UKEdMag: Game On: Engaging Challenging Students by @bunsenlearner

“Alright Y10, what ‘F’ is the type of paper you might use to separate sand and water?” My high needs group look around the room for a clue on one of the topic posters dotted around the room. A solitary hand goes up. “Erm… fermometer…?”

“No, good guess though. Anyone else? I’ll give you a clue, it rhymes with schmilter.”

“Er…filter?”

“Well done! Danny gets to roll the dice. It’s a 5. Ohhh, down a snake! Unlucky!”

This article originally appeared in Issue 50 of the UKEdMagazine. Click here to freely view.

Fifteen minutes earlier I’d walked into the classroom to teach my first lesson in my new school. All sixty- five students have a statement of special educational needs, most are for behaviour. I’d just made the jump from mainstream to SEN teaching. I’d opened the classroom door, walked into the room and been faced with six students, four of whom were well over six feet tall.

“Who’s this effing mug? You’re not effing teaching us Science. Eff off.”

“Actually, I wasn’t going to teach you today, I just wanted to chill out, get to know you, maybe play a daft game of snakes and ladders?”

The students looked at each other. “No effing writing though?”

“No, I might pick your brains about a few things, but yeah just a daft game…”

How do you get students who aren’t used to learning to, well… learn?

In the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of students with special needs – particularly SEMH (social, emotional and mental health issues) placed in small units where they attend and complete some basic literacy/ numeracy until they can be placed in school full-time. When they finally get a place in school they are often not used to formal lessons. It takes time for them to adjust and adapt. Sometimes these students may have been waiting for a placement or bounced from place to place for months, even years. Science is a skills and knowledge-based subject. Often these students arrive with a decent level of reading and writing, but with little or no experience of ‘proper’ science beyond a few worksheets and a few educational videos on YouTube.

With the most challenging behaviour students, it becomes a game. Can you trick them into discussing a topic they don’t want to discuss or have little interest in, and build on it before they realise they are engaging? Doing it this way won’t give you a class set of books full of wonderfully articulate writing and beautiful diagrams (I used to print out an A5 sheet of what we were learning about/discussing during the lesson and logged some of the better verbal feedback), but it might give you a room full of challenging students who are willing to engage.

Some games lend themselves brilliantly to classroom learning, depending on your outcomes. Family Fortunes is a popular choice – a quick Google search will find you a template – put in your own questions and you have a ready-made starter or plenary. In some cases, it can last the whole lesson if the students are really enjoying it.

Another brilliant game I’ve used as a plenary is Pig. The rules are simple. Ask a question and whichever student gets it right gets to roll a die. Every time they roll, they get that many points. They can bank at any time, but if they roll a six they lose the points they haven’t banked. In terms of resources, you just need a die, and again you can find a virtual die to use on your whiteboard with a quick internet search. This game encourages maths skills (What is the probability of rolling a six..?) as well as encouraging risk-taking. I’ve had a room full of SEMH students screaming “BANK!!” after one boy had rolled about seventy without getting a six. Games encourage social skills too. Be prepared though, it can take time to train up some classes to play games that involve taking turns and patience. With one class I took from Y7 all the way through to GCSE I specifically used games as a plenary. They all went on to pass.

So we played our game. I threw out a science question each turn, and within half an hour, I knew what my new class had been learning about in the last few months, I had a rough idea of what level they were working at now, knew that they needed to work on remembering key words and showed them that work doesn’t always involve effing writing. I was more bothered about how they could think scientifically. For the next few lessons, I picked a new game each time, but used the same tactic, gradually building up the level of questioning from simple knowledge to some tricky explaining ideas and concepts. It worked. As Danny would put it: “Effing class, mate”.


Chris @bunsenlearner is currently Head of Science at an SEMH secondary school that caters for young people with behavioural and mental health issues. He has worked in a number of secondary schools and academies in the North East of England over the past fifteen years. He loves games and sometimes even lets the students beat him at Connect Four.

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