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.
David 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.
Daniel 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.
There are a variety of definitions for personalizing learning. I’ll use the approach recommended by Kathleen McClaskey and Barbara Bray (http://www.personalizelearning.com/2013/03/new-personalization-vs-differentiation.html). 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.”
Using 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.