Engagement and Motivation (Including Your Own): Dave Burgess Explains How to Teach Like a Pirate

One of the main forms of teacher training is the Super Teacher approach. Accomplished teachers give demonstrations for large groups of regular human beings who happen to also work as teachers, in order to inspire, demonstrate certain activities, or otherwise give hints for improved performance. It is a common approach and one that, as an EFL teacher trainer I can tell you, rarely seems effective.

Why? Because Super Teachers tend to be viewed as super humans with super specific skills that cannot be replicated by mere mortals: “It works for them, but I could never do that / or my students would never do that.” And because in a Super Teacher demonstration, we usually see a cherry-picked activity and have to imagine the process that led to it. It appears as a magic trick of an activity, the development of which is similarly left to the imagination.

book cover

Well, Dave Burgess is a Super Teacher, and a magician BTW, and he is well aware of these problems. I first heard about his “high-energy, interactive, and entertaining” workshops and presentations (take a look at this one, for an example), before ordering his wonderful, inspiring, little rollick of a book, Teach Like a Pirate. Yes, it did elicit the usual Super Teacher response, but it is much much more. The section on asking questions to explore your own creativity and maximize engagement and learning is worth…well, gold. He stresses (and then later shows) that ideas come from “the process of asking the right types of questions and then actively seeking answers.” It is a process that all teachers should be asking for everything they do and every activity they introduce. And the unit that focuses on presentation skills (“the critical element most professional development seminars and training materials miss”) is spot on. It is amazing to me that so many teachers do not see themselves as presenters, even though they stand in front of people most of the day, trying to get and keep their attention.

The book is roughly in three parts. The first one explains some general concepts and approaches and gives some examples. He talks about passion, enthusiasm, rapport, positioning material, the necessity of enthusiasm. It is a mishmash of theory and experience and made me nod politely in places and enthusiastically in others. The second part is the practical meat and potatoes of the book. He goes through a series of hooks that can be used to increase engagement. The beauty of this is not only in the nice collection of hooks, but in the way they are presented first as a series of questions: How can I gain an advantage or increase interest by presenting this material out of sequence? is the first of three questions for The Backwards Hook, for example. These questions engage you, allow you think up what you are already doing, and explore some things you might not have thought about. You’ll find many things you can’t or wouldn’t try, especially as a teacher in Japan who goes into the students’ room: food in the classroom, some of the decorations and costumes, and (in my case) dancing, crafts, and singing. But most could and should work, depending on how you envision them. A lot of them are pure gamification. Although Mr. Burgess is a history teacher, his ideas and the questions he poses are sufficiently adaptable for language teaching as well. The last part is clearly meant to be motivational, to push you to take the leap and try some of these things in your own classrooms now that your are fired up a little. As he says on his blog: Inspiration without implementation is a waste.

He has a website and a blog, but I did not really find them worth spending time at. It might be better to follow him on Twitter or watch some of his presentations on Youtube. Or better yet, keep pondering the questions in the book. The answers you come up with will decide the ultimate value of this Super Teacher’s book.

EFL Gamification 8: HabitRPG and Other Web-based Services


Gameful design is something that is perhaps better learned from experience than from PPT slides or blog posts. When we start an explanation with motivation (as I did here) or habits (as I did here), it is hard to understand what gameful design should “look like” when it is deployed. One thing in particular, the use of narrative, needs to be seen to be understood. In another earlier post (here), I described what was for me a kind of epiphenal moment in my quest to understand how gameful learning  can help with motivation and learning. It came when I was reading Jane McGonigal’s book. After I read that, I felt like I finally had a workable example of the power of narrative in creating a game from something else entirely. I called the post Mechanics because for me the process of laying a narrative onto a something that would become a game equaled the process of “gamification.” Points and badges are often thought of as the mechanics of gamification, but if we think about making something more gamelike–that is playful, meaningful, delightful–then points and badges are really part of the  details that need to be worked out later. It is the narrative structure, in combination with a workable feedback system (here’s where your points and badges come in) that makes the experience meaningfully gamelike.

In order to see this idea of applying a narrative onto something different, I offer for your consideration today a few examples. You can try them out with your friends or family or by yourself to see how they feel. Of course, it is not the same as laying a narrative on top of an EFL class, but you’ll get an idea of what it is like to work toward your goals within the details of a story. All of these sites require registration and regular participation, so make sure you have the time and the stomach for a month of “play.” And notice first of all how each of these sites works on the same basic idea–nudging you to complete YOUR goals.

HabitRPG is a site to help you to establish positive habits for life, for work, and for study. It’s really a flexible task and time management tool that has a gamelike design. You use the system by deciding your daily routines and one-time to-dos. You also set your rewards and monitor your habits. It sounds a little confusing, but it is actually a fairly easy interface. The system is incredibly flexible and could be used as easily with training learning strategies as with developing good diet routines. Here is a blog article by Nik Peachey detailing how to use it. It includes his assessment of the tool.

