Is the new way always better?

I love using games to get my students engaged with new or revise old vocabulary. Since starting our iPad trial this year I’ve specifically tried to find apps/games to use for vocabulary acquisition. A few months back I came across one called ‘VocabBattle’. Two days ago I finally got around to trying it out with a colleague to see how it works. In the process I also adapted the game for my middle years classes and decided that ‘new’ is not always better…


How the app works

Players can select to ‘battle’ each other through a local blue tooth battle or through Game Center. You select the target language for the game (8 available) and can choose a free game utilising 50 words or pay to unlock more content. For the purposes of our trial we chose the free option. Players load a photo of themselves. The game then flashes a word on the screen in the target language along with 4 multiple choice translations. The first player to tap the correct translation gets a point. The winner in the best of 5 then gets to ‘attack’ his or her opponent. The attacks take the form of additions to the loser’s photograph such as a silly hat, moustache, huge nose etc.

We quickly decided the vocabulary used by the game was too advanced for Year 8 or 9, but could be useful for senior students revising in the lead up to final examinations.


What did I do instead?

As not all of my students currently have iPads I decided to use a similar concept but do it the ‘old’ way with my students that afternoon. Students divided into groups of 3 and each student was given an A3 piece of paper and drew a head and shoulders on it… although one creative soul decided to go with a Calvin Klein style sideways version including legs and a hand on the hip…

Students then decided which person in their group was to be the ‘Battle Master’. He or she was permitted to have vocabulary lists/books if needed. The other 2 students were to be first to battle. The Battle Master could say any word we had covered this year, either in English or the Target Language. The first of the battlers to say it correctly in the opposite language was allowed to draw a feature on the other person’s sheet. After 10 words the Battle Master changed. I didn’t direct students whether they were to start new drawings or not and most ended up continuing the ones they had started in the first battle.


Why do I think the ‘old’ way is better?

I modified the game initially out of necessity – not all students had iPads – but I think I would still choose to do it my own way now anyway. The paper version while far from high tech is, I believe, better suited to use in the classroom for 4 key reasons:

1. Engagement

When my colleague and I tried the game she quickly tapped quit when she wasn’t getting a turn at ‘attacking’ me because I was quicker more often. When I asked her why she quit she said “It sucks if I can’t get you back!” But, because they were ‘rewarded’ after every correct answer rather than after 3-5 questions, I believe the students remained engaged longer using their textas and A3 paper than they would with the app version, even last thing on a Friday afternoon.

2. Personalisation

The app version doesn’t allow for personalisation of language at this stage, although I did send the developers a suggestion to look into it. In the paper version, students could focus in on the vocabulary we had done that day and earlier in the year.

3. Active language use

With the app version students are quiet, looking at the screen and waiting for the next word, but besides choosing from the multiple choice list, they don’t have to do anything with the language. With the ‘old’ paper way the students were more actively engaged with the language. They all had to speak! In their turn as Battle Master they also had more practice reading. There were also no multiple choice answers to help them – they had to be fully focussed and find that vocabulary in their brains.

4.This one was the clincher for me… Welfare of students

In the app students are required to use their own photograph and allow their classmates to add to it in an ‘attack’ and the language of the game calls it that. Sure, many students would find this fun for a while. But some wouldn’t and ultimately teachers have a responsibility to protect students from ridicule and torment! in this day and age where there is already stress about body image and appearance, when my students are at the age of hormones changing and skin breaking out, where there is already enough bullying in sometimes underhanded ways, I think the paper version is less likely to leave students feeling bad about themselves. For a start, the ‘selfys’ taken up close on one’s iPad are rarely flattering…

In the old fashioned version of the game students started with just the blank head and shoulders outline. They weren’t ‘attacking’ someone else’s actual image. They drew lots of funny pictures and there was plenty of laughter at the characters they created along the way. It didn’t worry them that there was no winner or loser in the game – all of them came away with a funny picture and most have kept them!

Steve Collis, Director of Innovation at Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney says that technology is space and space mediates relationships. I also know he values whiteboard tables and butchers paper when they are the right technology for the job and creating the right space. I wonder would he agree with me that in this case the best technology for the job was A3 paper and textas…


2 thoughts on “Is the new way always better?

  1. Steve Collis

    Heya Kirsty – yes sounds like it is. I love the way you’re thinking! All these tools have constraints and affordances. The default assumption that if it has electricity or is new then it’s better, can be way off mark! Your thinking sounds spot on to me, and has lead you to a really great visual/kinaesthetic game. The proof, of course, is in the pudding – you can see how the students engaged in the activity! Thanks for sharing!


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