Core Content and the Power of Play

Core Content and the Power of Play

By Norton Gusky, Educational Technology Broker for NLG Consulting

There’s a growing interest in not only using games to motivate and engage students, but to use the elements of game-based learning to make learning more empowering and personal for students. Often games are thought more for younger students. However, teachers at all levels and in a variety of subject areas are discovering the power of play in their classrooms.

David Dulberger, an elementary teacher at the Emma Doub Elementary School in Hagerstown, Maryland, Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek, middle school cultural literacy teachers at the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, and Daniel Harrold, a high school English/Language Arts teacher in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, have all deployed a variety of strategies using games in their classrooms. Key to each teacher is the ability to use the game-based learning elements to make learning more engaging. This includes strategies such as: rewarding success using badges, leveling of tasks, personalizing learning, and becoming a maker or creator.


1David shared and demonstrated via a Google Hangout many of the tools and strategies he deploys. One of the keys to engaging his fifth grade students is the use of “badging” through My Big Campus, a learning management system from Lightspeed. David designs badges based on the academic skills he wants his students to display. For instance, this past year he created an Environmental Researcher badge. The students received the badge if they demonstrated their ability to address a Focus (Driving) Question. In addition to David’s work with his students, his principal has also discovered that badging can be a motivator for the professional staff to demonstrate teaching skills.

Da2niel Harrold works with high school students. He has created a game “Escapades through British Literature” where students received badges to demonstrate the mastery of skills and concepts relating to English beyond the standard, required curriculum. According to Daniel, “These badges are not only rewarding in themselves but also lead to higher grades (students need at least one of three possible badges per quarter to earn an “A”) but also to “level-up” (acquiring 3, 6, or 8 badges grants the student new powers in the game). Badges allow students to personalize their learning experience.”

Leveling of Tasks

Not all students start at the same place or move at the same speed through a game. It’s important to have an entry level where all students have success and then increase the complexity of the tasks to keep challenging the learner. In Daniel Harrold’s English class students are not simply students completing academic tasks, they are time travelers on a QUEST through British Literature History. Daniel explained, “Each unit, or QUEST follows a similar pattern: Questions, Understanding, Explore, Synthesis, and Test. The Questions are the overall learning goals for the unit. Students must ultimately demonstrate mastery of these concepts to advance to the next level. To accomplish this, students travel through four types of assignments. The first, Understanding, is the background knowledge level. This is where I will deliver direct instruction via video, text, or online content. This is most similar to the “tutorial” level of a game. In the Explore stage, students read the text and interact with it, via discussion boards, class conversation, small group work, or any other option they see fit. This is similar to the “exploration” level of a game in which the player must find a dungeon, or seek out clues. In the Synthesis stage, players created a project-based assessment piece, which ties all the information together, similar to how gamers will defeat a dungeon using new skills or weapons. The final stage, Test, is the boss battle in which students must complete the paper or essay only. In all assignments, students are graded on a mastery scale. If they score 85% or higher and receive full XP, but if they don’t, they must improve their work until they hit the mark. Students who exceed expectations can be awarded with “gems” or a bonus XP.”


David takes a slightly different strategy. He uses several tools that allow for adaptive practices by his students. FrontRow is one application that allows David to see student performance and then group students based on their performance solving complex math problems. The students compete to earn “coins” and see their status on a Leaderboard.


Another tool that David uses to level instruction is ScootPad. Again students receive rewards for activities that are linked to math, reading, or vocabulary standards.

Personalized Learning

There are a variety of definitions for personalizing learning. I’ll use the approach recommended by Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray ( They see personalized learning as a strategy that empowers the learner to make choices based on their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The key is the fact that each learner is part of the instructional process. It’s not just the teacher making the instructional learning path decision. That would be an individualized learning approach. The same is true for differentiating instruction. While both individualized learning and differentiating have personal elements, they do not give the learner the control for their learning.

David shares the responsibility for the learning with his students. Games provide opportunities for individual pathways. Students have ownership of their learning through “BigCampus.”

5Using BigCampus students now have a place to see their achievements (badges), develop a social network of “Followers” and other students who “Follow” them, and can post information to a Wall. It’s really a private Facebook environment that is now shared with a learning community.


Daniel Harrold sees gaming in his classroom as a tool towards “autonomy.” I see his definition of autonomy as personalized learning. According to Daniel, “The biggest advantage and goal of Gamification is the pursuit of autonomy. If Gamification is simply used as a behaviorist model on steroids, it risks actually making students less self-regulated, and more dependent on external rewards. The design is key in order to give students flexibility and differentiation so they may mold their own learning experiences, and play the game not only to “win”, or “finish” or “earn an ‘A’” but to gain more autonomy.”

Michelle King and Nick Kaczmarek use game-based learning to empower their sixth grade students. They work in teams of two where the students become colonists or civilization builders. Like Daniel Harrold, Michelle and Nick’s students shape their own experiences by the choices they make in the “Big Game” – the analog game that the students create to address an Essential Question about history, geography, or economics. By giving the students autonomy, the students own their learning. They discover resources, engage in research, and reflect on the implications of their choices.