Similar to HabitRPG but with more of a focus on healthy eating and living is Health Month. It uses a simple, friendly user interface at which you play turns (set goals and assess yourself). They also nudge you regularly with e-mail messages. It’s a nice system that works on a monthly basis; but it’s not really focused on study goals, and not really flexible beyond its health and lifestyle focus. Within those areas, however, it is quite a nice experience. I tried it to help me diet and reduce my internet time.

For more of a fitness emphasis, try Fitocracy. Its purpose is fitness motivation and it uses a combination of awareness-raising, goal-setting, habit-forming, and social media to get you to understand fitness better, plan your own fitness routines, and network or challenge other Fitocraccy players. It works for all levels of fitness they say, but unless you are fairly familiar with some exercises and terminology, you may find it a little difficult to understand what you should do. Plus the system is quite large with many functions. I found it a little  hard just to get orientated. But if you are serious about fitness, you will probably find this site meets your needs.

Nextup is Chore Wars. Chore Wars is designed for families or couples or any people  living together who find it hard to get the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning done regularly. The solution? Gamification. Each person chooses his/her chores and competes with others in completing more of them more efficiently. The narrative, as the name suggests is a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons world of adventures (chores) and quests (chores again). As you complete chores, your elf or wizard or dwarf earns XPs (experience points). If you are really using the system well,  you can introduce your own creatively-named rewards into the play.

But let’s not forget the world of education. World of Classcraft is a site offering the service of listing and tracking your class within a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons theme. According to their website, they are “an educational augmented-reality multiplayer role-playing game.” You really have to be familiar with the play and progression in World of Warcraft to understand what you have to do here. For that reason alone, it may be a little daunting. Recently, they tried (unsuccessfully) gain funding for a free web-based version of the game. If you just want to check it out, there is a nice video at the site showing how a teacher (actually the game developer) uses it in his physics classes.

And finally, in one of the more unusual (and looser) applications of gamification for learning, there is the Teacher Development game. It is a loose collection of online videos and tutorials showing how to teach EFL better. You can find it here.

And that’s it. If you really want to understand gamified learning, trying out any one of these sites can help you learn a little. As you play, however, keep thinking about what works and doesn’t work for you. Is the system accessible? What is the narrative? Does it make any difference? And finally, most importantly: Does the system make it easy reach your goals? How exactly does it do this?

This post is just one of a series of posts on gamification. The others are here:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards
  2. Triggers, Ability, and Motivation
  3. Mechanics
  4. The Downside and How to Avoid It
  5. The Whole Hog?
  6. ARGs
  7. Required Reading


Image fragment from Les Portes by Paul Evans http://unsplash.s3.amazonaws.com/batch%208/les-portes.jpg




EFL Gamification 6: ARGs

This is the 6th post in a series exploring the use of gamification (to use the buzzword) or gameful design (to more accurately represent my intentions) in the teaching of English as a foreign language, particularly in secondary school settings. Earlier posts  dealt with (1) motivation, (2) habits, (3) mechanics, (4) pitfalls and misunderstandings, and (5) turning your course into a game. This post will look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, and for a definition I’d like to turn to Whitton & Moseley from their 2012 book, Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching, the best resource I’ve found for designing this type of game activity:

“ARGs use narrative, community and problem-solving in a game that unfolds over weeks and months, combining the real and virtual worlds. The players work together to solve the puzzles and develop the story themselves through [the interaction with and/or] the creation of artifacts, both digital and real world, and the mythologies that surround the game” (pg. 143).

ARGs are often interactive narratives in the form of a mystery/treasure hunt (see National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code if you are somehow unfamiliar with the genre) and players work together to unravel  clues or collect items. The AR part is that the story is just a story, while the clues are placed in the real world in the form of e-mails, websites, letters, maps, audio tapes, graffiti, or just about anything that can convey information. In the book, Ms. Whitton discusses what ARGs are and  how to set one up, and mentions several examples. She  describes her involvement with the ARGOSI project, the design and creation of an ARG at a UK university. The purpose was to help new students get used to an unfamiliar new city, the campus, and the library system. In terms of process, they first decided on the learning outcomes they wanted to aim for and considered the limitations they had to work with (time, money, etc.); then they drew up the initial concept for the game and sketched out a narrative; next they designed the challenges (puzzles) and created the artifacts (letters, maps, etc.). In some ways, the process is similar to Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter (covered in this earlier post–you’ll need to scroll down a little). Both are organized by narrative. If you have a gripping story, the rest should flow along. For SuperBetter, the story was personal recovery. It is obviously important to the player. For an ARG, the artifacts (and how they fit in the story) will probably be key.

