Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite
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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards
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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!

Education 10.0?

If you started a school from scratch, what would you see as necessary, and what would you take out from what we currently do?  Thanks to the inspiration from George Couros this week and his #IMMOOC blog challenges, I am going to delve into my ideal school.

I’ve been thinking about my own school for years now.  It lives in my head and calls to me every time I ram my head against the proverbial wall of resistance at my current school.  When I can’t understand how change can be so slow, I fantasize of this dream school’s inner workings.  The thing is, my dream school already exists in bits and pieces around the globe.

DESIGN

Its beautifully designed flexible learning spaces live in schools like Iolani, Avenues, and the Blue School, where space and light invite creativity and learning.

MAKER CULTURE

Its Maker Space lives at NuVu, where students use the design thinking process to create things like this hand drive wheelchair attachment, clearly meeting the needs of their users through empathy.

Or at Brightworks in San Francisco, where “hands-on” learning is the norm, and the belief that “everything is interesting” is a core value.

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Brightworks, San Francisco

TRAVEL

Fostering global awareness through travel opportunities at my dream school exists at the Think Global School, where students immerse themselves in the cultures of the world.  When students aren’t learning in another place, they might be using VR technology to likewise gain empathy and understanding.

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THINK Global School

SUSTAINABILITY

Its sustainability focus lives at Crossett Brook Middle School, where Sarah Popowicz leads students to investigate our world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

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Emmett, Nicole, & Maeven growing micro greens for Cougar Co-op

I’ve left the most important part for last–the teachers.  In truth, good teachers are hard to find.  A shared vision, a commitment to student learning, and the right people are an ideal combination, and with this working space and conditions, well-rounded, engaged, and inspired graduates wouldn’t be far behind.  Some of my favorite teachers inspire students daily, think deeply about how to be better, and constantly innovate: Marc Gilbertson and Whitney Kaulbach, Chris Bologna, Cori Rockwood, Pat LaClair, Katie Bryant, and Nick Allen.

 

In the design of a new school,  a fierce desire to inspire a culture of learning in students is necessary, and my dream is to recapture the adventure in that learning.  By creating experiences for students that enable them to learn while doing, to feel valued in their opinions and ideas, and to foster their natural curiosities while exposing them to new ones, my dream school encompasses what it truly means to be educated.

 

Resources:

“An Avenues Education.” Avenues: New York. Avenues World Holdings LLC, 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“Blue School.” P. A. Collins PE Consulting Engineering PLLC. P.A. Collins P.E., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“Brightworks: An Extraordinary School.” Brightworks: An Extraordinary School. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“Hand Drive Wheelchair Attachment – NuVu School & Autodesk Education.” YouTube. NuVu School & Autodesk Education, 12 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Montgomery, Blake. “The Maker Movement’s Influence: Photos From San Francisco’s Brightworks School (EdSurge News).” EdSurge. EdSurgehttps://www.edsurge.com/, 10 July 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Popowicz, Sarah. “Sustainability Science.” Sustainability Science. N.p., 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“THINK Global School.” Private School Review: New York County. Private School Review, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

“THINK Global School – The World’s First Traveling High School.” THINK Global School – The World’s First Traveling High School. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

 

 

 

 

Design thinking: how might we share the impact of technology on teaching & learning?

Just a quick share of my slides for our VITA-Learn workshop last Friday…

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If any of you have ideas about how best to share your successes around technology and its impact in the classroom, I’d love to hear from you! Our designers discussed a Tech Hub, a plan for creating time for staff innovation every school week, and some potential additions to two dynamite VT-based learning platforms: LiFT and Launch Pad (currently in beta in with limited availability).  Feel free to share your successes on Twitter with #VTedtech.  Let’s share all of the incredible tech happenings in our schools!

Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

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Me in all my sweaty glory under a tree that smells heavenly.  Can anyone tell me what it is?

