Language and literacy teaching with games: the “who” and transformative actions

Jonathan deHaan
September 2, 2020
This is a narrative of my process of trying to make a real difference for and with my students. I describe what I struggled with, how I framed transformation for my context, and how I try to work with students in order to see them change over the course of my teaching projects.

1. Introduction: Making “making a difference”

I have been teaching language and literacy using games for about 20 years. But, about 5 years ago, I wanted to (I needed to!) change how I was using games. I really wanted to see a difference in students.

I hadn’t seen a difference in students as a result from doing my earlier game-based projects. I had done experimental studies (no teaching) in which students who watched videos recalled more vocabulary than students who played games. I had set up a university game library that logged more than 500 hours of games played (some “just in time” teaching), but the students who used it the most only remembered about a tenth of the new words from the games they played. I had run community education programs, volunteer groups, and game design projects that were a flurry of activity (a ton of teaching, I almost burnt out), but I was never sure if my highly motivated university students were developing new skills or practicing what they already knew what to do. In all of these cases, I couldn’t trace or show that any transformation had taken place, and it had really bothered me as a teacher and researcher.

My explorations with games connected to other experiences I have had over nearly 25 years of teaching English as a second language; I can recollect many ways in which what I have done as a teacher has not made much of a difference in students or classes. I’ve given countless grammar lectures and have handed out reams of vocabulary worksheets and not seen students able to use this knowledge in classwork. I’ve noticed thousands of grammar or vocabulary mistakes in class, and corrected students’ utterances, but seen the same students make the same mistakes again a few minutes or a few classes later. I’ve spent hundreds of hours giving feedback on students’ essays, and students dutifully make all the edits I suggest, but then repeat the same problems on subsequent assignments. At times I've even gotten tired of class projects; students often completed projects at the last minute and then threw their work away (sometimes the minute after the semester ended). I had become incredibly tired of the knowledge that I could fix a problem temporarily but not permanently. I had also grown incredibly down from feeling that I had some effect on students when they were in my class, but that I didn’t know if they were applying anything from class to their lives outside class, for example in hobbies, relationships or work.

I decided to focus on making and seeing a difference in students. But, at the time, I didn’t know how to do it. At that time, before I started my Game Terakoya project, I hadn’t been familiar with the literature on transformation in education. I didn’t really know where to start. I tried to think through things on my own.

These were my thoughts (and I recognize that other people will frame “transformation” or “making a difference” in different ways):

I thought that transformation was something I wanted to pursue deliberately. I thought:

I realized I needed to be more deliberate in my teaching. I needed to take more time and to talk to and work with students more. James York (2020) had not yet published his “vaporwave” (slowed down 80’s pop music) approach to game-based language teaching, but I think that my sense at the time connects to what he argues for. I needed to slow things down in order to have the chance to make and see some difference in my students. I started including more reflection and discussion at different stages of my teaching. I added more stages and activities and took more time each step of the way.

I needed to slow things down in order to have the chance to make and see some difference in my students.

In this paper, I am going to slow down and unpack the teaching and learning in my context. I’ll describe what I struggled with, and what I and my students have done, the results that we have gotten, and what my students have shared about the process. I’ll provide examples, materials and interactions between my students and I. I’ll be deliberate about the actions we take and how we play before and during and after games, discussions, activities and projects. It’s a personal narrative and reflection, and I hope that it inspires other teachers to think about how their actions contribute to their students’ transformation in and out of school. I hope it will be clear in the steps and final reflection that I am not through wrestling with the various steps yet, and I hope it will be clear that I would love to connect with other like-minded teachers.

2. The “Game Terakoya” project

I have been teaching and researching my attempts to make a difference in my students’ lives in my “Game Terakoya” project for the past 5 years. Terakoyas were Japanese Edo Period private schools that taught reading and writing. I’ve adopted the name and the concept and connected games, which I know a lot about, with progressive materials and mediation, which I have learned (and re-learned) about. Now, in my thesis seminars, university classes and workshops, I help my students explore who they are and who they want to become by exploring language, education, games and society. I help my students get their “L-E-G-S” under them.

