What’s a Gamer Brain and How Can We Harness It in Class?

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



In the past, I’ve written on ideas for gamification—using games in the classroom—but lately I’ve been reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that games open up in terms of pedagogy and the classroom experience. While we can use games as tools and perhaps build units that are gamified, we might also adopt some basic ideas from the experience of playing games. Here are four takeaways from games that we can instill in our classrooms.

Leverage the Gamer Brain
People like different kinds of games. You may love a game that your friends don’t like. This is only natural, as different games have different motivations, mechanics, and other design elements. However, these games access different parts of the “gamer brain,” a concept developed by International Hobo Ltd. and illustrated by Rob Beeson, a game marketer and producer. Perhaps you’re a Socializer who likes to talk and support other people while you game. People play World of Warcraft for this reason. Or maybe you’re an Achiever who enjoys the process of collecting objects and completing every available goal. Obviously, Pokémon—the card game and the mobile app—aligns well here. Games may leverage one or more gamer types in their design, and our lessons can too.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Have students self-assess what type of gamer brain they might be.
Have students discuss their favorite games to uncover how they like to engage in their gaming time.
Play games with students and have them reflect on why they like the games. Use that information as feedback for lesson and unit design.
Create a lesson with different types of activities for different gamer types to pick from—perhaps a collection-based activity or a more social one, for example.

Embrace Failure
This is not a new idea, but it’s still an important one. Games can be played over and over, and we can fail and make mistakes and try again. Can you imagine what it would be like to play a game like Super Mario Brothers and only have one shot to get it right? Crazy! Unfortunately, much of the school system and our classroom structures are set up that way. While it is challenging, we need to find ways to allow students to redo work and try again. Games give the just-in-time feedback that shows us what we need to do better, and we teachers can do the same to make failure simply part of the process, not an end. Watch Edutopia’s “5-Minute Film Festival: Freedom to Fail Forward” for more inspiration.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Assess your grading practices to ensure they allow for multiple tries and redos.
Don’t grade practice—grade students at their best.
Embed reflection throughout your lessons to help students learn from their failures and mistakes.
Share famous failures and inspirational quotes to help reframe failure into a more positive experience.

Celebrate Epic Wins
Have you played a game and had a moment when you won and were so excited that you blurted out “Yes!” in celebration? That’s the epic win or “fiero,” as Jane McGonigal explains in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World: “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: We throw our arms over our head and yell.” To me, this means that learning should be challenging, but appropriately so. We should create challenging learning experiences so that students are given enough support to triumph and feel the epic win. We should also celebrate ourselves and each other when we get those wins in the classroom.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Have students celebrate everyday wins regularly as a discussion or journal activity.
Record reactions of students being successful and share them with the class.
Share your successes and wins as a teacher with your colleagues.

Foster Voluntary Learning
We don’t—or at least we shouldn’t—play games because we have to. We do it because we choose to. When we pick up a controller or a chess piece, we’re volunteering into that experience. Games would not be as powerful if we had to play. We can stop when we want, which creates a feeling of safety. When we step into a game, we accept “the goals, the rules, and the feedback” of the game. This is probably the hardest aspect of games to instill in education. Students are required to go to school, and what they learn is mandated. However, we can do our best to create invitations to learn and to create spaces where students volunteer to learn.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Focus on engaging strategies like project-based learning to open the door to learning, instead of forcing students through it.
Provide as much choice as possible for students, from grouping to product and topics.
Give a student a pass if they don’t want to engage, and seek to understand why that is. Then follow up and invite them back to the task.
Ask students what they want to learn about, and do your best to leverage this in lesson and unit design.

What do you think we can learn from games to make learning better for our students?

The Tyranny of Being On Task

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



I remember when I was first teaching and was getting ready for my first official observation and evaluation. I was very nervous. My principal had told me she would be looking for a classroom where students were on task. Heaven forbid that any students were off task. I thought that if my classroom even hinted that some students were off task, I would never be a successful teacher, and perhaps told to leave the teaching profession.

I now know that it is unreasonable to ensure complete on task behavior from every student at all times, but back then I wanted a good evaluation, and I wanted my students to be on task so that they would learn and I could support them. Before the observation, I was told by my colleagues to have students quietly work on an assignment after I gave some instruction. “Don’t have them do group work. Don’t have them present. It’s too risky!” This advice seemed to be successful. When my principal came in, the students were quiet as I moved around to check in with them. After the observation, I was praised for my success in keeping students on task.

