stories, which I have already experimented with a bit with my classes. I love the idea of developing elements of collaborative gamification in my lessons through these types of text. Earlier this year, I got my students to storyboard on a poster and provide multiple paths with little paper flaps hiding the next part. They then tried their stories out on other groups. It could have easily been done with ppts, youtube videos using audio/video though.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.16.54.png

Image source: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7415/10675839115_b265ea8369_b.jpg

There are lots of examples online where you are given a picture and you have to suggest what the character should do, the author then writes accordingly, or interactive stories where you can add your own ending. My original interest came from an activity I did at primary school withZORK. After playing the text based adventure game we mapped out the story and made a ‘real’ physical representation of the game with students acting as narrators at the story branches/nodes. Pretty cool for the 80s! Then last year I came across the Chad mat and rob youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/chadmattandrob. However, there isn’t much linguistic complexity going on here, and a lot of shooting. It’s funny though. Then I was introduced to this blog https://digitalalternatives.wordpress.com/ which led me to http://playspent.org/ . Spent combines story telling and gamification with social-awareness and fund raising. I suppose this is a type of serious gaming experience. I found the story quite depressing and got a bit freaked out when it suggested I ask a friend on Facebook for financial help. However, it’s quite exciting to see the way storytelling, gaming and social media can be combined as the image below depicts.


Developing linguistically

In this story you are the main character, which is interesting and possibly engaging, but it does limit most of the narrative to present tense. In some ways the use of multi-media for storytelling might limit linguistic expression  but it can also help with generating ideas and getting the ball rolling. I would like to try first using images, and then taking them away. This would help students get over the initial stumbling block then force(encourage) them to develop their text linguistically to make up for the subsequent lack of visuals. They could then re-introduce the images, of course. Just getting over writer’s block or starting is difficult for a lot of writers, perhaps even more in L2, so anything that can help here is well worth it, even if it does initially act as a crutch and lead to more simplistic language. Once the bare bones of the story are there you can analyse the different aspects and gradually up-grade it through peer/teacher-support/guidance.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 12.10.02.png


Featured image: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4150/4965977998_44b2e8af64.jpg

Adventure time Image source: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7415/10675839115_b265ea8369_b.jpg

Threshold concepts

Threshold concepts

The main idea of threshold concepts in regards to course design is that there is a set of ‘fundamental concepts’ in each discipline that are essential to mastering the subject (Cousin, G. 2006). It is argued that the reason some students do better than others is due to the fact that they have mastered these ‘key concepts’. In my context, this means that instead of cramming your syllabus with every lexical item, grammatical structure and array of sub-skills, you can design your course around a handful of threshold concepts. I have used the words ‘fundamental’ and ‘key’ above but these words do not adequately describe the concept of threshold concepts, so how do you define them?

The five characteristics of threshold concepts

  1. Transformative – ‘ontological as well as conceptual shift’.
  2. Irreversible – ‘once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it’.
  3. Integrative – ‘exposes the hidden interrelatedness of a phenomenon’.
  4. Bounded – The concept has borders with other concepts.
  5. Troublesome – May involve a reversal of intuitive understandings.

Cousin, G (2006)

Here is a slide share that goes into more detail

Threshold concepts in my studies

In this MA I think the PLE was and still might be a threshold concept for me. Initially it seemed quite straight forward, just a collection of tools for creating and receiving information but then it all went a bit weird and I started thinking about the self illusion, a collective PLE and even an anti-capitalistic revolution in education!

As a teacher

In my teaching I have perhaps been through a variety of threshold concepts but the one that has changed the way I teach, for the moment,  is the idea of Dogme teaching, as explained in the book Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scot Thornbury. This approach has transformed and revitalised my lessons and despite its name, it fits in quite well with the affordances of digital technologies.

For my students

I’ve been thinking about threshold concepts with my learners and I’m finding it quite difficult to pin them down. Specific areas of grammar or lexis are simply not threshold concepts as they do not meet the five criteria above. I see learner agency, autonomy, collaboration, openness, peer correction, identity creation, lifelong learning and ownership amongst other things as important, so perhaps it is here that I might find the thresholds I’d like my learners to cross. This would mean that some kind of learner training or constructive alignment would need to take place within the structure of a course to help students develop an understanding of these concepts . In theory, this would then enable the students to become successful language learners without having to cover everything in a traditional item-by-item syllabus. From another perspective, it is also suggested that without an understanding of the threshold concepts in a discipline students are effectively blocked from making significant progress.


Should we really structure our courses around threshold concepts?