So I am training for another half marathon, and beating myself up about not running enough, but when I do run, it’s in some incredibly sweet places: up the side of Mt. San Jacinto, through Golden Gate Park, and alongside the unparalleled pacific coast most recently.  Aside from getting in shape, these miles are for processing.  For some things in my life, there just aren’t enough of those miles, but I do accomplish some decent planning for school.  On a recent run, I recalled my visit to Epic–a middle school in its second year of awesomeness.

Epic is aptly named.  Francis Abbatantuono, their director of personalized learning, took a significant chunk out of his day to meet with me and two of my colleagues on a recent visit to NorCal.  His passion for game-based learning and education in general was apparent, and I sat in awe listening to him recall his journey over the last few years as a founder of Epic.  It kicked into high gear when they won a Startup Edu competition, and has grown into a successful middle school model with future plans for growth into high school.

What brought me to Epic was their focus on learning through and with games, and they do so with a focus on the hero’s journey.  Students receive their handbooks in the late sIMG_5620ummer, but in contrast to the standard thick brown envelope full of multi-colored random pieces of paper to be signed, their handbook is beautifully crafted, and sets the tone for the school year with a story: “…you are one of the chosen ones,” the story tells students in its opening pages.  Framing the challenges ahead as a call to action, the story acknowledges the work ahead, but ends with questions about identity.  “How did you become who you are?  How did you achieve all that you have?” and the story’s answer is this: “In time, you will reply, ‘I became Epic, because our world needs heroes.'”  How awesome is that?!  That’s adventure, right?  In the pages that follow, you meet Epic’s sages, like Francis here, who are all tricked out in game gear and looking epic themselves.  Now that is an introduction to the school year from which we can all take some cues.

In fact, it has me wondering about how we can apply this to our personalized learning plan (PLP) process in Vermont.  I hear plenty of whining these days from students about PLP’s, and it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of PLP’s and their implementation.  At Lamoille Union, we are fortunate to have some rock star teachers planning the rollout, and they have offered many resources and inspiration in an admirable attempt to support faculty in this venture.  Still, students are complaining.  So I’m wondering how might we adopt some of Epic’s awesomeness and take the power of narrative and games for a spin when we launch the second year of PLP’s?  How might we reinvigorate the PLP’s by deeply thinking about next year’s launch?  What if we framed the school year as an adventure quest?  (I’m picturing our school entrance and lobby designed with student engagement and inspiration in mind.  There is art.  A lot of art.)  How might we integrate badges into PLP’s?  Using a platform like Schoology, it would be relatively seamless.  How might we integrate the power of games into our classrooms and programs in order to increase student engagement?IMG_5586

Epic grants badges for various accomplishments tied to their three foundational principles: safety, responsibility, and respect.  Each badge has its own rewards, and some badges can be combined to create a new badge that holds higher level rewards.  For example, the Hacktivist badge is earned when a student has a Maker and a Catalyst badge, both of which are earned separately for their own demonstration of skills.  What if students were combining their PLP badges to demonstrate proficiency in transferable skills?  “Look, Ma!  I earned a physical health badge for the marathon I ran, and a community service badge for my erosion project.  I can demonstrate grit with these!”  Badges give students something concrete to connect their learning to their goals, and thereby help them understand how to tangibly demonstrate skills acquisition like creative problem solving, grit, and communication.

Some people run for the same reasons they play games: competition, strategy, skill, coordination…I run to think.  And I think I might be on to something with layering game principles onto our PLP’s.  We know games are engaging.  As a state, Vermont has set out to personalize learning in an effort to reach all students.  The two ideas seem like a natural fit.  Many thanks to Epic (and my Brooks) for the inspiration.

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Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

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Designing learning spaces to inspire adventure

It’s true that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to attend four conferences in the last three months, and as I dive into the fourth (Deeper Learning) at High Tech High, I am faced with the question of how best to share the information when I return to my home school.  People are innovating; how best do I use my exposure to these conferences and school visits to inspire my fellow teachers at Lamoille Union?  I think I may have stumbled upon the answer while listening to the amazing Eleanor Duckworth today.

