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Interview with Sean Anderson

Sean Anderson Like so many other English language teachers, Sean Anderson often found himself creating original materials for his students. Unlike most teachers, the Canadian took that a step further and created a whole fantasy world and a set of playing cards to engage his students in that world of questions.

The Japan-based Anderson and his creative partners at Quest Maker Media reached out to local ELT publisher RIC Publications and together they are slowly building word of mouth and a user base for their unique teaching product.

Sean took some time to answer some questions about the origins and future of Question Quest.

Mark McBennett, ELT News Editor, October 2013

Mark McBennett:
First of all Sean, tell us a bit about your ELT background.
Sean Anderson:
When I first came to Japan from Canada back in 1999, I started teaching for a small company that hired teachers and sent them out to businesses and colleges. I taught conversational English to businessmen, businesswomen, and college students. Then, I moved into the eikaiwa (English conversation) scene. There I taught students of all ages, and later became a trainer and supervisor. I became a supervisor because I wanted the experience, but after a few years I realised I was a teacher not an administrator at heart, so I moved on and taught a year at a Japanese high school. I did four more years at a small eikaiwa after that, but then returned to the same high school I worked at before.

Now, I teach both returnees and non-returnees. My returnee classes run similar in method and content to high school classes in North America, and I teach English conversation skills to the non-returnees. To keep improving my teaching skills and bring new ideas to my work, I attend teacher training workshops and seminars here in Japan that interest me.
Mark McBennett:
So the development of Question Quest has happened "on the side" in tandem with your teaching work. Did the idea come to you in the classroom or from somewhere else?
Sean Anderson:
At the last eikaiwa I worked at, I taught mostly children. I had an elementary school student who would not participate in the conversation circle activity I did regularly in class. While the other students were excited and speaking, he would just sit there. After limited or no success with other approaches, I finally got the student speaking with some homemade cards he could read from. Each card contained a single question, some example answers for the question, and an image pulled from the Internet to illustrate the question’s purpose.

I also had another student, junior high school this time. I would ask him questions, and he would just look at me, smile nonchalantly, and say, “I don’t know.” At the time, I was still producing new homemade question cards for the elementary school student. Thinking of the junior high school student while I worked on the cards and feeling frustrated. I grumbled to myself that I should make a card with his picture on it and put the words “I don’t know!” at the top. Then I thought, "Wait! What if I did make an I don’t know card?" That was when the basic idea for Question Quest formed.
“This was the first time I'd seen elementary and junior high school students self-correct their own English so intently and actually run to their textbooks to use them as a resource.”
Question Quest
Mark McBennett:
There is a ton of teacher-produced language learning material out there, especially online. Some of it is great, but most isn't. What gave you the idea to develop something as high-quality as Question Quest?
Sean Anderson:
The thing about an idea is you don't know if your idea is any good the moment it's created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. What strengthened my gut feeling that Question Quest was worth the time investment was how the students reacted to the game during my play tests. When the students would play, knowing points and victory over their classmates were at risk, they would self-correct, or rush to their textbooks to prove another student's English was incorrect and prevent them from scoring. I'd been teaching for years, and this was the first time I'd seen elementary and junior high school students self-correct their own English so intently and actually run to their textbooks to use them as a resource.

And as for other language learning materials, while there have been efforts to make things better, language learning materials, particularly games, whether they are online or not, are no match in terms of engagement and visuals for the games students would rather be spending their time with. Language teachers are still using standard playing cards with the rules of Crazy-Eights and Go Fish, and online games with lame graphics. Meanwhile, their students have developed a taste and hunger for more complex card games and video games with incredible visuals. With Question Quest, we did our best to combine English conversation with the look and feel of the modern card games students enjoy. While we plan to take Question Quest online someday, we wanted to start with a card game that is accessible to all teachers and students, whether they have a computer in the classroom or not.