However, looking into threshold concepts a bit more I can see some major problems with them. The first issue is related to my statement about Dogme teaching being a threshold concept and changing my perspective. It might well be for me but it is most definitely not a lot of EFL teachers, and neither should it be. If courses are designed around threshold concepts, who is to decide which doorway to take? How can I say that my way of viewing the world is the right one? There isn’t just one doorway to understanding something and there shouldn’t be if we want to encourage the creation of personal understandings. So one danger of designing courses around threshold concepts, or any fixed standard of knowledge, is that what might be a threshold for one student may not be for another and vice versa. Our decision to focus on a particular set of thresholds might be a waste of time for some of our students or even restrict their approach to learning. Cousin (2006) does briefly touch on the importance of providing room for questioning concepts and research-based approaches but I feel that this needs to be addressed in more detail if we are to potentially impose ways of seeing on our students.


Is anyone else disturbed by the idea of course design based on threshold concepts?

These issues set me off on a search for some criticism of threshold concepts, it wasn’t easy to find but this is what I found…

Here is an interesting critical blog on threshold concepts in information literacy.


The point I think is worth considering is point 4, which criticises the idea that threshold concepts encourage the promotion of unchanging core beliefs in a discipline, thus inhibiting critical thinking.

Here is another more detailed paper which takes a more critical view of threshold concepts. The author accepts that some interesting findings have come out of research into threshold concepts but questions the need for the concept itself, the vague definitions, lack of science behind it and the undesirable consequences on learning and pedagogy.



Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet 17, pp 1-5.

Land et al. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation. In Rust C. (ed) Improving Students Learning: Diversity and Inclusivity. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 53-64.


  1. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/88/80/d0/8880d0e094c18461fcaa656228600a50.jpg
  2. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d3/Old_Church_of_St_Andrew_bricked_up_door.jpg/319px-Old_Church_of_St_Andrew_bricked_up_door.jpg
  3. http://beforeitsnews.com/mediadrop/uploads/2014/10/f50652d17d1e01790f6d5d5b249ee2ffdf63febc.png



Flipped classroom


I will look at my level 8 group C2.1 as this is the group I am designing my course for at the moment. Looking through the course book I thought it would be nice to flip the listening sections but unless I make copies of the CDs, get the students to buy the CDs or publish them illegally on YouTube this is not feasible. I therefore decided to flip a reading lesson.

The normal class procedure (following the book) would be the following:

  1. Speaking; SS discuss some questions related to the topic (health) of the reading while T monitors. the main aim of this is to engage students and activate schemata for the reading.
  2. SS read for gist; a general question is proposed and a time limit imposed. (not included in the book)
  3. SS read for detail; in this case complete an exam task, matching 4 narrators to paraphrased comments on there opinion or experience.
  4. Students discuss a brief opinion of their views on the reading
  5. Some kind of language analysis takes place; in this case, choice of verb for a more emphatic effect.

The flipped version

At home

  1. Discussion; students respond to the discussion questions in a forum/Trello/Popplet/Edmodo post… backing up some of their ideas with links to videos/articles…
  2. Students read the text; first gist question and task at home.
  3. Students add opinions about the text to previous forum
  4. Students identify more emphatic verbs and complete exercises.

In class

  1. Students discuss the questions from the forum face to face. (more informed by research)
  2. (if not done before SS compare answers from reading)
  3. T provides answers to exercises
  4. SS divide into groups and create a health campaign leaflet/poster/presentation to encourage teenagers to keep fit and healthy and make use of emphatic verbs in the process.

Pros and cons


  • More time for productive activities in class.
  • Students often find it hard to concentrate on reading and exam tasks in class.
  • Students encouraged to read/watch authentic content and delve deeper into the topic.
  • Students might have more to say about the topic.
  • Students encouraged to communicate with each other in L2 between lessons.


  • Students might not have time or motivation to complete the tasks at home having a knock on effect on the lesson.
  • Students might have lost interest in the topic by the time the lesson starts.
  • Students might have forgot what the reading was about and why they chose certain options by the time they come to class. (could be avoid by providing answers online).
  • Students might not follow the gist before detail procedure.
  • SS might use dictionaries/google as they read and not infer meaning from context.
  • SS might take longer to read the text and not adequately prepare themselves for potential exams.

From my experience EFL teaching in private language schools it has never been about lectures, so the idea of recording a lecture seems a bit irrelevant to my context. The way I see the flipped classroom is giving the homework before the lesson rather than after it to prepare the students for the class. Is that considered flipped?

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/8615353879

Reflection on teaching EFL C2.1


Reflection on C2.1 EFL course

Below I will outline a course that I have taught several times over the last few years. I will look into the structure, content and approach that I took during the course and what role technology could play. I have tried to tag on or squeeze in some of the approaches to course design into this reflection.