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Eleanor Duckworth & Rob Riordan

“Telling people what to think is no way to get them to think it, too,” she reminded us.  That is, use the power of inquiry to encourage people to come upon their own realizations and lessons, and then the true learning happens.  When they come to the conclusions themselves, new pathways are truly formed in their brains and then change can happen.  I know; it’s perhaps a simple idea, but equally profound.

 

So to that end, I offer up these:

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HTH International (above) HTH elementary (below)

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VIDA Maker Space in Vista, CA

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Da Vinci School in LA

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The Sycamore School in Malibu

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So here is my question: how might we redesign our learning spaces so they encourage wonder, inquiry, and a sense of adventure?  Subtlety has never been a strength of mine, so I’m not sure I am practicing Duckworth’s ideals as well as she might have intended, but I hope that these photos of High Tech High/High Tech Elementary, VIDA in Vista, and The Sycamore School in Malibu can start some conversation around learning spaces.  What do you think?  How does your school look different?  In what kind of learning space do you want to teach and learn?

Let them play! Recapture the adventure in learning

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Opening slide–credit Pasi Sahlberg

Yesterday, I was fortunate to have attended a discussion led by Pasi Sahlberg and Saku Tuominen from Finland at #SXSWedu.  They titled their talk, “Can the Finnish Education Miracle be Replicated?”  The talk was more a call to action shaped by these three Finnish cornerstones: 1. Let them play! 2. Prepare kids to be wrong and 3. Build on what works.  If we are to transform education in the US, then we must embrace these ideas and shift our culture to show that we value them.

As a proponent of game-based learning, I found these ideas validating, exciting, and inspiring.  The Finns embrace play as a regular part of the school day–everywhere–recognizing the importance of what Einstein once said: “play is the highest form of research.”  Play inspires curiosity and inquiry, and isn’t that what we want from our students?  For those teachers looking for a structure to bring playful inquiry into the classroom, games provide the necessary framework to both inspire and engage.  The Institute of Play created a list of seven game-like learning principles which, when carefully considered, paint the picture of an ideal classroom environment.

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Photo credit–Quest to Learn

Challenge, participation, learning by doing, feedback, iteration, interconnectedness, and fun are all recognized as pieces of the game puzzle, and also as solid classroom pedagogy.

So to answer Sahlberg and Tuominen’s call, let’s bring more games into classrooms.  Number two on Sahlberg’s list asks us to prepare kids to be wrong.  Not only do games provide students with a safe place to fail, but they also teach the idea that failure is really just iteration.  How many times have you seen students playing a simple game (either surreptitiously in class or elsewhere)?  They aren’t quitting when they don’t accrue the points they want, or when they fail to guess correctly.  Instead, they are motivated to try again and again to get it right, or get better.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  And fun has an important role in the classroom.

I think that some educators are reluctant to integrate games into their classrooms because they don’t believe that games can provide the necessary challenge inherent in deeper learning.  Perhaps they think that games are just filler for the end of the period, or to be used strictly as a review tool.  While those applications are valid, I’d like to offer some examples of games that require students to dig deeper and to actively use higher level thinking skills.

Paul Darvasi, an English teacher and NYU doctoral candidate located in Toronto, Canada, has experimented with delving deeply into game based learning, and has arrived at incredible results.  Darvasi took the plunge by using Gone Home, an award winning game completely devoid of zombies and killing, as the basis for literature study.
Brilliant!  Rather than reflecting on the narrative of a images-3bound novel, Darvasi asked his students to discover the narrative elements in this emergent media, complete with annotation and close reading tasks as well as video game review.  Essentially, he used the game as a catalyst for building critical thinking and writing skills.  Ever humble, Darvasi shares both his lessons and reflections on his blog, and invites other teachers to experiment as well.

