What is education for?

I am beginning to read about education theories, education policy and chalk-face teaching stories.

Yes, I am preparing myself to train as a teacher. Hopefully I will be starting a course in September 2015, training to teach 11-18 year old children, specialising in Computer Science.

I am picking up lots of swipes about educational “fads”: e.g. “learning styles”, or “growth mindsets”.

And I was reminded of something David Hume nearly said: most arguments are about the definitions of the concepts used.* Once the concepts, the words, and their underlying ambiguities have been exposed, the debate can then agree on what they mean and don’t mean and the proceed to talk about what the real issue is.

I was reminded of that when I read this in the comments section of a blog post – The Growth Mindset.

“I believe the purpose of the education system should be to prepare all children for a life as independent adults, and to offer academic or vocational opportunities which suit their interests and abilities.”

So before getting involved in an argument about whether this research demonstrates this or that, we should always have in front of us an agreed principle of what education is for. And no doubt we will have a lot of definitions.

And this is where I come up short. I mostly agree with the statement above, but worry that in practice education is about work: getting qualifications that will get jobs, or at least the first step on the rung of the career ladder. After that we all know it’s about hard knocks.

And this is where I get flumoxed. There is yet a bigger issue, an assumption, behind the definition above. What traits, what qualifications, what skills, what experience leads to success and what is success anyway?

I ought to lie down.

My way of coping with this is to come back to this question about what is education for. For in that definition are the crooked timbers I can use as cudgels against the sea of fads.

I hope.

* What Hume said was “the chief obstacle … to our improvement in the moral or metaphysical sciences is the obscurity of the ideas, and ambiguity of the terms.” (EHU 7.1.2/61)

Spud head

Learning Aim

Learning each others names and an icebreaker.

Game Synopsis

A quick, fun game, requiring no resources.


Get everyone sitting in a circle with the teacher in the circle too. It could be done with everyone standing if there are no chairs. Sitting is best though.

The teacher tells the group that they are going to forget their own names.

Rules of the game

  1. The teacher starts the game (or use a random process – spinning a bottle or pencil etc.)
  2. The first person points at a person and the pointer says their own name
    1. If you don’t say your name you are a spud head and are out
    2. If you point at a person who is already a spud head you are a spud head too, and are out. 
    3. If the group decides they cannot work out who your are pointing at you are a spud head too and are out.
  3. The person pointed at now points at a new person etc.
A person who is a spud head puts their fist on their forehead.


The last person who is not a spud head wins!

The Last Word

Learning Aim

A game for all levels of English above pre-Intermediate (B1, B2, C1, C2)

  • Listening: understanding the rules of the game
  • Listening: to other players
  • Pronunciation: Practising saying words
  • Vocabulary: Recalling and using words in English

Game Synopsis

This is a filler game. For example it can either be used when waiting for other members of the class to arrive or as a reward, especially for younger players, at the end of a teaching session.

It is quick, competitive and engaging. Learners are intent on winning and forget they are thinking and speaking in English because they want to win.

Resources required

  • two dice, if possible have one dice that is much larger than the others, if not use differently coloured ones
  • whiteboard or blackboard to write up the target letter/s and the words used


Introduce the game, and go through the rules. Give an example of a turn. Emphasise that the game is about speed.

Order of play

  1. Use a simple method to select who is the first player (last birthday, who last went to a party, who last ate a boiled egg, etc.)
  2. A letter or combination of letters is selected, usually by the teacher. This is the letter or letters that each word has to start with. The selected letter/s can be “e” or “ch”. (Note for harder variations you can designate that the target letter/s come at the end of a word.)
  3. The start player rolls the large target dice once and that number is the target number. Place this on a book or somewhere prominent so it can be seen be all and not knocked over!
  4. The start player by taking the “rolling” dice and tries to say a word that starts or ends with the target letter/s.
  5. If they say a correct word they roll the dice, if it is the same number as the target dice they have said the “last word” and won.
  6. If not, they pass the dice (or it is grabbed by the next player) and they have their turn.
  7. Repeat stages 5 and 6 as rapidly as possible.


Two alternatives. The simple scoring methods suits younger learners.

Simple scoring

The player who says the “last word” scores a point. Note this on the whiteboard / blackboard.

Advanced scoring

The player who says the “last word” scores points for every word that has been said in answer to the current “target word”. (Note this requires that each word is written on the blackboard or whiteboard.) Be prepared for cries of “its a lucky game!”


