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?

It Might Not Be a Great Game! Tips for Finding a Quality Game!


This post originally appeared on Microsoft Partners in Learning Network Hot Topics Blog. Microsoft PIL provides professional development, resources and other tools to support educators across the globe. View Original >

Oftentimes, I see many, many tweets that claim this title or variation thereof: “10 Best Games to Teach Math.” Because I am a GBL nerd, I always click on the link and explore. In my exploration of many of these tools that claim to be games, I have found that many in fact are NOT games, or they are poor games. Games are crafted specifically, with certain mechanics and components present for it to be good. Many companies are putting out “games” that are in fact activities with many “bells and whistles” that make it look like a game. So how do we navigate this huge field of games to find the best ones? Here are some starting tips.

Authentic Identity and Story – We play games because they immerse in worlds, real or fantasy, that truly are engaging. This is done through amazing stories and authentic characters that we connect with. We play as these characters and feel like what we do actually makes a difference in the story, that our actions have consequences. What if there are no characters? What if there is no story or engaging scenario? We get bored and choose not to participate. Look for games where there are characters who have agency in the scenario and story.

Content Learning Connects to Scenario – This relates to indicator above. If players are solving math in a content that doesn’t make sense, then students will often see it as gimmicky. Imagine: You are asked to apply your knowledge of math skills in order to kill cockroaches. How does this content make sense in that scenario? It doesn’t. It might be a fun activity for students to practice skills, but students may not be engaged in it, because the game demands learning of content in an unrealistic situation.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking – A great game calls for more than just fact recall, or shallow depth of knowledge. A great game requires students to apply this in authentic problem, and critically thinking to solve these problems. Instead of knowing important facts about the Electoral College to win the game, the player must Win the White House by paving the best possible path and strategy by using their knowledge of the electoral college

Now this is just a start. There are still other components of good games, but I feel these tips will help you as an educator start on the path of quality games to use in the classroom. If you try playing a game, or have your students play a game and it does not meet some or all of these criteria, it may in fact not be a game at all. It might be an activity, where game mechanics have been applied to make it more engaging. It might have some elements of a game, but because it doesn’t it would not qualify as a game. If we truly want to legitimize using games in the classroom, then they must actually be games!

Three Ways Game-Based Learning can be a Helpful Tool


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”
Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Game-based learning is fast becoming a trend in education. Teachers across the globe are experimenting with not only using games, but also game mechanics in the classroom. Games engage us. Our students are playing games whether we approve or not. Whether spending hours at home in the evening playing Call of Duty or more casually playing Angry Birds, students are spending time relentless trying to achieve. We can use games in the classroom to not only leverage engagement but also to align games to instructional principles.

Games as Assessment: As students play games they are being assessed on their progress, provided feedback, and allowed to try again without fear of failure. Our education system does not always align to that principle. Often we punish children with “points” as they practice with the content. Games do not do this. Players are given the freedom to fail and given specific feedback through formative assessment on how to improve. In fact, when players win the level or game (the summative assessment), they are rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment as the assessment is meaningful. Games are excellent models for assessment best practices.

Games as Engagement: Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow—the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging but not too difficult and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow. It’s not necessary about winning—in games like Tetris you are destined to lose—but rather a game gives us multiple victories on rigorous challenges. The rigor engages us, and a game scaffolds that rigor intentionally and in an exemplary manner.

Authentic Learning Experiences: James Paul Gee, game-based learning advocate and guru refers to this as “situated learning.” We know that students must construct and apply knowledge for deeper learning. In great games, students are both learning content and applying in complex problems to solve. Take Portal for example. In this game, the player must create portals between two flat planes. The player not only experiences principles of physics, but must use this knowledge to solve related puzzles. In addition, the player takes on an authentic role. Although based in a fantasy world, the player becomes one with the playable character of the game and invests in the growth and story of that character. When playing in this authentic story and learning environment,the player sees the relevance in learning the content for the purposes of playing.

Games can be another tool for engaging in rigorous and authentic learning. There are many games available to classrooms, from educational games at iCivics, to educational versions of games, like Minecraft. There are even noneducational games that are being paired with instruction to make the game educational, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization or World of Warcraft. Explore what other teachers have done and start engaging students in meaningful play.