What do I use in my teaching? I use all kinds of games: board and card games, tabletop roleplaying games, video games, mobile games, traditional parlour games, roleplays, simulations and play. I don’t only or just use games, though. Games are a powerful initial experience for students, but then they need to analyze aspects of language, education, games and society. They use their intellect and academic training to ask and answer questions on worksheets and in discussions and presentations. Those experiences and their created knowledge helps them craft and complete participatory projects such as making and sharing a game, organizing a public event, or scripting and sharing a video on YouTube.

How do I use games? Students don’t play games and work on their own. I am very involved throughout the workshop, class or curriculum. I design worksheets that push them to think. I point them at certain moments in gameplay that they missed. I push them to explain their ideas with reasons and examples. I require that they articulate how their projects help them grow. I take students through stages of playing games, discussing games, analyzing games and then participating in society using what they have explored in and around games. Table 1 shows how that instructional sequence was implemented in my 2018 class (deHaan, 2020).

Table 1 “Game Terakoya Class 1” Structure

Why do I use games? I use games to help students participate in society in new ways. I let students choose projects that will help transform themselves into who they want to be, and in doing so, also transform society. I try to liberate students in my game-based teaching.

I wrote all about the “what,” the “how” and the “why” of my game-based teaching in a 2019 research paper (deHaan, 2019). Figure 1 identifies some major themes in the what, how and why of that paper. That paper is an overview of 30 years of research in the field. It presents high resolution analyses of the transcripts, textual analysis work, the participatory project, concept maps, questionnaires, interviews, and language tests and showed that the pedagogy resulted in the student’s literacy, intellectual and participatory development. It ends with a bit of a manifesto about the importance and the integration of goals, pedagogy, materials, teachers (and games) in game-based education. My teaching has been inspired by the “pedagogy of multiliteracies” (New London Group, 1996) and its “learning by design” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000) reframing. These teaching and learning frameworks are framed by the process of taking available designs in the world (media, ideas, experiences), then designing new media, ideas or experiences after discussing and analyzing available designs, and in doing so, students and society become the redesigned. The idea that taking and putting ideas into action transforms students and society was an incredibly attractive aspect of these pedagogies that I adopted into my Game Terakoya projects.

Figure 1 The what, how and why themes in the Game Terakoya project

As I’ve continued to reflect on the positive experiences of The Game Terakoya project, and after discussing progressive education on the LLP Slack and reading books and articles on progressive education (e.g., the Human Restoration Project), I suddenly realized that even though I have had the “who” (i.e., my students) in my mind this whole time, I seemed to have completely ignored them in my 2019 critique of and manifesto on game-based language teaching and haven’t described my intentions and actions from their (and our) perspective. Game-based language teaching methods, materials and mediation matter, but so do students! This paper frames The Game Terakoya project from what students and I do and how the “what, why and how” really does start and end with the “who.”

In this article, inspired by McFadyen’s (2020) teacher narrative, I am going to try to unpack and contextualize some of my experiences. I am going to try to explore and reflect on the human component of my teaching with games. In order to do that, I think that you should get a bit of a better sense of what the teaching and learning in my recent “Game Terakoya” projects looked like and resulted in.

A few snapshots

In 2016 (deHaan, 2019), I piloted a game-based pedagogy extracurricularly over a year with one female university student. She chose to play a strategy board game (Figure 2), and became interested in how other gamers reviewed and discussed the game on YouTube and in forums. She analyzed dozens of reviews and texts, and then drafted, revised, posted and conversed with other gamers about a review she posted of the game (Figure 3).

Figure 2 Railways of the World -- the game the student chose to play

Figure 3 The review the student wrote of Railways of the World

In 2017, I tested the pedagogy in a 360-minute workshop with 60 university students. I introduced TerrorBull Games’ satirical/educational board games, students analyzed the games’ language and real-world connections, and students remixed the games to make statements about issues they were passionate about. Students presented their experiences, analyses, creations and reflections in a poster session and on Twitter (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4 A group’s work on In it Together

Figure 5 A group’s work on Deepsea Desperation

In 2018 (deHaan, 2020), a class chose to play and discuss the friendship-testing board game Diplomacy (Figure 6). Students explored strategy websites, player demographics (Figure 7), and European history, and created and shared projects such as Japanese geography remixes, YouTube strategy videos (Figure 8), and events with international students.