And for language learning, the artifacts are what you’ll be directing your learners towards and so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions as you plan and create them:

  1. Are they intrinsically interesting? Do they have good ‘face validity’? Do they fit with your narrative?
  2. Are they accessible/doable for your learners in terms of level?
  3. Is feedback built into each task so learners know when they are successful?
  4. Are they in the right mode (reading, listening) for the skills you want learners to practice?
  5. Are they accessible to learners inside and outside of class (web-based, snail-mailed, copied)?
  6. Will interaction with them result in learning? How? And how will you know?
  7. Where will learners interact with artifacts? Will it be homework or group exploration and/or discussion in class?
If we think about the content we need students to learn, it shouldn’t be hard to design the artifacts. You can use textbook language (or even the textbook itself) for puzzles. You can make recordings on cassette tapes  to make clues seem quaint or dated (and so students need to use school players!), and you can create letters and websites using target language that students will need to read and re-read. The only limitations are your creativity and the amount of time you can dedicate to the project. For the sake of keeping appearances real, it will really help if you have a graphics designer or some graphic design skills yourself. But with a few tools (MS Word, for word processing and image processing, Audacity for sound recording and editing, WordPress.org, Edublogs.org or some other blogging service), you should be able to make most of the artifacts you want. Ms. Whitton’s team based their story on the blog of a fictional character. The other artifacts they made and used are available from the ARGOSI website (click the Resources tab). And you can see the blog and game itself at violaquest.org (if/when it is available again–it wasn’t at the time of writing). Other ARGs can also be found online and they may provide you with some ideas for creating your own. One similar to the ARGOSI project, Who Is Herring Hale?, is presented as a case study here. And another ARG, created to raise money for cancer research, can be found here. For something more language-focused, please take a look at the work of Paul Driver, an educational designer based in Portugal. At his website you can find information about his Spywalk game and other “location-based urban games.” There are links to academic presentations and articles and Youtube videos showing the game in action.


An important point to consider is learning outcomes. The ARGOSI project had a fairly short and straightforward list. The designers wanted the new students to learn a little more about Manchester and how to use the university library. As a language teacher, you’ll need to decide where to put your focus. ARGs are probably best for introducing learners to content or behaviors. In order to maintain the illusion, novelty and fun of the game, you can’t really add drills or require repetitions of behavior, though if you get the challenge level right, you can get learners to repeatedly interact with the text. In contrast with a game like SuperBetter which could be used to establish positive learning habits, an ARG might best be used to have learners explore resources and language. Of course, you could in your design of artifacts steer learners to all sorts of practice–intensive listening or reading, skimming or scanning, dealing with different accents or genres, etc.). How you design the artifacts and how learners will interact with them in the game are really crucial for pedagogic success. This is especially tricky given that you are trying to balance the narrative and fun with the pedagogy. It all comes down to design in the end. Without a clever story and appropriate-challenge-level artifacts, the game won’t fly; without pedagogically sound tasks with appropriate language level/skill focus/strategy focus, the game won’t teach.


To finish here, I’d like to add a few cautionary words (summarizing from Ms. Whitton’s unit on ARGs from her book). You really need to test out your games. Get feedback from everyone you can and plan on tweaking it for all eternity. You also need to have realistic expectations. All of the ARGs mentioned above–funded, backed by unis, and made by teams of talented professionals–were underutilized (to be polite). The Herring Hale game saw only 42 people play even one task and only 12 participants finish the game. Violaquest was similarly ignored en masse. As a teacher you have a captive audience. You’ll likely need to build participation into your course instead of relying on the Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come). That said, one of the most successful (highly rated and attempted by the largest numbers of people) activities/tasks were those that were designed for action–planning and taking pictures and uploading them, for example. These tasks drew more interest, engaged more participants, and got them to collaborate and share more. Make sure you include some of these; don’t just make your ARG a series of puzzles. This may beg the question of whether you want to aim for more of a game with project-based elements or project-based activities with more game-like elements…


This leads to the final question of whether it is worth it. If done right, I guarantee  you’ll give your learners an education experience they’ll never forget. But it’ll cost ya. It will take a lot of planning and production time.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog


Photo Credit: Detail from Look at the Map, or Play Some Checkers by Dr. Roy Winkelman,  at http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/look-at-the-map-or-play-some-checkers.html

EFL Gamification 5: The Whole Hog?

