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19th March 2017

Learning through games

Classroom technology doesn’t improve learner attainment unless teachers have learned how to integrate subject content and innovative teaching strategies

Janet Thomson

As far back as the 1940s, The Walt Disney Company coined the term “edutainment” to refer to content that was both entertaining and educational.  Around the world and over decades we have seen many instances of edutainment, e.g. children’s television programmes such as Sesame Street or Takalani Sesame in South Africa, radio programmes such as Soul City and currently the very successful Nal’ibali multilingual early literacy programme.

The use of play for learning has been widely researched; the conclusion is that skilful teachers who use play can help learners to feel free, be creative, make their own choices and explore. Learning spaces that are designed for play make learners feel that their space is not rule-bound and has been designed for them, and more importantly, designed for them to succeed. Learners know that they are central to the play process; in play spaces there are opportunities for practising and improving and thus for building confidence, which is at the very heart of learning.

Foundational literacies

SchoolNet South Africa has been engaged in a three-year research project funded by the DG Murray Trust. The project is studying Learning Gains through Play in 10 primary schools, in two provinces, with two control schools. Using a bank of 20 tablets with carefully selected apps plus an Xbox Kinect with games, SchoolNet tracked two cohorts of grade R and grade one learners over three years measuring five foundational literacies: gross and fine motor skills; numeracy; visual literacy and oral English language acquisition. Teachers underwent professional development, focusing on teaching strategies to integrate the technologies in a learner-centred, learning-through-play approach, while still fulfilling CAPS (National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement) requirements timeously.

Considerable learning gains were recorded in all foundational literacies in project schools compared to the control schools, but the most significant gains were in oral English, using [Stephen] Krashen’s theory of language acquisition. Simply having English as the language of the apps and the Kinect games impacted significantly to ease the transition from isiXhosa and isiZulu to English as the Language of Learning and Teaching in grade four.

Natural ability

The use of the educational version of Minecraft has been widely researched and has made an impact on many classrooms worldwide.  A University of Dundee study reported a range of positive findings, including an increased focus on active learning, and that learners displayed a natural ability to support and peer-tutor their classmates.  There was evidence of what many scholarly articles have called “shared early years pedagogy: values, beliefs and practices”.

Derek Robertson, based in the same institution, reported that he set his primary school learners the challenge of re-imagining, redesigning and then building in Minecraft what they thought the Dundee Waterfront should look like. The results proved that primary school learners were not only creative but could collaborate and plan practical projects with minimal supervision. The teacher who is uninvolved and sits at her desk while learners play games is thus wasting valuable teaching opportunities.


Gamification is a different concept from learning through play and from games-based learning, and should be distinguished from it. The definition of gamification is “the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts”. So, game elements can be used in the teaching of any subject, with or without technology. These elements usually consist of giving badges for achievement, having a leader board, game points for progress, and challenges for awarding, trading and gifting. External rewards versus intrinsic motivation fuel the debates around gamification.

Elements of gamification, particularly badging for teachers, have been built into the professional development strategies of recent SchoolNet projects with the objective that teachers would then apply gamification to their own teaching.

There are some topics that are too serious to trivialise by awarding points or badges.  In many cases these topics are covered by “serious” games or apps that have been specifically developed to teach a targeted skill, for example there are apps that teach “empathy” for those learners who struggle to understand the emotions of others.

Success stories

SchoolNet can testify that the introduction of classroom technology without profoundly changing pedagogies rarely achieves any improvement in learner attainment (in this context attainment means something has been done, gotten or achieved).  Computer literacy for teachers is ineffective because those teachers who learn about computers where the focus is on hardware, software or on apps (where today is about Word and tomorrow is Excel) rarely apply what they learnt effectively when using technology for teaching and learning in their classrooms.

The success stories are from those teachers who learn how to integrate subject content, technology and new teaching strategies.  Game-based learning is one such teaching strategy that teachers can readily adopt and one which has considerable positive impact on learning outcomes.

This article is part of a series on ‘digital learning in the classroom’ by SchoolNet. You can visit them on:





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