Unlike Daniel Harrold and David Dulberger Michelle and Nick’s students develop the structure and rules for their academic “Big Game.” New mechanics occur as the game progresses based on student choices. For instance in one game “growing crops was not part of the original game” Nick explained. After the game progressed students felt that new features should be added. As part of the structure of the game students developed their own scoring system. Michelle added, “They created an algorithm for what constituted ‘happiness’ for their cultural group.”


The teachers I approached use a variety of game-based learning strategies to engage and empower their students. In each case the students play a key role in the game. The students make personal choices and are rewarded for their risk-taking. They sometimes may lose, since games by their nature have winners and losers. However, unlike a traditional classroom the students see “losing” as a strategy for getting better or defeating an opponent at another level. In the end all the students are winners. They have evidence – badges or their own learning – that they mastered something. Students in all three classrooms whether an elementary, middle, and high school level, are engaged and actively involved in learning content, dispositions, and processes that will make them successful life-long learners.

Redefining Play

Redefining Play

By Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two Zulama classes at West Allegheny High School in Imperial, Pennsylvania. Here students are learning about the evolution of games and learning how to create games for mobile devices. Teacher Chris Lucas challenges and encourages his students in ways that remind me of how a really good coach inspires a team to win. His students are engaged from the moment they enter the classroom until it is time to leave. They work in tandem to share information and deepen their learning within a comfortable and inspiring learning space where innovation and creative design are encouraged and valued. In Chris’s classrooms learning is a “happening” driven by design thinking. All in all, I had a delightful classroom visit and it got me thinking…

photo 2 (3)What if we view the classroom experience similar to the way we view the play experience that takes place in design thinking? What if standards-based education and the hard work of learning mimicked what happens within the social context of play? People are fully engaged and focused during play. They readily take on challenges, solve problems, innovate, and improve in their skills, as mistakes become opportunities to discover strategies for success. In play, perseverance is rewarded. What if kids viewed school in the same way they view play?

We know that when playing games individuals feel a sense of optimism and take on challenges with a renewed belief in their ability to problem solve and succeed. We know failure is defined in games as a learning opportunity. We know that with games individuals are intrinsically motivated and deepen their communication, iteration, and collaboration skills through the play experience. With games social skills are built and the bonds of friendship are strengthened as individuals share common goals and work to accomplish them. With games individuals become accountable and responsible for their actions.

Design thinking is dynamic. It sparks rainbows of creativity with limitless horizons. Design thinking is ingenuity in motion. Design thinking is play. Can teachers who are accountable to the standards be convinced to welcome their students to a day of play? Can they be assured that play will deepen content knowledge, ensure positive classroom management, and build 21st century learning? They can. It all starts with design thinking and moves toward an environment that champions game-based and project based learning.

Let’s use the Civil War as an example. State standards require that students recognize the causes of the Civil War, identify significant battles, recall important dates, explain the heroics of generals, and analyze the impact the Civil War left on history. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students master the standards. There’s no time for play, or is there? Can design thinking and game play create a need to know and a mastery of the standards?

IMG_0218Good morning, class. Today we begin our three-week study of the Civil War. You will have a lot of work to do as you explore its causes, what happened during its four long years of battle, and the impact it had on the people, on the country’s economy, and on history. We will need to create six board games on the Civil War, play and evaluate the accuracy of information found in a video game on the Civil War, and complete a media project that will require you to present what you have learned to others.

So, let’s get started. As before, class lectures will be available online for you view at home or during your study hour. During your class time here, you will design six games that address the standards found in your Civil War information packet. Each team is required to design a game that explains its assigned topic. This will require historical research. Each of you will have the opportunity to play test all of the games. Each of you will then write an essay question that is answered by one of the games. Selected questions will be used as part of your Civil War end of unit exam.  

Following successful playtesting, the class will be divided into three teams. Each team will explore how the Civil War affected the region in which we live. We will pool that information to assemble a creative media presentation. We will present your games and the class media presentation to the county historical society. They look forward to sharing the games you will design and your media presentation on its website and in their educational outreach with middle schools. Now, what do we need to do first? …

Game-based learning brings the hard work of play into the classroom, and with it, learning is not a chore, but an enjoyable challenge filled with optimism for success, problem solving, a set of goals and established pathways (rules) to meet those goals, and willing students who take a deep dive into content. Redefining play as an integral part of the classroom experience transforms the learning process from one of textbook drudgery to creative investigation. Learning has a purpose, a need to know beyond doing well on a test. Students and teachers become partners in learning as they explore content, apply knowledge, and enjoy sharing their discoveries. And, with it, learning becomes a enjoyable journey.