This is the fifth post on gamification in EFL. The first was an attempt to understand motivation. The second considered changing specific behaviors. The third looked at mechanics, or the structure needed to make game-based learning engaging. The fourth was about some of the problems that can happen when gamification (especially just pointsification–the casual addition of points and other game elements) is put to use for manipulative purposes without enough attention to the underlying motivations and personalities of learners. This post will look at  turning your whole class into a game, or put more metaphorically, going the whole hog. There are really two ways of doing this. One is to design the course as a simulation. That means to create an immersive and realistic environment that requires learners to play a role. It  is a kind of extreme content-based form of learning and requires considerable flexibility with curriculum content and probably works best if you are aiming learners at a specific career. An example might be simulating planning and opening a store for business students. The instructor would then need to create all the websites, documents, etc. needed to support the simulation. The second, and the one I’ll focus on in this post, involves re-imagining the present content using a role-playing game structure. Traditional content (including textbooks and teaching modules) are used, but a wider variety of tasks and assignments are used. Game genre details and a  narrative structure are employed to make the progression through the material seem more like a game. This is more possible in institutional EFL courses, but still comes with a few conditions, the first being your familiarity with the genre of games.

Are you a gamer? I’m not talking about a little Angry Birds while commuting. I mean, have you spent huge blocks of your life immersed in World of Warcraft or Halo or The Sims or one of the many other places/pastimes where gamers spend time? Ask yourself how much you know about games and how much you really play. If you play 13 hours a week, you can consider yourself only an average member of the gamer sector of society; if you are up to 20 hours a week, you are officially “hard-core”; and if you can somehow cut your working, sleeping, and social hours down far enough to manage 45 hours a week, you are (by any account) “extreme”  (McGonigal, 2011, p. 3). Of course, you don’t need to be a fanatic about games to turn your classroom into a game, but you do need a certain amount of familiarity with the genre. You will need rather intimate knowledge of the structure and pacing of games–the way items are acquired, the way quests go down, the types of challenges, the way characters interact, the reward systems, etc.–and you will need to be able to retool your classroom and syllabus in a way that mimics this. You will need to know the lingo: guilds, raids, wipes, (point) farming, experience points (XP), etc.  Unsure of yourself? Back away from this idea now. But if you are a gamer and game lover, it is an option to embrace whole hoggedly. I speak as a researcher/observer here. I have not done this myself and so I will be only reporting on what I have read, pointing you to other sources and egging you to go out there and give it your best shot if you are interested.

There is, admittedly, something of a square peg in a round hole fit when taking the immersive multimedia world of a game and using it for a brick ‘n mortar face-to-face classroom. First of all, students are not sitting at computers interacting with audio/visual/narratives made by teams of talented professionals with an average production cost of $10 million (Whitton, 2010, in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching). But if everyone is up for a bit of pretending, or suspension of disbelief, it can go well. Both Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken, and Lee Sheldon in The Multiplayer Classroom believe that game culture is second nature for the students in our classes. They have grown up playing games and are very comfortable with the way games engineer player progression. Ms. McGonigal states that the members of the gamer generation have more problems with reality–including most school work–because it lacks interesting challenge, the satisfying work, promise of success, and actionable feedback that is usually the norm. In other words, most courses aren’t engaging for many learners and they are likely to be up for a change. Or as Mr. Sheldon optimistically puts it, “we have yet to discover a class that cannot be taught in this way” [as a game] (pg. 9).

Mr. Sheldon’s book is the best resource I’ve been able to find for designing coursework as a game. Indeed, that is the sub-title of the book. In addition to being a trial-and-error account of his attempts to do this with his own university game design courses, the book contains several case studies by different teachers, the closest one among them to a high school language course was Denishia Buchanan’s  high school biology class. If you really have no idea where to begin, this book and in particular Ms. Buchanan’s case history, will help you out.

Mr. Sheldon will help you understand basic class organization and his unique (to the world of institutionalized education) approach to grading. By setting up coursework as a series of group and individual challenges and by creating a point system where students start with “0” and have to climb up through the levels towards their final grades, he manages (albeit not without a lot of tweaking) to make a grading system that mimics that of game progression.

In addition to just renaming groups as guilds and assignment as quests, both these teachers managed to make use of narrative to envelope the course and allowed learners considerable choice and flexibility. Narrative pulls the players/learners forward, making the course a story–their story; it creates in learners the desire to achieve hero goals; and it keeps everyone looking forward to what will happen next (Dansky, 2007). For this to work, however, there must be challenging but achievable things to do. Adoption of an inquiry-based curriculum that provides both variety and flexibility and lets the learners put their creativity to work seems a prerequisite. The balance, however,  of choice and rigorous requirements seems to be a tricky one to manage (Whitton, 2012).

And even if you get that right, you’ll need to spend some time designing to facilitate greater interaction. Though it is often touted as a great feature of online games, the  forming of groups to combine strengths to overcome particularly difficult challenges is not as common as game proponents might suggest. Ducheneaut (2006) studied World of Warcraft and found that players only begin to start grouping at the latter stages of game play at higher levels of the game, after they have found what they cannot do alone. That means that you can’t expect learners to collaborate on their own; you’ll have to design your activities so that group sharing is facilitated. Mr. Sheldon, for example, required both individual and group assignments during his courses, a practical way of ensuring both accountability and collaboration.