Figure 6 A group’s discussion notes on Diplomacy

Figure 7 A student’s analysis of Diplomacy’s players

Figure 8 A group’s Tweet about their Diplomacy strategy video on YouTube

In 2019, I introduced a class to games and play with social connections: Don’t Get Fired and the VW “Fun Theory” projects. One of my students discussed the idea of “fun” in depth, analyzed plastic usage locally, and made a free print and play board game (Figure 9) and a website for her game to encourage families to change their behavior, and was featured in the local newspaper (Figure 10).

Figure 9 The student’s game

Figure 10 The newspaper article about the student’s game

3. Before, during and after my students and I teach and learn together in the Game Terakoya

In the next sections, I’ll unpack how I address the “who” (i.e., my students, and I) before, during and after the instructional sequence in my Game Terakoya project. I will relate our activities. I will also use materials, interactions, reflections and media from deHaan (2019) and deHaan (2020) to illustrate what students and I have done, what I have made, and what students have said about the steps in the transformative curriculum of the Game Terakoya project.

Before: “Who are you?”

I had to understand who my students were and who they wanted to be before I could hope to help them transform. I realized I had to ask them to tell me more about themselves. I suspected that students would not easily, quickly, or freely explain everything about themselves to me in our first meeting. What I wanted to do with students needed so much more time and effort than the typical (useless except for remembering names) first day of class “my name is Jonathan and I like jam”-type ice breaking activity.

To understand who my students are and who they want to be before I can hope to help them transform towards their goals, I had to ask them.

So, to help me learn the things that I thought I needed to learn about my students, and to help them share important aspects of themselves, so that I could teach them, I created a workbook (a Google document) that asks students to reflect on themselves in a variety of ways. Students complete and share this before we start the “formal” teaching and learning sequence in my seminar.

It’s extensive. The workbook asks them to share some very personal information about themselves. It’s 30 pages of questions, surveys, concept mapping exercises and gameplay tasks that get students to share:

Then, after they complete that, they share their work with me, so that I can read their answers and prepare questions to learn more about them when we meet for the first time.

In our first meeting, students introduce themselves. It is a several hour-long reflection of who they are and who they want to be and their similarities and differences to other people in the group. I ask students to discuss “Who Am I?” and also “Who Are We?,” sometimes through the use of patterns and stand-out ideas in the information that they have created. I ask dozens of follow-up questions and point out obvious strengths and potentials, and I work hard to connect them and their ideas to the work we are going to do in the semester and beyond. Students understand themselves and each other better through this pre-work reflection and sharing and discussion.

These are always deep, meaningful, and fulfilling conversations. By the end of the first class, I feel like I know these students so well. I feel ready to work with them to help them achieve their goals as learners and my goals as a teacher. The Game Terakoya project is about focusing on students' selves and future selves. I care deeply about that, and I find it natural to want to know more about them, and to help them. Even though (or because?) students and I spend so much time talking about them and what they hope to achieve, this time and effort acts as a springboard to continued effort (and seeing the rewards of those efforts) by both my students and myself during the main activities in the Game Terakoya.

What I did:

What students said:

During: “Who are you becoming?”

Games can be defined in many ways. Salen and Zimmerman (2003) write that a game is “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (p.96). Does that describe tic-tac-toe? Sure.

Does that describe school? I think so. For some people, school probably seems very artificial and overly focused on rules and quantifiable outcomes. I think anything can be sincerely (or cynically!) viewed as a game.

It’s interesting to frame teaching as a game in order to think about the human side of teaching. In games, and in teaching and learning, people communicate and act and interact with each other, and how people act has a huge effect on how meaningful the game, or the teaching and learning, can become.

In my Game Terakoya project, I’ve spent time thinking about the roles that my students and I take. I like to think of us as:

Actors: people who take actions, do things, make decisions, strategize and plan. Our actions make the “game” progress. We are actively involved in the Game Terakoya’s teaching and learning, we are invested in it, we are not passive. We follow steps to reach a goal. This also connects to the second-to-last step of the Pedagogy of Multiliteracies and Learning by Design frameworks: “applying appropriately.” Acting can mean “following a role” or “following the rules” and my students do often “behave” and act in “standard” ways in our discussions, their assignments and their participation in the teaching and learning process.