Blended Learning and Game Design: The Perfect Fit

Blended Learning and Game Design: The Perfect Fit

Bev Vaillancourt M.Ed., Educator, Instructional Designer

According to the Clayton Christensen Institute, in 2000 about 45, 000 K-12 students took an online course. By 2009, that number had skyrocketed to 3 million K-12 students. It is anticipated that by 2019, roughly 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online. Blended learning is an integral part of the growth of online learning as more and more school districts take advantage of the personalized learning and ease of assessment blending learning offers.

One of my first assignments with Zulama was to teach Games Through the Ages (now Evolution of Games) to a group of middle school students in three different countries: the United States (Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California), Singapore, and Greece. It was, in every way, an amazing experience. I say “teach,” but really what I did was facilitate and mentor. The kids absorbed the online content, worked with their families to make and play games like Ur from ancient Mesopotamia and Senet from ancient Egypt, and grew into a collaborative and supportive group of students through their discussion posts and the sharing of their completed WebQuests. It was a wonderfully enriching experience for me to work with kids so invested in learning for the fun of learning. They grew in knowledge and gained an appreciation for the global learning network right at their fingertips. Learning just happened, naturally and unencumbered.

Missing from this wonderful online experience was the value and importance of face to face contact with students. It’s the teacher in a classroom offering accolades, support, and always asking the probing questions that sparks innovation and creativity, and for kids fosters a belief in their capacity to learn and learn big. Teachers bring effervescence to a subject and inspire iteration by asking a simple, “Are you satisfied with what you’ve created?” And then, teachers help students take the next step in their learning journeys by looking beyond the content to where the content can lead them.

I often wished while teaching my online Zulama students, that I could have had all of them together around a table to share their excitement about the cultures they were studying and the games they were creating. Such an opportunity would have underscored the energized learning that happily bounces around a classroom where students assume accountability for their learning while deep diving into collaborative projects. Invested teachers inspire new ideas, creative moments, and a desire to learn, especially in a blended learning environment that is interest driven, personalized, and game-based.

Blending learning offers an ideal setting for Zulama’s courses in game design. Here students become self-reliant learners by assuming ownership of the content delivered online, and then invest themselves into the group dynamics of IDEA teams (Innovate, Design, Engage, Assess). Within their IDEA teams they design and build products that deepen their knowledge of cultures, storytelling, computer coding, and 3D modeling. The basics of game design parallel the learning process: rules, voluntary participation, feedback, and goals. Blended learning and game design become a perfect fit.

Blended learning offers unlimited opportunities to turn kids on to learning. With blended learning, test and forget give way to a desire to learn, share, collaborate, iterate, and excel. Teachers play a pivotal role in the blended learning environment, not as subject matter experts, but as facilitators of that curiosity and directors of sustained knowledge acquisition. Game design creates a template for the process through its focus on helping students become collaborators, communicators, critical thinkers, and creators: the 4 Cs of the 21st Century Skills. And it all happens within the blended learning courses that make up Zulama’s Entertainment Technology Academy. They serve as a foundation and a model for education’s bright future.

Teacher Spotlight

Back To the Classroom Via Zulama

Wasserman2Scott Wasserman

Entertainment Technology Teacher

Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools

Mechanicsburg, Ohio

Wow! A bunch of new experiences all at once! Returning to the classroom after being in administration for the last 18 years is quite an adjustment. To say I was excited and apprehensive as the first day of school arrived is an understatement. While I cannot say the transition has been all smooth sailing, it has been a lot of fun! Zulama is a new curriculum to our school and I still feel like a novice. Yet, the curriculum set up is user friendly and the kids have been engaged in the lessons. There are discussions, projects and time to play games with each other.

I have been an avid gamer since the days of arcade Pac-man and yes, even Pong. My family used enjoyed playing board games when I was growing up. Little did I realize that both of these activities were teaching me things about socialization, strategy and patience. Zulama adds in the “extras” of historical background and writing in the curriculum. I still have to adjust to grading writing assignments (as a former math teacher), yet each activity has an assigned rubric that significantly helps students with clear expectations and me with feedback.

Wasserman1My pleasant surprises would include the socialization of the students and their willingness to help each other through trials during classwork and projects. They frequently discuss problems and ask their classmates for help. The atmosphere has been really positive. When they get ahead of their classmates (Zulama has the flexibility of being self paced), they frequently pull out a gameboard and sit down with friends to play. They share strategies and insights into gameplay and have started to talk about modifications.

What a ride! I am behind in grading and I have yet to figure out the nuances of Zulama’s gradebook, but for the most part it is easy to use. The kids and I both enjoy class and are currently learning about Egypt and the game of Senet. Do I play games with the students? Absolutely! I am challenged to play the current unit’s board game often and several students from my first period class are currently playing a MMO with me online. I look forward to continuing my education and experience with Zulama.

I need to close by saying thank you to the support staff at Zulama; they are great. Our tech coordinator Eric Griffith has be invaluable with support and grant aquisition. The administration has been very supportive of the program. Now, if I can just figure out how to write a SLO (Ohio teacher evaluation system), I will be ready to roll.