Teaching 21st Century Learners

Norton Gusky, Educational Consultant

In the late 1990s the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) created a framework for learning in the new millennium. Yet, just over fifteen years into the new century it’s already time to rethink the P21 framework. First there was the 3Rs. Then came the 4Cs—communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. To this, P21 added life and career skills and information and media skills. Today in order to meet the needs of 21st Century learners we need to build out the skill set further to include computational thinking, entrepreneurial spirit, and dispositions like persistence.

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In its educational leadership role, the South Fayette School District, located south of Pittsburgh,  has developed an articulated K-12 model for learning that addresses all the key elements of the P21 framework. Called “STEAM Fusion”, South Fayette’s model integrates engineering and design problem-based learning. Going one step further its model pulls in elements of computational thinking, career connections, and entrepreneurial spirit.  This article brings to light the South Fayette model in an interview with Aileen Owens, the Director of Technology and Innovation. In addition, this article will share the perspective of Jerry Cozewith, the executive director of Entrepreneuring Youth, a non-profit organization in PIttsburgh that targets minority and underserved youth in grades 6-12.

The South Fayette STEAM Fusion Model

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For Aileen Owens, computational thinking plays a key role in opening up opportunities for innovation. “I developed a computational thinking initiative and that initiative is a way to teach the thought processes of innovation for our students.”  Aileen Owens in a proposal for a grant support from the Grable Foundation, a major educational foundation in the Pittsburgh area, outlined the role of computational thinking:

Computational thinking as a process of working effectively with computer-based technology is the new literacy. Understanding programming is as important to our children’s future as the basic reading, writing, and mathematics literacies. Computational thinking, as described in the working definition established by ISTE/CSTE, is a problem-solving process that includes (but is not limited to) the following characteristics:

  • Formulating problems in a way that enables people to use a computer and other tools to help solve them.
  • Logically organizing and analyzing data.
  • Representing data through abstractions such as models and simulations.
  • Automating solutions through algorithmic thinking (a series of ordered steps).
  • Identifying, analyzing, and implementing possible solutions with the goal of achieving the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources.
  • Generalizing and transferring this problem-solving process to a wide variety of problems.


In addition to computational thinking the South Fayette model incorporates a series of dispositions called Habits of Mind. According to Aileen there are five key Habits of Mind that are essential to Computational Thinking: ·       

  • Confidence in dealing with complexity
  • Persistence in working with difficult problems
  • Tolerance for ambiguity.
  • The ability to deal with open-ended problems
  • The ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution.

Entrepreneuring Youth

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According to the Entrepreneuring Youth website: “We help young people start and operate businesses as a way to guide them toward their own path to success after high school. When young people run businesses of their own creation, they bloom with newfound confidence. They discover talents which were once hidden. They think of themselves as “owners” and “presidents.” Young people who become young entrepreneurs realize the value of creating (rather than waiting) for opportunities.”
According to one of the young entrepreneurs featured in a promotional video, EY gave her a voice. “… I could stand up before all of these people and say things that were on mind.”

Jerry Cozewith focuses on the concept of “self-efficacy” as the key for success. It’s about empowering youth. It’s not just that kids learn the value of owning a business; it’s more about the growth of young men and women who have the tools and awareness that will make them successful wherever they travel or seek to make their imprint. The EY program expands on the P21 4Cs by giving students motivation. Without motivation learning does not happen.

The Role of of the Zuluma Entertainment Technology Academy

How does this new definition for 21st Century Learning fit into the Zulama framework? Zulama is built upon the same computational thinking framework outlined by Aileen Owens. In every Zulama course students are using computers to solve problems. In every course students create models, test their ideas, and use a process of iteration to develop creative products. The students build upon class activities to create modified games, 2D and 3D animations, or screenplays for video scripts.

The Habits of Mind that frame the South Fayette Fusion model are essential to the growth of learners in the Zulama Entertainment Academy. Students learn to deal the complexity of game-based learning systems. Students gain an awareness of ambiguity. Students work with open-ended problems often as part of collaborative teams.

The Entrepreneurial spirit shines in the Zulama Studio Courses. Here students work in teams to create creative solutions for their school, their community, or for global partners. The sense of “self efficacy” identified by Jerry Cowewith is seen over and over among Zulama students. Zulama students are truly motivated and become an esprit corps that sells the value of this type of 21st century learning to other students.

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Crossing Borders Through Games

By Sarah Avery, Zulama Community Advocate, Educator

With our global economy and game industry, it’s important that our students are provided chances to improve their skills and shine.  And they are! With a variety of innovative initiatives, both through Zulama classes and other technological projects, students are given opportunities to code, design, build, and create, even at the global scale!

In the Classroom

Today teachers are expanding their classrooms beyond national borders.  Take a look at the following video.  You’ll see students at the Qingddao Amerasia International School connect with Dan Geisler, award winning designer, through a video conference.  During that conference students were able to learn about the industry and the design process from across the world.

In Higher Education

In addition to classroom conference calls, many students are able to cross cultural bonds in higher education while studying something they love. Centered in Barcelona, leading game design companies, Digital Legends, Crytek, Ubisoft Barcelona and King collaborate on the new Bachelor’s Degree in Video Game Design and Development taught 100 percent in English at the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya.