Players: people who engage in something for the purpose of enjoyment, people who explore and compete and socialize and invent new ways of interacting and understanding. Similar to the way that games are distinct from society, the Game Terakoya is a bit different than typical school, and we can play in its space and our play makes it both enjoyable and productive. This also connects to the last step of the Pedagogy of Multiliteracies and Learning by Design frameworks: “applying creatively.” Playing can mean “being spontaneous” or “making something up” and not following a script or recipe, and I encourage my students to take risks and try something as creative as they can imagine or manage in their final projects.

My students and I are actors and players in the Game Terakoya. We make decisions, we act, we put ideas into action in order to collaboratively transform students from who they are to who they want to be. Each of our actions, sometimes in turns, sometimes in tandem, moves students one step closer to their goals.

We take actions to collaboratively transform students from who they are to who they want to be.

Another way that we are actors (and also players) in the Game Terakoya is that I encourage my students to act as the person they hope to become. We discuss the mindsets that professionals such as teachers, mothers, politicians, travel agents and salespeople have, and I ask my students to approach the discussions, research projects, and participatory projects as these people might. My students try to act in (and perhaps sometimes they play at them as well) these roles, ultimately (ideally) becoming these roles in their professional careers and personal lives after graduation.

"You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than from a lifetime of conversation."

Whether that quote can rightfully be attributed to Plato or not, I have found it to be absolutely true in my playing with students. I learn so much from asking students to complete the pre-Game Terakoya workbook, and I also learn a different side of students by the games they choose to play, how they approach the difficult task of learning games, how they sit and where they look at the table, by the actions they take in the game, what they say during the game, how creative they get with the game and with other people at the table, how they win or lose, and how they approach playing the same or similar games again. Games let me see a side of my students I can rarely see in lectures or other discussion-based classes. I experience their personalities, knowledge, interests and attitudes directly. Not all of my students like games, but most students reflect that they found something interesting by playing games. And I think my students enjoy learning who I really am through my passion of learning and playing and discussing games as well.

Next, I will describe what students do in each step (see Figure 11) of the main activities of the Game Terakoya.

What we do

Figure 11 Actions and main players in each step towards the goal in the Game Terakoya sequence

(1) START: Introduce and learn

After students have introduced themselves thoroughly at the beginning of the project (described in the previous section), I think carefully about what they have shared about themselves.

(2) Connect and suggest and create

I introduce them to various games, tasks, research questions and projects that I think may connect who they are to who they want to become. I believe that I am aware of deeper and broader aspects of language and games and school and society than they are, and I try to use my knowledge and experience to point them at projects that I think would benefit who they are and connect to who they want to be. I do, of course, give them the freedom to choose games and tasks and projects themselves, and if they choose something on their own, I, of course, work to support them through all the tasks in the Game Terakoya project to reach their goals. I try to broaden what they think they can do in school and society, and I encourage them to reach for high goals. The students choose from a variety of educational activities (i.e., discussing, analyzing and participating around linguistic, education, game and social aspects they notice and become interested in and then learn more about), and then I also spend time to create worksheets (please see the Google documents in the next section) for what they have chosen. I also try to create a relaxing and safe environment for students to explore and discuss; I convey that we are going to explore things together, that I am going to provide guidance and support along the way, and that it’s ok to make mistakes.

What I did:

(3) Play and try and invest

Students, then, act by engaging in the activities (playing games, having discussions, completing worksheets) that we collaboratively decide to do. They decide what to do and then engage and put forth effort to prepare for and then complete the work to the best of their abilities. They are not passive. They take the step themselves. They choose to and then do invest time and energy in these things in order to work to get closer to the goal that they have shared with me. They try things, I believe, because they know that I am suggesting things that connect to who they are and who they want to be. There is a clear bridge between the stages in the project, and I believe that this is what encourages them to take the step and make their efforts. They are willing to try to find something meaningful for themselves. They try activities, they play, they record and organize their own experiences and then they reflect and share their thoughts about their actions. They reflect on their performance and their ideas and how this connects to their participatory goals they shared at the beginning.

