Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gaming the Classroom: Upending the Meanings of Work and Play

Today I had the pleasure of having Lauren Burstein visit my classroom. The visit was a pleasure for many reasons, one of the most significant being that Lauren is a former student of mine from Frisch. Lauren, who teaches English at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and I have been in contact since last year and this past summer's RealSchool Summer Sandbox, and it was on the way back from Jedcamp in Brooklyn last Sunday that we decided she should visit my classroom to see if she was interested in gaming her English class.

I had decided to game mine very recently. About two years ago, I saw John Hunter discuss his World Peace Game in a TEDTalk, and the idea to create something similar has been percolating ever since:

John Hunter is truly remarkable

I've also been intrigued over the past year by social media posts about educational gaming and inspired as well by educators such as Sarah Blattner who are proponents of it. This year seemed like the time to make my first move, so to speak, into the world of games in the classroom. 

The class I chose to game is a senior English elective at Frisch called Hot Topics. The class focuses on two main controversial issues, medical ethics and racism, and has traditionally employed different media to connect students with the issues: film, art, and various types of fictional and non-fictional works. The course's loose structure made it perfect to game.

I don't have a lot of experience playing computer games and so borrowed the set-up of the game structure more from John Hunter than from Minecraft or Angry Birds. I also decided to start small to see if the gaming methodology worked for me, and so the first thing I did was game the summer reading assignment.

The students had read about the amazing inventions and ethos of the MIT Media Lab in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss, former director of the Lab, as well as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which poignantly portrays the horrors of cloning. The two books lent themselves to being gamed, focused as they were on either the possibilities or the limits of technology. 

In this version of Monopoly, students replaced Broadway with the MIT Media Lab and
advanced players with innovations from the Media Lab, portrayed in Community Chest cards.
In the Community Chest card shown above, one of the Media Lab's ethos -- failing fast to learn fast --
has players move back three spaces but receive $50!
Students came up with games based on Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and Uno and also invented their own games. I particularly liked one student's response to what he learned from having created his game: "I saw that there were moral consequences to people's actions." That conclusion is obviously the aim of reading a book such as Never Let Me Go, but it was much more important to me that the student realized that himself instead of being fed the line by me. Students also told me they learned a lot about the books from each other, when they planned the games and discussed quotations from the books that they'd use. They also said they had to learn how to combine the perspectives of different people in their group. Social-structed learning appeals to me greatly and is a natural outcome of kids' playing games -- or in this case, making them -- together.

To reflect on the assignment, I had students create videos about the learning experience. Here's one that includes a narrative frame, which is something important in an English class!

Once the students finished the videos, they posted on any failure they learned from over the course of the assignment. You can see their posts here: Fail Fast to Learn Fast linoit board (Thanks to my sister Smadar Goldstein of JETS, for introducing me to linoit walls).

All in all, I felt satisfied that rich learning had taken place during the game-making unit, and I saw how much fun the kids had and how deeply engaged they were by the activity. They also told me how much they enjoyed a class where they weren't sitting down the whole time and where they had autonomy and control. As a result of all these positive outcomes, I felt ready to tackle a more complicated gaming activity, the making of a Simulated City.

The summer reading game was structured as a project-based learning (PBL) unit. I designed the assignment, set up rubrics for the game, made sure students presented to an audience, and assigned reflective pieces. For the Simulated City, I'm opting to create an inquiry-based learning (IBL) classroom. Much of the learning and project outcomes will be driven by the students, with my role being to deepen learning, guide it to more sophisticated places than the students might take it on their own, and base project outcomes on what I think the students will be most interested in. 

On the first day of the city's creation, the students and I discussed what sectors of a city they'd be interested in forming and came up with the following seven areas:

Eco-friendly Fashion
Governance and Politics
Urban Design
Waste Management

Our Urban Design team

Waste Management goes green in our city!

Students didn't have to be told to dream big;
after reading The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices
this past summer and because of their own interests,
they were already thinking of blue sky technologies!

As our curriculum takes shape, it's become clear that we need:

1) Project Goals for each week; students post their daily progress in Google Docs they've created for the class
2) A class blog where we can make the process of our work visible to the larger world
3) Presentation dates when each group can report on its research and then make proposals for the city that classmates will vote on

In order to connect the Sim City with the syllabus I'd prepared, I also asked the students to choose an ethical dilemma for their group. For example, Urban Design is debating whether the city should have housing projects, while Sports is researching performance-enhancing drugs so the class can decide if they want to allow them. Eco-Friendly Fashion is investigating sweatshop use and how to create eco-friendly and affordable clothing, while Governance is going to present legislation on abortion and gun control that the class will vote on. 

The pros and cons of performance-enhancing drugs
are presented in two books Rami is holding (and now reading!),
Enhancing Evolution and The Case against Perfection
What I loved about Lauren's visit today was that it made the students' work more authentic -- as having outside visitors tends to do. It forced the students to articulate more clearly what they've been working on and where they are headed in their research. I heard Lauren ask probing questions and push the kids to think more deeply about their topics. I could have done the same, but when it's your teacher bugging you, you might roll your eyes. The students took Lauren's thoughts and questions seriously.

Knowing Lauren was going to come also forced me to think more carefully about the expectations I have for the groups and how I see the quarter developing. While an inquiry-based learning classroom unfolds in a more free-form manner than a PBL one, I'm finding it can still have a careful design and a clear timetable and basic frame. Creating those elements has been fun.

Lauren discusses with Waste Management their ideas and research

Governance and Politics share with Lauren what they've been up to
One of the most gratifying parts of Lauren's visit was her noticing that the students seem truly engaged in their work and passionate about it. I hope so. The aim of the gaming assignment isn't only to have fun -- though joyful learning is something I always think about cultivating. It's also to have fun while being deeply immersed in work that is satisfying and challenging and that speaks to a student's passions and interests. 

One student in the Sports team actually wants to be a sports agent,
so his research on how to become one is obviously relevant to him 
 Lauren is welcome back anytime, and in the meantime, my students and I will continue our classwork play.

Additonal Resources

Traditional descriptions of "gaming the classroom" discuss ways of introducing video games into learning. Check out these articles on educational gamification:

Harnessing Gaming for the Classroom

Sarah Blattner recommended this book on gaming to me:

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World


  1. Tikvah, you make me wish I could do high school over again and be your student.

    1. Thanks so much, sis! You inspire me with your creativity in Jewish education.

  2. Tikvah,
    You actively partner with your students in the design of learning in your classroom from planning through execution. You give your students agency and choice over their learning, which in turn opens up "spaces of possibilities." Katie Salen from the Institute of Play speaks about the value of play in learning and how we need to open up these spaces of possibilities for our students. Your classroom shows that idea in action and engages learners and gives them that "need to know". Awesome!

    I agree with Smadar -- I'd love to go back to high school and experience it again in your classroom!

    Here are some more resources on games and learning:

    James Paul Gee:
    Author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

    Institute of Play GameKit

    Katie Salen on the Power of Game-Based Learning

    1. Sarah,

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply, and thanks for introducing me to the world of gaming -- and badges. I'm going to explore the links you've included. I'm always eager to check out your recommendations.

  3. NB This section was full of photos, so apologies if it doesn’t read well. The Winner? I mean, a band called "Walwyn" has a distinct poetic ring to it! NEW