Students from across the world, joined by a common language, come together and collaborate on games while learning valuable industry skills at this university.

Ways to Make Connections

Holly from edTechTeacher wrote an article titled, Five Amazing Ways to Collaborate With Another Class, where she provided examples of ways to widen the educational reach of your classroom, not just with games.  Examples include project collaboration through google docs, video conferences, cross culture blogging, and more.

For some ideas on connecting with classrooms around the world, check out Fractus Learning’s article, 5 Great Tools to Make Global Classroom Connections. Many of the examples provided are similar to pen-pal letters on steroids, thanks to the invention of social media!

As a final recommendation, if you are looking to connect with game design professionals, I suggest sending an email to ask. Consider the possibilities when students research companies to connect with and write professional introduction and invitation emails to those companies!  Through organizing the google hangouts I have found that it never hurts to ask.  Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised by those  interested in sharing their knowledge and experience, especially for the sake of education.

In coming weeks we will be joined by professionals, directors, and students in our next hangout, The Global Games Industry.  During this hangout we’ll be discussing topics ranging from concerns of an indie developer to global diversity and originality.  We would love to have you join us and tweet in comments and questions to @ZulamaLearn.  It will definitely be time well spent!


Until then, please enjoy some of our past hangouts:


How have you inspired students to connect globally? Comment below!

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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.

The Power of PBL

The Power of PBL

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

Educator, Instructional Designer

Bev_compressedI worked with high-risk high school students for several years in a special high school completion program. The kids came to me as seniors with barely a high school credit to their name. Most were chronic truants. Some were dropouts we connected with and brought back into the system. The goal was to get those young adults out into the working world, have them pass the five GED tests, civics, and health, and graduate them with their class. And they did! I had the privilege of being the teacher of 130 students over seven years who became high school graduates as a result of the program.

Many of the kids simply did not like each other. Though we were in an off-campus setting, old feuds from the high school setting prevailed. Once given the opportunity to succeed, their motivation to finish school was actually not a problem. Getting beyond their dislike for each other was an obvious barrier right from the start. Each year I found a community service project to start our school year as the first of several projects we worked on together. It forced the students to work together and gave them a purpose; at least that’s how I thought of it then. Looking back, I now realize the students were immersed in 21st Century Skills. The “project” took a disconnected group of students and gave them a purpose on which to focus their energy and passion.

One year the group built a play station for a local daycare. The large play station came in several parts, with lots of screws and bolts. It was “some assembly required” to the max! The guys saw it as a guy project. They could lift the heavy pieces into place, and right in their cars, every one of their cars, was a set of tools waiting to be used. They instantly took on individual roles, some pulling pieces into place, others driving bolts where needed. They forgot they were supposed to be at odds with each other because the intrinsic joy of building and the showing their finely-tuned building skills overcame any past disagreements. It was poetry in motion.

What about the girls? The guys dismissed them as unnecessary and let them know it, not only in what they said, but very definitely in how they behaved. At least they did until one of the girls picked up a screwdriver and started securing a timber, demonstrating obvious skill. Time stopped at that moment for the guys. Another girl picked up the printed directions and started reading the directions aloud, step by step. A third helped organize the sequence of the assembly. By early afternoon, the play station was built and the kids looked at what they had constructed with pride.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the project can be best described within a social context. A dramatic and long-lasting change came over the group as the play station project progressed. They recognized and respected individual skills and shared a common purpose. Collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, voice and choice, and the creation of a product – all enhanced 21st Century skills ruled the day. And every day they could drive by the day care center and say, “I built that.” Their product was a public good. It was shared with the community in the local newspaper, and their image in the community became positive.

idea team finalThe power of project based learning is truly unlimited, not only in building important personal skills, but also in helping students learn how to function in the real world. Project based learning is a keystone of Zulama’s courses. Project based learning is not one person working on a project, but a group of engaged individuals sharing talents though collaboration. Everyone brings his or her unique qualities to the project.

Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. Zulama calls these small group and group process IDEA Teams. Teamwork builds self-reliance, self-confidence, accountability, and most importantly, responsibility. In the first Evolution of Games IDEA Team project, students create the game board for the ancient game of Ur that originated in Mesopotamia. Students take a deep dive into the history and culture of this ancient time and place and then translate their knowledge onto a game board. Who does the research? Who creates the art? Who constructs the game board? Who presents it? When does the group meet and what are they responsible for sharing?

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

Royal Game Of Ur Game Board

This early project sets the social context in which the class functions. Just as with my play station-building students, IDEA Teams find purpose and pride in what they accomplish, not because a teacher has told them what needs to be done and how, but because they determine their set of expectations and strive to meet them.

It’s exciting to read about the energized project based learning environments in the Danville, Kentucky school district and at High Tech High in Philadelphia. It’s equally exciting to walk into Zulama classes and see the social engagement and cognitive investment when students are immersed in game design and project based learning. Research supporting project based learning is compelling. I saw the benefits of project based learning play out for 130 young adults who walked with great pride at graduation. Class projects became defining moments in their education and had a dramatic and positive influence on their futures.