What students did:

Figures 12-16 Posters and worksheets that guided students’ post-game discussions and reflections

(4) React and ask and point out

I react to their actions and reflections. During and after their efforts, whether face to face or in emails or on Slack or through Google documents, I try to build on what they are able to do and try to connect that to their stated goals. I ask questions about ideas they share or actions I see them take. I value their experiences, I consider their actions, and I respect how they act and their opinions and reflections on their actions, and I additionally act to help them better understand why and how and what they understand and do. I react to their ideas instead of prioritizing my own goals. I think that my consideration of them and their ideas continues to motivate my students to take more actions and continue to make efforts. Students, in many cases, control the direction and pace of the discussions by how much they engage with my questions about their statements. Some of these questions are “easily” answered by students; others are not. Students choose which of the more difficult (and more interesting) questions and concepts to build on in the next step.

What a student and I did:

I react to their ideas instead of prioritizing my own goals.

(5) Connect, collect and analyze and explain (and revise)

Students, then, must take another strong step and put forth effort in the curriculum to more carefully observe, research (see Figure 17), take notes, look, collect and explain their experiences or additional information in society to contextualize their experience. They satisfy their own curiosity. They connect and critique their understanding of themselves and the world.

What students did:

What students and I did:

What students said:

(6) Show and push and connect and support

I again react to their actions and reflections during and after their work. I try to help them more completely answer the questions that they have and to satisfy their curiosity and expand their perspectives in relation to who they are. I ask them to articulate their ideas with more details and examples to support their ideas. I try to point them at things in their experiences and their answers that I think that they would appreciate the opportunity to try to answer more about for themselves. I try to ask deeper questions to prompt continued explorations. I suggest how they might use games and their knowledge to participate in society and reach their goals. I ask them (sometimes with the help of popular culture and media) big questions like “what is the purpose of an education?” I try to provoke them somewhat to open their eyes a little bit more to society and their place in it.

The learning in the Game Terakoya project is a multiplayer game. Students take time and effort to accomplish a task as best they can, but the learning doesn’t stop there. They present their ideas and other students and I give them feedback which they make notes on. They then take time to improve their work based on the feedback and then re-present and discuss in the group until the student is satisfied with their own work. We discuss a growth mindset (I like to show and discuss the “Austin’s Butterfly” example of feedback and revision) and how we can work together to help each other get better. We try to learn from others and believe that others will help us become better versions of ourselves.

What students and I did:

What students and I did didn’t always work:

What I did:

Figure 18-19 Feedback on student work

The learning in the Game Terakoya project is a multiplayer game.

(7) Bridge, plan and  brainstorm and make a huge effort (and revise)

Students, finally, use the knowledge and experiences they have deepened and acquired along the way to take a really big step for themselves. They plan their own actions. They brainstorm a participatory project that creates a bridge for themselves to who they want to be in the future. They take a big step out of their comfort zones and act. Some students conduct projects at the university (where they might feel safer), but many conduct projects outside the school. For example, students who want to become teachers might organize an afterschool program to teach using games, or students who want to be a parent might play games with children in their neighborhood, or students who want to be designers might design a game and share it online. Students use the answers to their research questions to select, plan and then actually do this project. They articulate to me and others how this project connects to their previous work and to who they want to be in the future. They make a huge effort to be the person they want to become.

What students did:

What students and I did didn’t always work:

What students said:

(8) GOAL: Reflect and plan again

We work together to reflect and plan again. This is discussed in the next section.

After: “Who have you become?”

Just as I realized I needed to directly ask students who they were in order to help them transform themselves and society, I realized that I needed to explicitly and thoroughly help students reflect on their journey and learning to uncover what, if anything, they had learned, how they had changed, and how they and I had transformed them. I created another extensive worksheet (Google document) that mirrors the before-sequence work and asks students to answer questions and complete work similar to the pre-sequence work. This again takes a lot of time for students to complete. They use all of their notes and reflections and steps along the way as evidence to help them see what and how they have changed. They thoroughly answer questions, then compare and contrast their answers and connect their actions and effects throughout the instructional sequence.

I realized that I needed to explicitly and thoroughly help students reflect on their journey.

This work is shared in group presentations, conversations with me on the Google documents, and also in graduation thesis work. I try to help them see connections they might not have seen in their data.

This after-action stage is not a “test” of their learning, but more of a conversation and a reflection. I ask students “what have you learned and how have you changed?” and I ask them to “prove” (in a broad sense) their answers using differences between their answers pre and post and also work and reflections along the way in their journey. I ask students to try to (and I help them to do this, since I am more familiar with educational research than they are) trace their learning, changes and transformation through the sequence.