But finally, even if you get everything right, you still might not make everyone happy. There is considerable research that suggests that not all students like to experience courses as games, especially as one of those role-playing types of games that can can sound so hokey to the non-fan (Bekebrede et al., 2011).

Well, there you go. It’s obviously a challenge. It’ll take a lot of time to design all the quests and restructure the flow of lessons. But reading the stories of teachers who have done it can help you see the attraction of going whole hog with turning your course into a game. If you think you might like a little help with creating the structure and rule details, there is now a web service to help you. Called World of Classcraft, it provides roles, progressions, and rules of acquiring experience points or taking damage hit points.

And finally, you can read about an attempt to turn a language course into a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) in Europe in Connolly, Stansfield, and Hainey (2011) linked below.

June 2013 Update: I recently came across a blog post from a teacher who had tried to gamify her class (as in turn the classroom experience into something closer to that of a game). Titled How I Turned My Classroom into a ‘Living Video Game’ and Saw Achievement Soar, the post explains (frustratingly) briefly how Ms Joli Barker, a second year elementary school teacher used technology (Skype, QR codes, GoAnimate, Voki, and Xtranormal), project-based learning narratives (?), and some  international exchanges to boost the scores of her students quite dramatically. She created a  basic structure of tasks and levels, challenges, and avatars, and re-tooled her assessment in a way that matches video games (similar to Mr. Sheldon). Without a little more detail, it is hard to picture what classes were really like, but the idea is very interesting and the results impressive.

Another June, 2013 update: Here is a geography class taught as a zombie survival game.


Bekebede, G., Warmelink, H., and Mayer, I. (2011). Reviewing the need for gaming in education to accommodate the net generation. Computers & Education, 57/2, 1521-1529.

Connolly, T. M., Stansfield, M., & Hainey, T. (2011). An alternate reality game for language learning: ARGuing for multilingual motivation. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1389-1415. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.009

Dansky, R. (2007). Introduction to game narrative. In C.M. Bateman (ed.) Game writing: Narrative skills for video games. Boston, MA: Charles River Media.

Whitton, N. (2012). Good game design is good learning design. In N. Whitton and A. Moseley (eds.) Using games to enhance learning and teaching. New York: Routledge.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 6: ARGs


Doing What Must Be Done

Motivation–what the hell is it exactly? Well, it can be explained in terms of identity, general predispositions, or opinions toward certain groups of people or the languages associated with them. All of these are important, I guess. All of them develop over time. They are what they are when the learners seat themselves in our classes at the beginning of term and what we do has a big effect on how they change and develop over time. But in the world I inhabit, motivation has one very clear and specific meaning that is usually danced around and around. When teachers ask about how to motivate their learners, they are usually talking about one thing and one thing only.

Stated baldly: how can I get learners to do things they have to do in my class? Implied in this is that the “something” is necessary but not enjoyable. And there is probably a lot of it.

If we unpack this a little, it seems that there are a few things going on. First, the activities are necessary but they are not pleasurable. The learners know they are not pleasurable. They may or may not have accepted that they are necessary. The activities may be effective but the improvement is probably not palpable. And learners usually have no idea of how to see if they are progressing. Part of the problem is the nature of language learning, the skill-knowledge blend of learning content that must be “mastered”. And EFL learning contexts are often really similar to how war was once described: long periods of boredom punctuated by brief periods of intense activity. That is, you learn and you learn and you learn, and then one day you get a chance to use what you learn in an authentic, and/or possibly high-stakes situation. There’s a dearth of meaningful, ongoing feedback. It’s partly the nature of the EFL beast, though with the internet it doesn’t have to be (but that’s another post…). But it is also partly the problem of the type of feedback learners get. Let’s assume little Hanako gets a 60 on her term-final test after studying from April to July, as many kids apparently do in jr and sr high English classes. How is she supposed to think about this? I can English? I can’t English? Face it, the feedback inspires no confidence, and it always carries with it a huge wet blanket of doubt.

Now, let’s go back to the classroom where the summer homework has just  been distributed and students are looking at it for the first time. Their summer task is to write out all the vocabulary in their supplemental vocabulary book, several times, and get ready for a great big vocabulary test in September. Can you feel the enthusiasm in the room? No,  you most certainly can’t.

How, ask the teachers, can I motivate my students?

In materials design, you want to work on two things: use psychology to up the fragile motivation kids are feeling, and remove the friction perception they have regarding what they must do. Here is the principle represented visually, from Joshua Porter, via Stephen Anderson:

The sad reality is that at for any given assignment/activity, “there is a tug of war unfolding in our head, determining whether or not we are willing to put in the effort,” says Jonah Lehrer in a recent article. Some people are just better at putting in the effort, even in the face of wispy rewards and seemingly pointless tasks (and  higher level schools are probably filled with them). But some people are not good at it. They need to be convinced, or enticed.

