Four students huddle around a table, brows furrowed, playing a co-operative First World War board game called The Grizzled. One plays the final card, and another lets out a triumphant shout. After 12 attempts, the students have finally beaten the game.
“We spent a whole week just trying to play it over and over again – we couldn’t beat it,” said Grade 12 student Jacob Lycan. But the students’ perseverance paid off.
Teachers Mark Biggar and Todd Goodman look on. The Grizzled has been an unexpected hit with their mixed-grade class at Thomas Haney Secondary School, as part of the teachers’ attempts to use board games to engage students.
Games are part of a broader change happening across B.C. schools, thanks to the education ministry’s recent curriculum reform. The changes added “core competencies,” focusing less on specific content that must be covered. As a result, teachers have more freedom to experiment with lesson structure, content and learning materials.
Teachers say board games play a multi-faceted role in the classroom. They serve as a springboard to explore different historical eras, improve students’ critical thinking, and encourage thoughtful communication.
“I think [students] genuinely like the social experience of playing,” Goodman said.
That has proven true in Maple Ridge.
“I was thinking I would run one board game and I usually have about three running now, so that’s been crazy fun,” said Biggar. “It’s been successful in terms of kids engaging with it.”
The teachers are studying for their Masters in Educational Leadership at Simon Fraser University, looking at how games make students think about thinking.
“[We’re] trying to force the kids to reflect on their experience and make connections between … some of the learning they’ve already done and the mechanics that occurred during the game,” Biggar said.
Curriculum changes give teachers more freedom
Because of the ministry’s new policy, there is more opportunity for educators to try out unconventional materials like mass-market board games so long as teachers can justify their choices as being educational.
The curriculum changes have come into effect for students up to Grade 9. Later grades will follow in the next two years.
“The new curriculum is really about allowing teachers the creative licence to find ways to interest and work with the kids,” said Grant Frend, Haney’s principal.
Creative teaching choices fall under “personalized learning,” a cause that the B. C. Teachers’ Federation has championed since 1968. The BCTF was key to shaping the new changes, but warn that a teacher shortage could hamper successful implementation.
However, many B.C. educators are excited about the changes. Cynthia Hornbeck, a former employee of Fantasy Flight Games and currently completing her bachelor of education at UBC, is one.
“The new curriculum is focused on competencies, on what students can do rather than just what they know,” she said. “Board games are a fantastic tool for teaching those core competencies of social responsibility, communication, and creative thinking.”
Another teacher enjoying the changes is Aaron Cassidy, a West Kelowna teacher-librarian and host of Boards Alive podcast. He said the new curriculum gave educators more flexibility in their classes and allowed for increasingly varied instruction methods.
Board games are big business
The curriculum changes give teachers the chance to bring their passion into the classroom – and board games’ popularity is booming.
“It’s a good coincidence of timing, both politically with curriculum changes, and in the availability and quality of games,” said Biggar. He appreciates the wealth of titles to choose from when building up his historical gaming collection. “It’s like a golden age.”
According to gaming trade publication ICv2, the hobby-games market in the U.S. and Canada was worth US$305 million (C$389 million) in 2016, a 22-per-cent increase from 2015.
Paul Dean, Vancouver-based games writer and co-founder of the prolific board games site Shut Up & Sit Down, attributes the popularity of games to their social aspect and immersive nature.
“When you participate in something, even if it’s something at a very basic level, there’s a little bit of empathy that goes along with it,” he said. “If you take on the role of a character or a company … that in itself gives you a different perspective on history rather than just reading a book.”
Rolling the dice on kids’ learning
But not everyone is convinced by the teachers’ new ideas. Aaron Cassidy, as a teacher-librarian, facilitates other educators’ classes. He initially had problems persuading teachers to let him introduce games to the classroom.
“It’s hard to convince people to do it. It was harder for me to get teachers to buy in,” he said.
However, principal Grant Frend was overwhelmingly supportive of the initiative. He had worked with teachers Biggar and Goodman on other projects and was happy for them to introduce board games as part of a structured learning experience.
“I know them well enough to trust them. When they ask for stuff, I just need to figure out how to fund it,” Frend said.
For Ethan Moon, a Grade 9 student in Biggar and Goodman’s class, board games have made him more invested in history.
“If you were to teach [some students] regularly, they might not like it very much,” he said. “But if they’re engaged in something that they enjoy but it’s learning, it’s better.”
Moon paused before delivering his final verdict.
“It’s learning but it’s fun.”