The document and work is not a “class survey” (of the “did you like this class?” type) either. These questions are much more about who they are now and their change, rather than questions that rate or critique the activities in the class. I ask my students to think about themselves, and what they did, and their answers seem to naturally and constructively critique the good and bad of what I do as a teacher. Students seem to naturally see their own efforts and their engagement rewarded by seeing their growth over the project (their knowledge grows and what they are able to accomplish expands as well) and outside the class (to standardized test scores, to general confidence, and connections to their careers and life after graduation).

The post-sequence work is always incredibly deep and meaningful in different ways for different students. This work reveals what they valued in the course work, and students share excitement and satisfaction in different activities and around various elements in the work that we have done. All students become able to point at experiences and articulate connections and explain what and how and why they have changed and who they are now and who they want to become next.

Both I and my students recognize that this conversation about them and their learning doesn’t have to stop. I ask them to explain who they want to become next in their personal, public and professional lives. We all seem to recognize that we will all continue to learn and grow, and that life and learning is about the continuous development of ourselves.

What students did:

Figure 20 A student’s diagram of how different people and activities influenced her development

What students said:

We all seem to recognize that we will all continue to learn and grow, and that life and learning is about the continuous development of ourselves.

4. My reflection (a “quick save,” not quitting)

I’ve tried to focus on the “who” of the Game Terakoya in this article: the pre-work of students articulating who they are and who they hope to be, the students as actors and players during the main instructional sequence, and the post-work of students reflecting on who they have become and what they have done to develop themselves and to set the stage for continued self-improvement and future learning in their lives. I have also tried to show my role in working to help my students recognize who they are, what they are able to do and learn, and who they can become.

I still want to act and play more, though. I want to play around with the difference between (the balance of?) me suggesting games and activities for my students, and my students (hopefully after them thinking about their future and their role in society more) choosing and making their own paths. I want to play around with who we are as a group; we can act and play more (more seriously?) as designers, activists, researchers and other roles. I still have a lot of reading to do about the experiences of students, about interpersonal relationships, about how people develop, about different actors and roles in society and about so many other things. I need to continue to explore and improve the ways that I and my students evaluate whether our play and actions are successful at transforming who we are and what we do. I want to explore and better address the “who” of people outside the project (the context) and also the “who” of people in society that my students connect with during and after the Game Terakoya project. I need to learn more about society, and my students’ place in it and my place in it. My students are just now beginning to graduate from university and I am in touch with some of them (e.g., M is working at an airport, other students are working at high schools). Continuing to communicate with them could be a great way for me to learn more about who my students worked to become, and could also give me valuable insights into Japanese society and how I might help future Game Terakoya students reach their personal, public and professional goals through my teaching.

I want to play around and explore the concept of “transformation” more as well. I shared my current understanding of transformation in the introduction to this paper, but I recognize that there are other ways of framing transformative teaching, and I would like to see what these different approaches might change or add to what I am trying to do in the Game Terakoya project. Should transformation focus more on the student, or more on society? Does transformation happen primarily in the creative application and transfer work that students do, or in the analytic or academic work earlier in the pedagogy of multiliteracies sequence? Is transformation largely about participation? Liberation? Agency? Intellectual growth? Are projects (and project based learning) largely responsible for students’ transformation? Would taking the frameworks of “reform” or “justice” better transform students and society? These are all questions bouncing around in my head, and I look forward to reading more, talking to other teachers more, and playing more with my students in the Game Terakoya.

As my students use games to springboard to other activities in the Game Terakoya project, this paper, for me, is hopefully a foundation that I can use to continue to better unpack who I am as a teacher and who my students are and how I can help facilitate effective teaching and learning. The Game Terakoya is still very much a work in progress. It’s not a “one-shot” research project. I feel like I can keep working on this for the rest of my teaching and research career. I’m continuing to refine the methodology, materials and mediation in the project.

But I’m encouraged by the transformation I can now see in my students over the course of the Game Terakoya workshops, classes, semesters or thesis projects. I know now that I am teaching who my students are (I’m meeting them where they are in their lives) and I am focused on who they want to be, and I can see them develop and together we can trace how their transformation occurs in our discussions and project work.