Motivating learners is an ongoing process. It involves, in my opinion, giving them success, challenging their abilities/skills in meaningful and delightful ways, and getting their understanding and acceptance of the whole process. Game designers understand this. Play any successful game for a few hours and watch yourself acquire skills. In an earlier post I talked about the brilliance of Plants Vs. Zombies–the staggered introduction of new challenges, the options for personalization, and the endless delightful quirks of items, challenges, names, etc. When something has a laborious amount of work attached to it, it must be perceived by learners as really useful, or  really fun.

So back to our classroom. How do you motivate students? Don’t give them boring assignments of questionable value. Give them something  meaningful and at least a little entertaining, something they can personalize, something they can see if they have accomplished or not. Design the assignment so that the workload is not immediately obvious and daunting–something they can run with, not something they can slam into.


Plants vs. Zombies vs. EFL Lesson Design

Every so often, I download a game into our family iPad for my kids to play. I do it as a kind of reward. But that’s not all. You see, I actually want my kids to play games–for a number of reasons that I have terrible difficulty articulating effectively to my wife. I began to form this opinion a few years ago when I read James Paul Gee’s book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. In it he builds a strong case for the ability of games to facilitate thinking and learning and literacy (36 ways, to be specific). Another book, Don’t  Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning, by Marc Prensky, helped push along the heresy. It is a little over the top and a lot less academic, but it does score a few points. And other books, articles, websites, and TED talks byJane McGonigal and others have mostly convinced me that games not only can be good, but generally are pretty good. But I seem to be in the minority in the world of education and parents.

The common wisdom is that games are bad. This develops no doubt from the news media’s habit of mentioning games in connection with ax murders, tragic accidents and lives gone astray. And from the fear parents have that time on games is time not on homework, homework that is–that must be–more important because it was assigned by a professional teacher at an authorized institution. Well, I can’t deny that those teachers have the power to give my kids grades, and that they are doing what they probably think is best, carrying on with ineffective relics of teaching culture in the face of bored learners and growing mountains of exciting alternatives, but I would like everyone to stop for a moment and question their choice of materials and their approach. The world of games has evolved into a highly-disciplined,  focused field. Game designers  know what they are doing, make no mistake. They generally know it better–and do it better–than teachers, who should be (but often aren’t) professional learning designers. Ah, you are skeptical, I sense. Well, a serious look at the structure and techniques used in good games can make you believe, I believe. In fact, I want teachers to look at and learn from games, and that is really the purpose of this post.

On a recent trip to Miyazaki, I found myself with only my wi-fi-only iPad; and the only wi-fi available was  in the lobby, but it was only for Softbank subscribers. The local Tully’s offered loads of wi-fi services for subscribers to any of those services, which I am not. So I was beyond the internet and had a few hours to kill. In desperation, I turned to the games in the ipad and tapped one on. Suddenly I found myself the middle of one of my daughter’s unfinished games, and in the midst of a lawn full of attacking zombies and valiantly defending plants. There was nothing to do but take control and fight. So I did. And I lost, overrun by zombies, really soon.

But as I played, several of the design features of the game began to stand out. The game both tickled me and taught me how to play at the same time. I realized that there are elements here that should be built into EFL lessons–or  any lessons. Play the game for a while and see if you don’t agree.

The first point is delight. The game delights with its quirkiness. The narrator/guide/salesman is a weird Lemony Snicket sort of fellow who coaches you along and eggs  you on. He tells you how much you are going to hate the next level, for example. He provides some entertainment for the procedural parts of the game. It’s a joke within a joke, a wink from the creators of the game. The heroes of the action are the plants, and that in itself is funny. The last defense of the humans in the house are the plants on the lawn, bravely battling waves of brain-eating zombies. The variety of looks and powers of the plants is pure Pokemon–an ever-expanding jungle of creative diversity. And the zombies! They could have been just grey-brown rotting figures closing in from the left, but again, the designers chose to delight with visual gags and zombie powers that  surprise and entertain and challenge. Seeing them is fun, beating them is fun, and even being beaten by them is fun.

The second point is personalization. Before each zombie attack, you choose the assortment of plants you are going to battle with. This allows you to play with tactical options and see the results. You can play with your favorites, you can develop your own styles of defending or attacking and you can can control your destiny.

The last point I want to make regards flow, and this is where the game has the most to teach us. If you are not familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s theory, you can experience a wonderful example of it here. You are given a manageable challenge and you experience success right off the bat, even if it is just a little. But it pulls you in. You roll up your sleeves and tap yourself back into the game right away. That balance of challenge and success is really the genius of this game (and most other successful games). When you don’t get it right, you usually almost do. You can learn from your mistakes and you get a chance to do it again. It makes you think metacognitively and gives you immediate feedback. Designing for flow is tricky business, but it is essential for extended learner engagement. Julie Dirksen gives a really nice presentation on it here.