Many years later, I taught in a school with a focus on project-based learning. Learning was messy and conflicts emerged as students worked together to solve problems, but ultimately students succeeded. The meaning of “on task” was different there. Yes, there were times when students were off task and I needed to redirect them. Yet I struggled with the expectation of consistent on task behavior.

There seem to be forces in education that push us to make sure students are on task. Why do we attempt to meet that demand when we know it’s unreasonable? Why do we demand on task behavior when it is not equivalent to student engagement? Isn’t it OK for students to be off task from time to time? In fact, don’t students need time to be off task? To take it to another level, what if off task is really on task?

What Does the Science of the Brain Tell Us?
Adults have built executive functions of the brain, and we receive a dopamine reward when we do the right thing. Our students have not yet built up those functions. In the teenage years, students receive that same dopamine reward for very different behavior, when they take risks and explore. When a student does something that is a risk in the classroom, something we might consider off task behavior, they are doing so because they receive a dopamine reward for doing so. Science tells us that students will not only be off task on occasion but might even have strong motivations to behave that way.

What Can We Do?
Instead of working against off task behavior, we should embrace it and try to reframe it as an on task moment that is necessary and useful to our students. Judy Willis calls such moments brain breaks in her book Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. She wants us to understand that such breaks are needed and are useful to students. They prevent the brain from becoming overloaded and give time for information to be processed and retained effectively. On a related note, Eric Jensen explains that movement gives new spatial meaning to information being processed, and increases oxygenation of the brain as well (subscription required).

We should explore ways to incorporate brain breaks more into our classroom routines and norms. Some other practical strategies include:

Be mindful of students’ attention span and chunk activities and tasks appropriately.
Break up tasks with conversations and checks for understanding.
Admit personal challenges and failures related to staying on task.
Meet with students one on one to discuss off task behavior rather than shame them.
Smile and laugh more.
Balance louder and quieter activities.
Move more.

Brain breaks are essential to classroom culture and student learning. These seemingly off task moments are truly on task because they provide a space for students to learn better, and take into account the fact that students are growing and maturing. Brain breaks are responsive to students and help us become allies of their behavior rather than punitive figures. In fact, brain breaks help us as educators to rethink the binary nature of on task and off task and to realize that all the work is on task and helpful to children as they learn and grow.

What brain breaks do you use in your classroom?

Tips for Combining Project-Based and Service Learning

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



Service learning is a great way to not only take meaningful action but also teach important content and curriculum objectives. It is also a chance to build empathy and compassion and have students learn from others outside of school. Project-based learning (PBL) matches well with service learning as both focus on authenticity and meaningful work. When we use service learning as a focus for PBL, we can ensure that the experience is highly effective and impacts learners and also the larger community.

Here are some tips for how to create a PBL project with a focus on service learning:

Assess Community Needs
Teachers and students can find local partnerships to help focus the service learning and project work. It’s useful to provide students with a question to answer, as a way of providing focus for the work. With a partnership, students can find ways to assess community needs. Students can decide what they want to learn and how they will use that information. This is similar to a “Need to Know” list often found in a PBL experience. They should also investigate what data or information already exists to help them and figure out how they will go about collecting more information. The are many opportunities here to address real needs, but students and local partnerships need to work together to find a focus.

Align Content and Skills
Of course, it is always important to align the project to overall outcomes. Teachers can look for appropriate learning targets and standards to address, or solicit these from students. What do they want to learn? As a teacher, you can help them navigate how their project outcomes will meet course outcomes. PBL and service learning also provide an opportunity to teach and assess success skills related to civic responsibility, collaboration, problem solving, empathy, and critical thinking.

Learn From Each Other
Service learning should be a reciprocal relationship where students are learning from their audience and the audience is learning from the students. PBL often does focus on a public audience and product, but here you might consider how students will learn from that audience as well. How will students listen? How will you scaffold listening strategies for students to build empathy and respect? How will students share learning that is reflective of deeply listening to the audience they are serving?

Reflect Often
Reflection is a key component of PBL, and can also help students create more effective service learning products. Have students reflect often—before, during, and after the project—on what they are learning in terms of content and also in terms of empathy, respect, service, civic duty, and more. Reflecting on these topics and skills can help students internalize their learning and allow students and teachers to slow down to ensure meaningful action and learning.

