Decision making games to enthuse and nurture oracy

Thanks to Guy Bowles, Head of History and Stephen Perrin, (Acting) Assistant Head, from Upton Court Grammar School in Slough (@UcgsHistory) for this blogpost. Lots of colleagues are wrestling with effective ways to implement intended learning and student oracy remains a key focus. Guy and Stephen share with us how they are using decision making games and share some resource here too.

Our best teaching tool – Decision Making Games

“What is your most effective teaching tool?” I posed this question a few months ago at our weekly departmental Lebanese lunch on Slough High Street  (we live a glamourous existence!!) to which there was a universal answer: DECISION MAKING GAMES.

Now, to head the slings and arrows off at the pass, we’re not saying we’re recommending teaching in just one style or with just one activity, but if we had to (with a halberd pointed at our heads), we would choose our purpose built, specification aligned, and engaging DECISION MAKING GAMES.


Unsurprisingly, they are lesson activities based on an historical event or topic, broken down into chronological stages, where students are confronted by the need to make a decision across a series of 5-6 choices. The decisions to be made simulate the issues, dilemmas and situations that the real historical protagonists had to face along the way, and thus attempt to place the students “in the shoes” of the protagonist. The choices available include the “correct” or actual event, as well as viable choices that could have happened (more on this later!). Students are allocated points for the wisdom of their choices and thus compete with each other turning the activity into a game.

How does it work?

Let’s explore an example, in this case, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Firstly, we identify the question, in this case, “Why did the Spanish Armada fail so miserably?” to frame the exploration of the cause of its defeat. Then we give the historical context and immerse the students in the task facing the historical protagonist, in this case the Duke of Medina Sidonia:

Screenshot (56)

Then come the decisions. In this case study, each is chosen to illustrate critical failings in the Spanish plan. For example, decision one is:-

Screenshot (54)

After students have made their (individual) decision, the teacher facilitates brief whole class debate as to why students chose their answer, using this to promote oracy and higher level thinking as well as a deeper understanding of the key issues. Links back to the key question are embedded into these discussions along the way as well (“so, thinking about this decision, why did it go so wrong for the Spanish?”). Points are then awarded for each decision – this builds engagement in the game and tension as the correct answer is revealed. Often we use a PowerPoint presentation to add a central focus to the game and to visually aid the explanation, as well as to offer definitions for key terms embedded in the game.

Students then write down the actual outcome and dual-code their understanding via a Pictionary drawing. Each stage takes (approximately) 8 minutes from start to finish so there is a real sense of momentum and impetus to the game. Ideally a six-decision game can be completed in an hour’s lesson.

Screenshot (59)

The Pictionary comic strip serves to reinforce their memory as well as providing an excellent retrieval starter (re-tell the story using only the cartoons!) for the following lesson – and of course a few laughs for the teacher along the way!

In this way, the sequential stages of this game allow the students to explore the key events in the chronology of the defeat of the Armada: storms in the Bay of Biscay; being spotted off the Lizard and harassed down the Channel; failure to liaise with the Duke of Parma; fire ships at Calais; the Battle of Gravelines; the dispersal into the North Sea and subsequent catastrophic shipwrecking. The thinking involved in the decision making encourages students to explore the key themes and causes of the defeat: poor planning and preparation of the Spanish; superior equipment and tactics of the English; luck and the weather. The chronology of the game teaches key content; the thinking encouraged by the game builds a foundation of understanding for essay based assessment questions.

Of course, it is important to follow up the game with consolidation of understanding, and in-depth debate based on the enquiry question – but in our department we have found that the level of engagement and understanding is much improved as a result of using these simulations.

What are the benefits?

Quite simply this is our most efficient and effective teaching activity. It is also the most fun! For the students, it is a highlight of their week and it is not uncommon for them to queue early for their History lessons when they know a decision making game approaches. Pupil voice consistently demonstrates its promotion of engagement and its popularity. Facilitated correctly, all students are fully engaged for the whole hour as the simulation offers immersion in the topic, decisions demand active participation and agency, and the competitive element promotes emotional investment and a sense of fun. The chronological narrative exploits the power of story-telling (one in which the students are immersed) to deliver key detailed content, key terms and the correct sequencing of events. The decisions allow exploration of the key issues and dilemmas and where opportune can be used to explore common misconceptions. The emphasis on initial oracy (verbal explanation and debate) is great preparation for written explanation tasks in subsequent lessons.

For a teacher, it does all of the above but also develops superior facilitation and questioning skills. The fun, engaging nature of the game also builds great whole class relationships (which can be leveraged when there are less ‘singing and dancing’ activities to be completed!).

We use decision making games across all topics and all years and Key Stages. From exploring the complex chronology, issues and machinations in Stalin’s Rise to Power (at A-Level) to understanding how something as horrific as how My Lai could happen (Year 10) to demonstrating the futility of protest in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt (Year 7), the benefits of using Decision Making Games are universal. It certainly is not the ONLY teaching tool we use…..but it is our BEST!

We attach the full decision making game for the Spanish Armada (GCSE Year 9):

  1. Student decision making work-sheet: 10-Spanish Armada Decision Making Game
  2. Teacher powerpoint: 10-Spanish Armada Game

For more inspiration relating to getting students talking about history, why not return to Teaching History  148: Chattering Classes edition? Follow @histassoc on Twitter and on Facebook and please send contributions to this blog to enquiries 

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