EFL learners are often not any more motivated to learn the language than people are to tap madly at a glass screen for several hours on end. The motivation they are feeling is often the same kind of motivation people feel about having children–yeah, it might be nice someday, somehow…The immediate motivation they are going to feel, I want to say, comes from the way that you make people do things. Once the game is in their hands or the butts are in the classroom seats, the nature of the experience takes over. I didn’t play Plants vs Zombies because I wanted to get good at playing it, but that is what happened because of good game design.

Here is a presentation explaining the success of the game and how the game was developed. It is a great story. The summary of principles at the end are worth considering. They can  be applied to EFL lesson design , I think. They also show the work and craft that game designers put into “lessons”. You’ll have to search long and hard to find the equivalent in EFL text or materials design.


Playful and Powerful: Stephen Anderson Makes You Think About Seductive Interaction Design

I found Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences (New Riders, 2011) through a post on Julie Dirkson’s blog, where she introduced a set of cards that Mr. Anderson had developed to help designers in a pinch. Each card contains a design feature (he calls them Mental Notes) you can use to influence users. You flip a card over and think about whether you can incorporate that feature into your design. Perhaps piquing curiosity will help, one card suggests. Or maybe the bystander effect could help you. I went to Mr Anderson’s website to find out more and saw this book. Assuming that the cards would be contained in the book–they aren’t, though you do get an introduction and a few examples, and if you shake the content of the book up and reorganize it, you can probably replicate the content of the cards–I ordered the book. And even though I didn’t get the cards, I’m really glad I ordered the book.

The metaphor used to organize the content is a relationship–a couple at the beginning of a relationship flirting and playing as they try to get to know each other better. There is a dollop of uncertainty and a dash of excitement. It is a social process and a psychological process. It is a process of discovery played out with heightened attention to detail. It is a two-way process and each side has goals and needs and is trying to influence and motivate the other to do something. If we remove the sexual part of the metaphor–and Mr Anderson carefully does in the first unit–it is a good metaphor for advertisers attempting to influence buyers, web designers trying to influence clickers, and teachers trying to influence learners. It also highlights the focus in the book on those first few critical stages in engagement with content. The first interaction with a website is Mr. Anderson’s particular area of expertise, but much of what he says can be applied to any interaction with something new, particularly in educational settings. Indeed, he begins his book with a design feature that got people to use the stairs more at a train station in Sweden.

The book is primarily aimed at web interaction designers, but there is enough educational psychology here to keep any language teacher busy in the 25 chapters arranged in 4 sections. Teachers are not used to thinking of our (mostly) captive learners as needing to be “seduced” into doing what they need to do to learn a language, but the reality is that learners in classrooms vote with their attentional resources and behaviors as much as fickle web surfers do with their mouse clicks. This book will help you to make lessons more fun and effective, with an emphasis on fun because lessons will not be so effective if they are not fun first.

This book is not going to give you an overview of how to construct a complete user/learner experience (for that see my review of Julie Dirksen’s book). It is more about tweaking the details–though they are often fundamental details–to make things more attractive and effective. But it is a very thorough look at the details, with thought-provoking ideas. His section on gamification is particularly good, for example, and you will come away with a more complete understanding of the concept, I’m sure. In many other parts of the book, he deals pretty much with particulars that he has found important, using lots of examples and drawing on his rich experience.

It’s a fun ride, brilliant in many places, and my mind lit up with ideas as I read it. I just wish it had a deck of those cards attached to the back cover…

Make Yourself Smarter?

An article in the New York Times on the weekend called Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, mentioned the double n-back training that is being done to increase working memory (formerly known as short-term memory–Susan Gathercole can fill you in if you need an update on working memory). It’s a little long, but quite interesting, and a little controversial, too, it seems, as I found when I visited Larry Ferlazzo’s ESL/EFL Website of the Day blog, where he had posted his comments on this article (which he didn’t like) and another on exercise and the brain (which he did like–link below). I had stumbled across the double n-back a few months ago when I was doing a little research into working memory and the phonological loop, even trying the online version, which I recommend before you read the Times article or Larry Ferlazzo’s critique of it, or even before you read any further into this post.

Here it is, at a site somewhat appropriately labelled Soak Your Head. Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait……….

The Times article is more balanced than Mr Ferlazzo’s comments lead you to believe. The author, Dan Hurley (currently writing a book on intelligence, BTW), reports mostly on the finding of Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, in a paper from 2008. They used the double n-back system to train people to improve their working memory and found improvements in their fluid intelligence as well. The claim that you can improve performance on a specific memory task doing it 25 minutes a day for between 12 to 17 weeks is not controversial. The claim that you can improve general working memory across the board is somewhat controversial. The claim that you can improve intelligence–reasoning, abstract thought, problem-solving intelligence–well, that causes a lot of controversy (see Randall Engle’s Attention and Working Memory Lab site for a truckload of blowback).

