Teaching Like a Game Show Host

A game show template encourages and engages reluctant learners.

When you think about it, most middle school teachers would make great game show hosts. We get to know our contestants, we tell them the rules of the game, we play the game, and everyone is a winner for having the experience.

What if every middle school class could provide the students with a “game show” atmosphere in which learning and study skills were the focus?

This year, my school adopted a new study skills program for seventh graders. The goal was to increase the students’ learning capabilities across 10 skill sets associated with executive functioning and 21st-century learning:

  1. Organization
  2. Planning
  3. Focus/Attention
  4. Time Management
  5. Self-Awareness
  6. Curiosity/Research
  7. Adaptability
  8. Critical Thinking
  9. Problem Solving
  10. Collaboration.

I was assigned to teach these skills to 196 seventh grade students on a rotating schedule. I was excited about this assignment, as these skills are vital to student learning. My goal was to provide my seventh graders with a class like no other—one that kept them engaged while using executive functioning skills along the way.

AMLE talks with author Christopher Elliott about Teaching Like a Game Show Host

Practice Round

An interesting thing happened on my first day of study skills instruction. I stood in front of my students with excitement in my voice and academic rigor in my veins and explained that the focus of the course would be on learning the skills they needed for school and workplace success.

Instantly, every child’s head went down and looks of despair crossed their young, innocent faces.

Not to be dissuaded, I went through the curriculum with as much pizzazz as possible but failed to help them understand how these skills could benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Seventh graders, as it turns out, are more interested in getting through the rest of the school day than planning for the future.

The opportunity to learn the art of origami grabbed students’ attention.

Still, I had a trick up my sleeve. I began to win back their attention by talking about some of the topics we would be studying and activities we would be doing in the class, including origami, puzzles, meditation, maps, gladiators, football players, frogs, paper airplanes, renewable energy, game building, and the history of jazz.

“We’re going to do origami?” exclaimed a student who was still paying attention.

“Yes!” I said. “We are going to learn about the importance of focus and paying attention by doing origami.” The students began lifting their heads, opening their eyes.

“My mom showed me how to make the crane,” one student volunteered.

“I love origami!” said a girl who moments before had been slumped in the back of the room.

Engaging young minds actually is easy. You can mention a popular music artist, a trendy eating spot, or even kittens on the Internet and you have their attention. The trick is to embed learning contexts into these high-interest topics.

By developing and revising the curriculum model, I began to create lesson plans based on four concepts for middle school student learning. These concepts became my game show template:

  1. Discussion
  2. Prior Knowledge
  3. Activity-Based Learning
  4. Reflection.

My means of assessing student learning was the Cornell notetaking system. This simple system incorporates the key concepts I expect the students to learn while participating in my version of the Study Skills Game Show.

Category #1: Discussion

The first element in the game show template is getting to know the students/contestants. You can get a feel for the class and what each student is bringing to the table on any given day by asking some basic questions that lead to discussions.

For example, on the day we are doing origami, I simply ask if any students have done origami. That question serves as an icebreaker that gets the students’ attention, prepares them for class, and helps me sort out which students might be having a particularly off day physically, mentally, or emotionally.

As we discuss the lesson for the day, the students use the Cornell notetaking method to record and organize their notes. They know the focus of the lesson and establish their own knowledge and opinions of what it may be about based on the discussion points. It’s similar to the contestants introducing themselves in the game show. Hearing their stories is important.

Category #2: Prior Knowledge

The second element in the game show template has to do with establishing the rules of the game. After discussing what they know about a topic, it’s important to provide contestants with a common language. Students need the vocabulary and historical context of the lesson’s topics to move forward as a class.

Students use the Cornell notetaking system to write down a series of cue words with definitions. This may be the least interesting and most disciplined section of the class, but it can be enhanced with visual aids and a unique perspective.

For example, for the origami lesson, we define focusattention, and tradition, and read a brief account of the history of origami. I follow up by asking the students to share their own family traditions.

Category #3: Activity-Based Learning

By now, we are halfway through the game show and at the end of most seventh graders’ attention spans. That calls for a shift from direct to indirect instruction.

Students need an example of how the lesson pertains to them. In the case of the origami lesson, I have the students follow directions and work in small groups to complete a simple boat design. After each student feels confident in this preliminary round, we move to the secondary round where they apply their newly learned skills by researching their own origami designs and teaching the method to a classmate.

Most seventh graders crave opportunities to collaborate; even introverted students will work together with a smile.

Category #4: Reflection

The fourth and final component of the game show template involves reflecting and providing feedback on the lesson.

I ask the students to write about what they learned, liked, or disliked about the lesson using the cue words from their notes. I ask them to be critical of the lesson and of my job as their teacher and host.

Reflecting and summarizing are higher-level thinking skills and require synthesis, analysis, and deep contextual understanding of learned experiences. For a middle school teacher who is mining for lesson comprehension and engagement, this feedback is like gold.

Going back to look at their notes is like looking into the mind of a seventh grader. The amount of learning that occurred during the lesson is highlighted in their reflections. It’s apparent where the students felt success, met the academic challenges, and overcame the difficulties.

The reflection is the credits that roll at the end of the show, listing the core components that made the show a success or failure, and everything in between.

The Win!

This engaging game show lesson template can be applied to any number of high-interest topics. The key is to connect with students, keep them mentally engaged, build on prior knowledge and vocabulary, apply study skills, and reflect with purpose. You will be at your best if you share the love of learning with your students, so have fun!