Language learning through games is more popular than ever with teachers and students, and rightly so because it is effective! We have to start raising the quality of these games while staying true to our teaching goals, and Question Quest is a strong step in that direction, and at a very reasonable price.
Mark McBennett:
Looking at your Quickstart Guide, the game is for small numbers of players, and each turn of the game is based on a question on a randomly dealt card from a deck of 104. Take us from there.
Sean Anderson:
Question Quest is a language learning game for 2-6 players. Students are each dealt five cards and take turns asking the player on their left a question from a question card in their hand. If a student answers a question correctly, he keeps the question card and one random card from the top of the deck. If a student answers a question incorrectly, the student who asked the question keeps the question card and one random card from the top of the deck. Each card has a point value, and the total value of these two cards are the student's points for the turn. "Correct" answers are determined by the teacher or by the students themselves based on the students' language needs.

During a turn, while a student is asking the student on his left a question, the other students in the game may interrupt the asking and answering students using the game's special cards, each one named after a linguistic deficiency coping phrase like "I don't know!" or "I'll answer that!"

There is also a special card that allows a student to ask any question to any other student in the game, and another card that demands a longer answer from a student after they answer correctly!

What sets Question Quest apart from other language learning card games are its rules. They are not based on an existing mainstream game where English speaking is peripheral to gameplay. In order to complete a turn and win a match of Question Quest, you must speak English. Question Quest is conversation with all its wonderful questions, answers, and best of all, interruptions! Teachers who take the time to teach their students how to play Question Quest are teaching their students how to function in an actual conversation and giving them the confidence and means to control and direct a conversation themselves.
Mark McBennett:
There is a degree of complexity to QQ. How long does it take to get students using and learning from the game? And what is the target age and/or level for the game?
Sean Anderson:
Question Quest is for high beginner to intermediate students. The game can be understood within minutes, but over time as students get more familiar with the game, the deeper mechanics present themselves. After a game or two students start asking, "Can I play a special card this way?", "Can I use this special card to stop that one?" Or sometimes they experiment by playing a special card and seeing what happens. Their confidence and curiosity are rewarded with new strategies to use in the game.
Mark McBennett:
And how about teachers? How difficult has it been to sell them on the unique concept?
Sean Anderson:
Well we've only been out since April 2013, so it's like anything new. Forward thinking teachers have been the first to use Question Quest and reap its benefits. Teachers set in their ways are more resistant. But once a few of them take the plunge, and give the game a proper try, they will be glad they did because their students are the ones who will really benefit.
Mark McBennett:
How are you going about promoting QQ?
Sean Anderson:
We've been working hard to promote Question Quest at the grassroots level, with teacher conferences, conversation lounges, and school demonstrations. We know that as soon as teachers get their hands on the game they love it and become our best spokespeople, so we're trying to get it in as many teacher hands as we can.
Mark McBennett:
QQ portrays a rich and beautifully illustrated fantasy world and a nicely balanced cast of characters. But I imagine the game play leaves students wanting to know more. Do you see this QQ world and the back story being developed as an anime or manga, something to give it more mass appeal?
Sean Anderson:
Yes, we intentionally designed the card game to give the player a lot of teasers about the QQ universe and how it works. We'd be thrilled to show even more of the world we've created through manga, anime, and additional games. We know the content is good enough to support that kind of venture, and are currently looking for partners to make it a reality. We have enough story and adventure to fill several books of Question Quest lore!
Mark McBennett:
Would you envisage developing the QQ world yourself, maybe using a platform like Kickstarter to seek funding? Or are you hoping someone like Nintendo will buy you out?
Sean Anderson:
We'd love to work with larger game makers to get QQ better established be it the card game, video game, or manga/anime format. Even after all this time we're still the biggest fans of our characters and the world they live in, and want to bring that vision to as many people as we can. But we're not looking to cash out, we're invested in Question Quest as an educational tool that can rejuvenate language learning around the world!
Question Quest

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