How to lose a game in school

boxer for losing post“In a competition, the winners and losers both lose” – The Dalai Lama. 

I have created many history-related games for use in the classroom, including two published in the journal Teaching History (issues 149 and 154). I look forward to the point in the Scheme of Work when I can use the games with the students, because I know that the magic combination of teamwork, competitiveness and a chocolate prize means that my classes have really enjoyed playing them.

Up until the end, that is. At the end, I am left with a winning group who lord it over the others like they have just won the Iron Throne, turning round in their seats to jeer at their ‘friends’ (perhaps accompanying their smug grins with an inappropriate hand signal), and several other groups who look like they are about to punch me. They are not shy at expressing their indignation, which goes a lot like this:

  • “But you didn’t tell me that the dice role gamble counted for all groups” (I had done; they hadn’t listened)
  • ” But it wasn’t my fault that the outcome to Round 2 was stupid” (It wasn’t stupid, but it did involve an element of educated guesswork, and perhaps a bit of luck, based on an unfamiliar historical context)
  • “But they had one more person in their group” (If you decided that Alice wasn’t cool enough to join your group, Jenny, then that’s your bag).
  • “But you gave them more help than us” (Yes, because none of them had a ruler. I’m sorry, Johnny, that the ruler turned out to be the ‘lucky ruler’)
  • “The game was totally unfair”; “You didn’t make it properly”; “I bet you didn’t read the instructions right, Miss”; “They always win” (These last were often said in desperation).

I always feel that it is such a shame that a lesson that the pupils had clearly enjoyed immensely left such a bitter taste in most mouths as the pupils slumped (or swaggered) out of the classroom. So I decided that, before playing the final round, we would discuss the lost art of losing gracefully. There were, after a little thinking and some trial and error, three effective approaches to this:

  1. Growth Mindset.  (This Ted Talk provides an excellent introduction to this field of research). Linking into the work of the Innovators of Learning team at my school, I decided first to remind pupils about the importance of resilience.
  2. Accept the emotions:  According to Cary Cooper, psychology professor at UMIST: “The first thing you need to acknowledge about losing is that it is going to hurt,” he says. “Later on, you may be able to rationalise it, or logically explain why it happened, but the first reaction is going to be a bad one – whether it’s tears, anger or frustration. It’s important to let these feelings out – as long as you manage them correctly.” My second way of preparing the students was therefore to tell them that they would be angry! In the same way that if I make a joke about an aspect of myself the pupils could make fun of (such as my name – ‘Plobo’ always gets a laugh), then I retain some of the control.
  3. Let it go, move on and get some perspective:  In these competitive historical games, the pupils got really involved in what they were doing. That was the beauty of the game, and why I looked forward to them so much. They were grappling with the situations that faced the Tsar in 1900 and explorers during the Age of Discovery. They were learning about teamwork, history and effective decision-making. Yet this was dangerous beauty. They became so wrapped up in the game that they lost all sense of perspective. I decided to remind them about the element of luck involved in the game; I reminded them that this was a rainy Tuesday morning during Period 3 and that by Period 4 they will probably have found that they had aced a Chemistry exam, or by the end of the day, they would have won that football game against a rival school.

I summed up these approaches into a PowerPoint slide, which I went through before the final round. This way, pupils would be prepared to lose.

The pupils still hated losing. But this time they didn’t look like they were going to get violent.

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