I’m really energized by the transformation I see in myself, too. What we do in the Game Terakoya takes a lot of time and effort. I’ve had to wrestle with, learn and adapt the methods and mediation of the pedagogy of multiliteracies for my context. But the discussions and research projects and participatory projects and my learning to ask better questions, to listen more to my students, and to act and play with students more has helped me become more than who I used to be, and I enjoy and am stimulated by my teaching more than I used to be. I’ve become more by learning how to help students become more.

I’m encouraged by the transformation I can now see in my students. I’m really energized by the transformation I see in myself, too. I’ve become more by learning how to help students become more.

I’ve also realized that my focus on who my students are and my asking and understanding who they want to become has changed my teaching goals as well. I used to focus on the vocabulary or speaking practice that students could develop with games. Now I think more about “the purpose of it all;” what will really matter to my students immediately (when I am working with them) and in their future lives. Now, because we take time to think about who we are and who we want to be, I’ve started including and orienting students to and discussing goals and ways of reaching goals such as “happiness” and “curiosity” and “liberation” and “health” and “social capital.” Orienting myself to my students has broadened my hope for what my teaching and what school can do for students and society.

The more I try to teach better with games, the less I actually focus on the games. I’m less and less interested in the “things” of games (the rules, the screens, the text, the tokens) and I am more and more interested in the people who play games and how they play and understand them. I think (and I think my research backs this up) that any game can be educational when people take time to orient and discuss and investigate and apply the fully present experiences they have together. I think that my teaching with games will continue to focus more and more on who I am teaching with games. I think that the more my teaching focuses on who I am teaching, the more effective and satisfied I will be as well.

I still mull: Is there anything special about game-based teaching or learning? The more I explore this teaching method, the more I think that there is nothing new to discover in educational research; that the only innovative thing that I can do is find and recognize good ideas and work to put them into practice. The more I reflect and the more I learn about teaching, the more I feel that what I am doing is “just” “good teaching.”  And that’s probably similar to what many people who dream about progressive education know, feel or practice; that the answers are “out there” and it’s “just” a matter of thinking more and more about the “who” in education and figuring out how to put good ideas into practice more and more.

I’d love to continue puzzling this out with more people. I realize that I have quite a bit of freedom in my context, which has made it possible for me to play around with the methods, materials and mediation in my Game Terakoya project. I can imagine that other teachers are also thinking about how to transform their students and also to play and act more with them, but perhaps do not have the context or freedom to do so. I would be thrilled to try to puzzle out what teachers working under different constraints can do to help their students. Please find me on Twitter, the Ludic Language Pedagogy journal and our Slack, or reach out via email. I’d love to connect and act and play with anyone who is looking at the “who” in their teaching.

The answers are “out there” and it’s “just” a matter of thinking more and more about the “who” in education and figuring out how to put good ideas into practice more and more.


Buckingham, D. (2013). Media education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. John Wiley & Sons.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds). (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. London: Routledge.

deHaan, J. (2019). Teaching language and literacy with games: What? How? Why? Ludic Language Pedagogy (1), 1-57.

deHaan, J. (2020). “Game Terakoya class 1” walkthrough: Directing students’ post-game discussions, academic work and participatory work through goals, curriculum, materials and interactions. Ludic Language Pedagogy (2), 41-69.

Ishikawa, Y. (2020). Contributing to local society through a charity event: What and how I learned inside (and outside) a games + multiliteracies seminar. Undergraduate thesis, University of Shizuoka.

McFadyen, N. (2020). Leveling Up: A Teacher’s Personal Journey of Bringing Video Games Into a School and Classroom. Ludic Language Pedagogy (2), p.86-94.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60-93.

Salen, K., Tekinbaş, K. S., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. MIT Press.

York, J. (2020). It’s your mooooove: Why teaching with games should be like vaporwave (and not nightcore). Ludic Language Pedagogy, 2, 104-114.


This paper was written while listening repeatedly to My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” album.


Here are some materials that have been useful to me on my “transformative teaching journey:”

Jonathan deHaan
Jonathan researches the why and how of teaching language and literacy with games in his Game Terakoya project. He co-edits the Ludic Language Pedagogy journal.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now