Practical Strategies to engage students and increase critical thinking through play

FranklinTechnology Auctions

Have you ever been to an auction?  I haven’t, but I have watched pretend ones on TV and that was enough to make me believe that I could run one in my classroom. When my students walk into my class to learn about different technologies, I am dressed in a full suit with a bow tie – my version of an Auctioneer costume – ready to auction off technologies. I have two types of Technology Auctions that I run.

The Secret Auction

The students are not told what types of technology they will be bidding on, or how many items there are but only that they are allowed to purchase three and each item has a secret point system attached to it that will be revealed at the end. When I reveal the points at the end, the students can either accept my results or try to prove me wrong. I have never had a group accept my results yet. Instead, the teams start researching everything they can find on the technology to prove me wrong whereas the winning team is out to prove me right. Its madness, and so much fun! During the auction, I am speaking at a ridiculously fast pace as I believe an auctioneer would be jumping all over the place managing the bids and then afterwards, the students are recording all of the new information in spreadsheets or on the whiteboard.

Technology in World War One Auction.

The Prepared Auction

I tell the students that we will be having an auction in class tomorrow. I break them up into their groups, give them the rules of the auction and a list of the items that they could possibly bid on. I then give them the class to research the items, identify their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a list of items that they want to get – ranking them from most important to least important. The next day, the madness of the auction begins and after the technology has been distributed students have to explain why their purchases are superior to another teams.

Both are fun, both are effective, both are loud and noisy, and both require a teacher willing to make a fool of herself. Either way, they leave after having a lot of fun and learning a lot more about the evolution of technology and its impact on whatever time period in history we are looking at.

QR Code Treasure Hunts

This is an idea that I adopted from Russel Tarr’s book A History Teaching Toolbox. Place QR codes all around the school with questions/clues that you want the students to answer.  Make sure that each group has access to a Smartphone with a QR code reader, and then send them off around the school on the treasure hunt. As they solve each question, they should get a clue that leads them closer to finding the ‘treasure’.  You can have them submit their answer in a Google form and then have the ‘clue’ revealed in the answer spot. QR Code Generator

Socratic Soccer or Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer

I adapted this idea from B’s Book Love.  One way of doing this is that you take a marker and you draw questions on the soccer ball that you want the student to answer. When the student has the ball kicked to them or thrown to them, they have to pick a question on the ball to answer. Another way of doing this is my own version of Capture the Flag Socratic Soccer. Take your students outside to the field with a soccer ball, create two teams or if it is a large class create four and have two separate games going. Have four or five posts that each team has to get before they can get to the final post and capture the team’s flag. At each post, the team has to answer a question, solve a puzzle, etc. If they are successful they continue. If they lose the ball is stolen from them, and it is the other team’s turn. When they are not at a particular point, the game carries on like a regular game of soccer, students can steal the ball from each other, etc. However, when at a point, they have to stop the game and listen to the answer. The other team also wants to hear the question and answer, because if the team gets it wrong than they may have a chance at it in the future.  It is chaos, but is a lot of fun.  This is a great review game or introductory activity.

Simulations/Mock Trials

I have had incredible luck in my teaching career with simulations and role plays. A few that I do include: A Congress of Vienna (adapted from Yale University), The Trial of Louis XVI, Town hall during the Great Depression, Model United Nations and many different Mock Trials.    These simulations require students to take on different roles, engage in research, critical thinking and argue in character for their position. My students love it, and take their roles very seriously. They end up doing far more research than I would have ever asked them to do, and I often end up learning way more on the topic from them. I also wear a judge’s room and have a gavel that I use when the debates get too lively. My Grade 10 History and West and the World Website have links to the assignments. I will be changing these sites over to new Google Sites, but right now all of the simulations are there.

Bring in the Arts

I am not an artist. However, I draw for my students all the time. I draw planes that kind of look like sick penguins. Also, when I teach about dances from the past, I like to bust a move in front of the class. They laugh, they remember, they appreciate that I am willing to be silly in front of them – it works. However, some of our students are incredibly talented. I am talking unbelievably, take my breathe away, leave me in awe talented, and they love to show it off. Give the students whiteboard markers or window markers and let them create a mind map on the windows, ask them to make a song on a particular topic, give them play doh or lego and see what they build. Have them work in pairs or groups, make the only criteria be that it has to be collaborative and teach the class something about what we are learning, and then let them run free! They’ll have fun, so will you and they get to showcase their talents while teaching others.

Balloon Debates

This is taken directly from Rusel Tarr’s A History Teaching Toolbox. I haven’t adapted it or changed it in the slightest – this is all his brilliance. Basically, a balloon debate begins with the premise that a hot air balloon in which we are all in is losing height rapidly, and will soon crash. Each student is given a character that they have to research for and come up with arguments for why their character should stay in the balloon. The students will go up in groups of four and only present the positives of their character. At the end of all four presentations, the students will vote on one person to keep in the hot air balloon. After all of the groups of four have presented, the class has a set of finalists. Now, those people who were with the finalist but were eliminated become their teammate and seek to find out negatives on the remaining character. When the finalists present in front of the class, the finalist and their team point out reasons why other characters should be eliminated from the balloon. In the end, only one person is left standing in the balloon.  


There is a great website called Gaming the Past that links to online games that you can explore for you use in your classroom. You can also consider incorporating games that the students may already by playing such as Civilizations and/or Minecraft. Just make sure that you try out all of the games before, make sure they are class appropriate,  have clear learning goals in mind and design something to accompany the game whether it be questions or a quest that you want the students to solve at the end of the game.

Escape Rooms/Breakout Edu/Digital Breakouts

Escape rooms have become extremely popular. Basically, people are locked into a room and they have to work together collaboratively to get out.  I haven’t tried this yet in my classroom, but this is definitely on my list for fall. This article How to Create an Escape Room Your Students Will Love  outlines the steps this teacher took to create an Escape Room for her students. You can also checkout Breakout Edu which sends you a kit and games that your class can engage in to break open a box. Probably what I am most excited about, is Digital-Breakout EDU they provide games and templates that you can use to create your own online Breakout game. I like the idea of this because you can create a digital game for groups of four to work on through Google forms and other online tools. This is great because it is free, easily accessible and easily changeable when things go wrong or you want to change things for next year.  I looked online, but I haven’t found any for Canadian History, so I am hoping to use this template to create one for the Cold War and Igor Gouzenko’s discovery of a spy ring in Canada.

Have your students create a game

Instead of creating a review game for your classes, make this a student assignment. Break the students into groups of four and have them design a game for other students. Give the students a class to play the games and provide each other with feedback. Then keep a copy of some of the games to use in your classes. 



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  1. Pingback: Build A Student-Centred Classroom By Maximizing Student Voice - Julie Boulton

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