Many people agree that working memory capacity, especially phonological loop capacity, is critical to good performance at school, particularly for foreign language learning (see some of the many articles by Gathercole). But whether sitting at a computer screen for 25 minutes a day for what amounts to a semester of colored square and audio letter memory practice in increasing levels of difficulty (remember the last one; remember the one before the last one; remember the one 3 stimuli back) can help you, is questionable. It might help your working memory, but it is without doubt the closest thing to torture that I have ever seen in education. A person might elect to do it themselves, but I would not want to be responsible for imposing it on people, particularly at this time when researchers are finding different things.

But in Chicago they are doing it in a school system. And Torkel Klingberg, who invented the technique that  later modified and did their experiments with, well, he formed a learning company and later sold it to Pearson Education. And all sorts of other researchers are moving ahead with similar projects to stretch working memory and improve intelligence. A lot of people apparently see something there… A lot of people also like the work done by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, according to the article. They just seem to want to move in a slower and less grandiose way forward I guess.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Adrian Owen, is quoted as saying the following after his attempts to replicate J and B’s study:

No evidence was found for transfer to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related”

Yup, it’s the transfer problem again. You learn what you do in the way that you do it. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather my students be doing for 25 intensely focused minutes per day for 17 weeks. But I have to admit, I really wouldn’t mind if they went home and instead of playing Temple Run for two hours, they played for one and a half hours after they spent half and hour “exercising” their working memories. Or better yet, do aerobics for half and hour, stretch working memory with the double n-back for half an hour, and then run in the game like a madman for the last hour, with malignant demonic monkeys forever hot on your heels.

Jan. 2014 Update: Here is a Guardian article on the same topic. It covers some of the same ground (gaming, computer-based brain training), but also electrical stimulation of the brain, specifically the Fo.us headset. The article ends with advice to take Andrea Kuszewski’s advice and just try to challenge yourself more.

June 2017 Update: This study found no effect when training adults. Here is the reference: Clark CM, Lawlor-Savage L, Goghari VM (2017) Working memory training in healthy young adults: Support for the null from a randomized comparison to active and passive control groups. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177707. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177707



Steven Thorne at IATEFL 2012: New Media and Language Learning

Steven Thorne’s March 22 plenary is available online (thanks to the British Council).

Here’s the description:

Awareness, appropriacy, and living language use

There has been a great deal of research and pedagogical experimentation relating to technology use within second and foreign language (L2) education. This presentation broadens the scope of inquiry to examine entirely out-of-school L2 digital engagement in environments such as social media, fan fiction communities, and online gaming. The presentation argues first for the efficacy of a usage-based model of second language development and the benefits of explicitly addressing genre awareness and pragmatic appropriateness as core assets in the language learning process. I then present a pedagogical framework designed to increase the relevance of instructed L2 education through the structured juxtaposition of digital vernaculars with more formal ‘classroom’ genres of language use, an approach I and colleagues are calling bridging activities (e.g., Thorne & Reinhardt, 2008). In conclusion, an argument is made for the continued exploration of new media genres of language use and their selective inclusion into instructed L2 pedagogy, processes, and curricula.

Here’s the link.

For me, there’s a lot to like in this presentation. The world of the web provides great (language) learning opportunities for both social and linguistic reasons. Everything is in place: technology, access, digital skills. Bridging learners from the classroom into the real world should be part of any language program, anywhere. For that to happen, real questions about the  “content” of courses needs to happen, and teachers themselves must break out of a very established culture of what language teaching and learning is and what it is for.







Jesse Schell: Games and Authenticity: When Games Invade Real Life


In the previous post I wrote about Jane McGonigal and her views on how gamers can save the world. Well, Jesse Schell, game designer, teacher, and author, has a slightly different take on the increasingly prominent role that games will play in the future in a spring 2010  DICE talk (available here via TED). He draws a line from the recent spate of reality-fudging games like the Wii Fit, Guitar Hero, and Mafia Wars (indeed he takes Facebook games as his starting point) to a future where game-like point systems are in place for everything from brushing your teeth longer to taking public transport to getting to work on time.

Schell’s vision of the future seems more plausible than McGonigal’s and in that sense it is more frightening. But both actually  see their visions as ultimately leading to improvements–using gamer energy and ideas to solve problems in the case of McGonigal, and using increased monitoring by sensors to improve personal behavior in the case of Schell. Interesting ideas and interesting optimism. Of course, one might succumb to a moment of skepticism and point out the many weapons that were meant to end wars or gifts to mankind that ended up causing more problems than they helped, or refer people to the darker versions of state and/or corporate control contained in books such as 1984. But it’s probably better to be optimistic about the future since we (collectively) don’t exactly have the option of whether to go there or not.