Example of play

  1. The teacher selects a “ch” as the target letters.
  2. The player who last visited a shoe shop takes the target dice and rolls a “4”
  3. The first player says “charlie” and rolls a 3 with the rolling dice
  4. The next says: “chips” and rolls 5.
  5. The next says: “chimpanzee” and rolls 1.
  6. The next says: “chocolate” and rolls 4. The “last word!”
  7. They score 4 points under the advanced scoring or 1 point using the simple scoring rule.

Note on speed

The teacher should drive this game to go as fast as the players can manage. Obviously use your knowledge and judgement of the players, but at times you might wish to drive the play by grabbing the dice and passing it to the next player, or if a player hesitates too long pass the dice to the next player… As the learners get familiar with this game, they will drive this themselves.

Who goes first?

Who goes first is a simple question and can often be answered with a simple dice rolling contest etc. However, if you want to keep your learners on their toes try using a different method to nominate the first player.

This is a good ideas as the learners have to listen and understand a new set of instructions at the start of each game.

Here is a set of suggestions I have used.

  1. Whose future birthday is the closest to today?
  2. Who had the last birthday?
  3. Who last ate “a boiled egg,” “a tortilla,” “fish and chips,” etc.
  4. Who last journey was by boat, bike, car, plane, coach, bus, minibus?
  5. Who last made a journey to an island?
  6. Who last swam in the sea, swimming pool, river?
  7. Who can add up three numbers and divide by 3 the quickest. (Write these on the blackboard.)
  8. All roll dice and the highest / lowest goes first. Highest draws keep rolling until one is the highest.
  9. Shuffle a deck of cards and deal one to each player, the lowest or highest goes first. Highest / lowest draws keep rolling until one is the highest.
  10. Who last went to the theatre, cinema, concert, etc.
Maybe you could write a list of ideas or make a set of cards and use them each time you want to decide “who goes first?”

Word Battleship

Learning aim

A game for pre-Intermediate and advanced-Intermediate English learners.

  • Listening to and understanding the rules of the game
  • Practising saying letters and numbers 
  • Understanding and spelling words in English

Game synopsis

Using the traditional format of Battleships, the players attempt to locate words and predict them and their location on the grid.


  • paper with 10 by 10 gridded squares
  • whiteboard and markers / blackboard and chalk
  • pens, pencils etc.


The teacher prepares a crossword like grid with 10 words that are written vertically top to bottom or horizontally left to right and that intersect. All words have to be written like a crossword so that they only form proper words. Do not run words parallel to each other or butt words endtoend!

Each player is given a blank grid so that they can mark off the missed shots and letters hit.

The teacher writes on the whiteboard 20 words, 10 of which are already on the grid prepared earlier.

Order of play

  1. In turn each player calls out one of the gird references. (e.g. “A8”)
  2. The teacher tells the player if they have:
    • missed
    • hit and what letter was at that grid reference
  3. The player can try to guess either a word or the entire grid. See “scoring” below.
  4. Next player…


After each player calls gets a hit, the player can attempt to guess the word hit. Each word correctly guessed earns a point.

Alternative scoring: A correctly guessed word scores as many points as there are still un-hit letters in the word correctly guessed!

Monster’s Inc

This is a simple educational game that engages the children in a game, gets them using their imagination and naming body parts, and also gives them some drawing fun.

I have used it to assist children in listening and speaking English.


  • pens, pencils, erasers, crayons etc.
  • paper
  • alternatively you could use a whiteboard or blackboard


  1. Each person takes it in turn to suggest a body part, a type of animal or some feature. For example: a big nose, speakers for a hands, pirate arms, angel wings or a giraffe’s body. The teacher writes this on the board.
  2. Each child draws the new “body part” on their paper, adapting it to the other parts drawn before.
  3. When all have finished, each student passes their paper to another student. This is simplest if they pass to the same person each time. It could be randomised, but this will create more fuss and potential confusion.
  4. Go back to 1 and repeat.
I would suggest that no more than 6 or 8 parts are included in each drawing as the sketch gets a little busy after a while. Keep an eye on progress.

When all have completed their drawing, gather them in and ask for the children to judge which is the best.

Ask them what they like about each one. Praise good ideas etc.

Ask them to name the bit which is the head, or the body etc.


This example was created from the following list.

  1. Speaker Head
  2. Thin Body
  3. Pirate Arms
  4. Octopus’ Tentacles
  5. Silly Hat
  6. Small Legs.
The class voted this one the best one.
I liked it because one child told me that he had included two “pirate arms” – the one with tattoos and the “internet pirate” with the mouse! Not bad for a Spanish kid of about 12.


Thanks to Ian Temple for suggesting this idea.