Create an Action Plan
In terms of management, PBL leverages student-centered tools so that students learn to manage themselves. Team working agreements, task lists, and more all help students own the process. Once needs, and ideas for addressing those needs, have been determined for the project, students and local partners can create an action plan, in which they determine small, manageable steps to take to ensure great learning and great service. This is also an opportunity to co-create benchmarks and formative assessments that matter.

Evaluate the Impact
Once action is taken, make sure you take time with students to evaluate the impact. While PBL often has a public product and audience, we don’t always take the time to see or measure the impact. With all the great work students are doing, they and their audience deserve to know the extent of the impact of that work. How much of a difference did they make? Even realizing that there wasn’t much of an impact will still be good learning for students and teachers. This step also provides another opportunity to listen and reflect.

Celebrate Success
Don’t forget to celebrate. Students will have had some impact on their community and on themselves. Carve out time to celebrate where they were before the project and how far they have come. Celebrations can be traditional, like a gathering or party, but they can also involve discussions, letter writing, and even screening photos and videos of work from the project.

Service learning and PBL are nothing new. Teachers and students have long done amazing projects that serve others. We should continue to push ourselves to make our projects more authentic and more impactful. How are you implementing projects that serve?

Tools for Student Self-Management

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



As educators, we have so many tasks to handle each and every school day. Student absences, assessments, phone calls, meetings — these can pile up on our plates. Classroom management is often considered one of the tasks we need to take on. While this is true to some extent, perhaps we can take some of the classroom management load off the teacher and put it on the students themselves. Management doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, something teachers decide or handle on their own. Students should be invited into the process of managing learning in the classroom. Here are some tools many teachers have used to empower students to self-manage.

Team Operating Agreements
Agreements or contracts created or co-created with students can be a great tool to help them own their challenges when it comes to self-management. While you might have class or school norms, students may not find a true attachment to them. When students create norms, they are more likely to follow them. In addition, students can create norms and agreements that are personalized. While one team might need an agreement about keeping their hands and feet to themselves, another might need one about the free expression of ideas. Norms and agreements should meet the needs of students, not simply be imposed upon them. When students help create the norms, it’s more likely that they will meet the students’ needs.

Task Lists
In addition, students may need scaffolds to organize their thinking, planning, and overall work. They can use task lists to assign tasks to specific team members. Sometimes these sheets have places for teachers, team leaders, and others to sign off when tasks are completed. Scrumy is an online tool I have used with students to organize their work — it functions as an interactive planning tool. Task lists are also great tools for assessment and conversations on equitable collaboration.

Checklists and Rubrics
Of course, rubrics and checklists are tried-and-true tools for self-management. There is nothing new here, but it’s a good reminder that assessment tools are also great management tools. They promote reflection and goal setting, as well as ownership of the work. Checklists and rubrics are more powerful when they are co-created with students, as students tend to understand and take ownership of expectations. Keep checklists and rubrics available to students and plan intentional time for students to use them to assess themselves and their peers, to help manage projects, and to keep constant momentum in the learning process.

Time Management Logs
Using time management logs, students document how long they spend on specific tasks, assignments, or collaborative work. They can do this over the course of a week or longer. The intent is to document and then reflect upon the time they spend learning and working. The log may surprise students and inspire them to use their time more efficiently.

Flexible Seating and Spaces
I’m a big fan of classrooms that have a variety of places for students to work. Some students need quiet zones while others need collaborative tables. Some students work well with exercise balls as seats while others prefer standing desks. There are many possibilities for meeting students’ needs in classroom seating and arrangement. Meeting those needs can promote student ownership of how and where they work and learn. As the teacher, you can coach them through the process of selecting appropriate spaces to work and learn, and students will learn to self-manage this choice as well.

Reflection and Goal Setting
All of the tools above are completely ineffective unless they are paired with reflection time. Just as we take time to reflect on content learning, we also need to take time to reflect on the learning process. All of the tools above provide great opportunities for students to reflect on how they have learned in targeted ways and to set goals. Learning logs are a great tool for this as well, as they promote the process of learning, not just the product. Don’t forget reflection on self-management — it’s critical.

Remember, the greatest tool for management is engagement. Even when our students are engaged, they still need tools to manage themselves. Different tools work for different students, so try experimenting with a mix of the tools above to have students take more ownership of managing their learning process.

Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


3Alwayslearning
My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

Pin It on Pinterest