Peggy Sheehy, a teacher from Suffern, NY, also dives deeply into games in her classroom.  With a focus on the hero’s journey, Sheehy, in partnership with the curriculum writer Lucas Gillespie, uses World of Warcraft as a catalyst for deeper learning.  Connecting three elements–the game, Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, and students’ real lives, she invites
images-4students to dissect the meaning of the hero’s journey as it plays out in each different arena.  Again, students engage in similar exercises as they would if they were reading a bound copy of a novel alone, comparing the game to other texts and media, writing creatively in response to game-based prompts, and drawing connections between their experiences in real life and those in the game.

As an English teacher, my bias is clear on choosing these two games on which to focus, but I believe in the importance of paying attention to games as a viable tool in the pursuit of deeper learning.  The third tenant of Sahlberg and Tuominen’s suggested path was to build on what works, so I encourage you to take the plunge, and if you do, please tell me about it!  If we are to embrace play and recapture the adventure of learning, games are the perfect vehicle.  Teachers can provide the opportunity for both the deeper learning they crave and the play that students so desperately need in our current educational setting.

 

 

We can do this: design thinking as edu-therapy

The state of Vermont adopted the Education Quality Standards in 2014 and thus set in motion an education overhaul.  We needed it.  Schools in Vermont have been working hard to retrofit our systems in order to meet these new requirements, and with the class of 2020 as the first ones who will graduate measured by their proficiencies (proficiency based graduation requirements), this shift is literally just around the corner.

The staff at Lamoille Union knows this, and when we met for inservice last Friday morning, it became ever clearer that this transition will be both complex and challenging.  Among the concerns for our staff were issues around communication to parents and community members, changes to our grading and reporting practices, a need for common language, and what will be required of students who receive a high school diploma from LUHS.  Although there were many concerns, I believe that this is the first law that holds genuine potential to truly change the way we educate our students.  Still, it’s intimidating.  It’s overwhelming.  And it’s happening next fall.

 

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Kate Selkirk and Leah Hirsch look on as Brad Parker explains his prototype.

So how do we as educators get a strong grip on the changes that need to be made and welcome them?  Our first solid go at it was inspired by design thinking in a workshop led by Leah Hirsch and Kate Selkirk, two teachers at Quest to Learn in NYC, and in conjunction with the Institute of Play, also in NYC.  With their guidance, our faculty experienced design thinking with an introductory wallet design challenge.  Pairing up educators who don’t often work together, we opened the door for connection and collaboration, and judging from the positive feedback and laughter, it was enough to break the tension created earlier in wondering aloud what these changes might bring.

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Crowded around the art supplies like kids in a candy store

The power of play once again leveled the field, and we were able to move on to the real work.  Teachers met in interdisciplinary, cross-school groups which provided them the opportunity to have rich conversations void of any baggage.  The result was therapeutic.  Given license to think about all of the challenges inherent in How might wean overhaul, plenty of sticky notes gave their lives to thoughts and concerns.  Grouping them was the next task, after which followed the key to the work: “how might we…?”  It is an incredibly empowering question to ask, as within its structure is the idea that the person asking the question already knows the answer.  It was the proverbial leather therapist’s divan

As expected, solutions to those problems abounded.  Teachers started to see what was possible, dream about how it might happen, and be inspired by one another.    The simple use of the word “might” freed us.  It wasn’t, “How will we…?” In fact, Leah and Kate pushed the idea of thinking big and bold.  So our staff dreamt, and we considered, and we collaborated.  We realized that this change could be incredible, and that we have the human resources to handle it.  We felt better.

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In the end, after we grouped our thoughts into categories and considered what prototypes we might create as we ran out of time, we left for lunch with some important takeaways:

  • change can be intimidating, but realizing just how talented the teachers with whom you work are is incredibly comforting as you’re facing it
  • approaching a problem with design thinking is good therapy; it reminds you that the answers to your problems lie somewhere within
  • trust and a willingness to roll up your sleeves to do the hard work are two incredibly important components to creating lasting change

While design thinking set us on our way toward school-wide change, it is also something that can (and might I suggest, should) be used on a smaller scale in the classroom.  Check out Saga Briggs’ collection of 45 design thinking resources for educators if you’d like some ideas about where to start.  I’d love to hear about your experiences; feel free to leave comments!