Class profile

Level 8 C2.1 General English

No. of students: 14

Age: 18 to 60

Nationality: Monolingual, Italian

Needs: This is not an exam focussed course.

Book: Cambridge Objective Proficiency level C2.2 (the learners are at C2.1 level)


As the entire system in my specific context is based around Cambridge exams there is obviously a heavy influence from the set outcomes of CPE, which imposes a kind of backward design (Richards, J, C. 2013, p.5) on the course. On the one hand this is a restriction, but on the other it can be overcome by the assumption that students intending to take the exam the following year will need to be able to deal with almost any authentic content. I therefore see this level as an opportunity to develop real interests in authentic L2 content. The goal is not necessarily the CPE exam certificate but the wider goal that CPE exams test, native-like proficiency. This might imply that the learners are in a kind of liminal space (Cousin, G. 2006 pp.4-5) between an L1 and L2 identity. In order to cross this threshold (Land, R. et al. 2005, p.53), I try to encourage extensive reading of books and websites and extensive listening with films and YouTube videos. What is perhaps lacking is extensive content and identity creation in L2.

Some of the topics in the book and CPE exam are quite adult in nature and this can be difficult for younger adults with limited life experience. I therefore try to delve deeply into the various perspectives and conduct role plays around a particular topic to develop critical thinking skills and empathy. For this reason, it could be argued that there is an element of a Socially Critical Approach (Burbules, Nc Berk, Rupert 1999 p.1) built into my lessons. Here we might also observe that the processes of Accommodation and Assimilation (Kolb, 1993 p.141) are being facilitated as the students are required to reflect on opposing views and take on different roles. This means that I am effectively trying to teach the whole person inline with an Experiential Approach (Kolb, 1993 p.138). Due to the relatively small class sizes, it is easy to set up a variety of communicative tasks based around these topics. Peer correction/feedback and collaboration are an integral part of all lessons but less so outside class. This means that there is an element of Constructivism (Rovai, A. p80) in class as the students are constructing meaning through interaction with each other and the limited classroom environment.

Would technology support/enhance your approach?

Using a Wiki or Blogs would effectively enrich the environment from which students could construct meaning and create an online identity. The only issue would be motivating the students to do this in their free time. This could be achieved by getting the students to reflect on the online element of their learning at regular intervals. Ideally students will come to their own understanding of how they personally learn effectively given the flexibility to do so with a variety of web 2.0 tools. Wikis and blogs would also give the students a space to collaborate online and even influence the content of the face to face lessons. This could help me move towards a more Central Design or Natural Approach(Richards, J, C. 2013, p.16), using the wiki as a facilitating framework.

Image source: https://www.jfny.org/images/_root/lang/lang_course_all.jpg

Open Educational Resources

The tree of openness

Below is a Prezi I made to depict the relationship between creativity and openness in open educational resources (OERs) as described by Weller (2012).

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On our course we were asked to come up with a list of evaluation criteria for OERs. After discussing suitable criteria in our Moodle forum we came up with the following:

OER Evaluation Criteria

Clarity/comprehensibility of content, Opportunities for deeper learning, Accessibility, Usability, Alignment to standards, Adaptability of content, Relevance of content, Interactivity, Connectivity/linkage, Coherence, Originality, Content quality, Up-to-date content, Opportunities to contribute, Opportunities for peer critique/correction, Communication, Ease of navigation

In the end I came to the conclusion that any tools that allow you to aggregate resources related to the specific field you are interested in could be used as an OER. One example is Pinterest.

Pinterest as an OER


Clarity/comprehensibility of content

Content is clearly displayed, often as info graphics

Opportunities for deeper learning

You can learn about anything and find suggested connected ideas, as content can come from anywhere you can collect and mix up ideas.


You need to create an account if you want to save your searches, but this is free.

Alignment to standards, Adaptability of content, Relevance of content

You can search for the levels and age groups you want by adding key words. So you can align to the standards you want and find relevant content.


You can create your own boards and remix content, add your own…


You can connect with others by inviting collaborators to your boards via a social network.


Coherence is created by the way you group ideas

Originality, Content quality

Quality and originality is mixed but you can add or delete as you wish

up-to-date content

Content is always being updated

Opportunity to contribute, Opportunity for peer critique/correction, Communication

Anyone can contribute as content is sourced from the web.

When each pin is selected a comments feed pops up at the bottom, after this you can chosse to visit the original site

Ease of navigation

Very easy to use and navigate.



Weller, M. (2012) The openness-creativity cycle in education-A Perspective JIME