What’s It Like to Be a Molecule? Science Meets Embodied Learning


This post originally appeared on MindShift a site dedicated to replacing familiar classroom tools and changing the way we learn. MindShift explores the future of learning in all its dimensions – covering cultural and technology trends, groundbreaking research, education policy and more. View Original >


“Embodied learning” is a new initiative in the field of interactive and game-based learning, in which learning content is combined with physical movement. Among one of the leading organizations in bringing this movement to the classroom is SMALLab, based in Los Angeles. The company has created activities — check out their different learning scenarios – that use large projected environments as experimental playgrounds of movement connected to learning targets.

For example, in one activity, students are put into “acids” and “bases” teams to experiment with molecules in a “virtual flask.” Students can add different molecules to the flask to see how their choices affect the simulated environment by using a “glowball” that contains color LEDs. The experiment, as described in a research brief, should show that, “as particles in the flask collide with each another, they undergo one of four reactions based on the general properties of acid and base in aqueous solution.” Here, the movement is necessary to experiment with the creation of acids and bases.

In another example, students explore concepts in earth science, such as the geological layer cake, and use the glowball and other controllers to experiment with placing fossils in different layers of the earth in different environments, from swamps to mountains.

Schools can use the products in two ways, SMALLab and Flow, for a range of topics and grade levels, including sciences, English language arts, and the performing arts. With Flow, teachers can use an existing Interactive Whiteboard or any project surface along with Microsoft’s Kinect motion-capture camera. For schools that use SMALLab equipment, “there are 12 motion-capture cameras to track students’ movements as they learn in an immersive, interactive space. For example, in the Constant Velocity Scenario, physics students can hear the sounds of their actions getting faster, see graphs that change in real time, and feel how their bodies move through the space.” Its open-source software development kit allows schools to create new scenarios.

Why go through such lengths to teach this material? According to brain-based learning advocates, evidence supports the notion that the work in embodied learning can lead to increased student achievement. John Medina author of Brain Rules, claims that exercise boosts oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain, which helps students concentrate better in school.

In their own research conducted in K-12 schools and museums across the country, SMALLab found that “student learning gains were significantly higher after the SMALLab learning intervention when compared to regular classroom instruction.” In some instances, the company says it found that “there is a marked increase in the number of student-to-student and student-discussions during SMALLab.”

For SMALLab to work well, the company recommends that embodied learning activities are one component of the instruction — not the entire lesson. Order of activities is important as well, as students perform better when traditional instruction occurs before the embodied learning experiences.

But the company is cautious about the results. “At this juncture we cannot yet say which components lead to the increase in student learning,” the company says, and they call for further research to analyze the components of embodied learning experience.

The company’s products are being used in different schools throughout the country. Elizabeth Forward Middle School, outside Pittsburgh, Penn., is using a $20,000 grant to install SMALLab’s equipment and curriculum for its STEM program. The company’s products are also being used in schools in Singapore.

For schools interested in using embodied learning techniques, can the same results be achieved using low-tech tactics? If the goal is to make sense of and connect authentically with content, what tactics have teachers used that simulate the same concepts?

Should Kids Play Games in the Classroom?


This post originally appeared on Education Nation’s blog, The Learning Curve, which has many blogs both opinion-based and informational. Education Nation is NBC News’ year-round initiative to engage the country in a solutions-focused conversation about the state of education in America. View Original >


Our students are playing video games, whether we like it or not. In the United States, there are 183 million active gamers – people who play games for an average of 13 hours a week, according to Jane McGonigal in her book “Reality Is Broken.” Rather than viewing this as a waste of time, some educators are seeing this as an opportunity and are using games in the classroom.

There is something about games that engages us, but how can teachers use them to teach important concepts? The answer is game based learning.

Why Games? – Games provide a learning environment that is often starkly different than the traditional learning environment. When you play a game, you have the opportunity to try and fail. In the classroom, students are often punished for practice, as it affects their grade. If you lose a game, you have the opportunity to try again.

Games also provide a “situated learning” environment. In the classroom, content is often disconnected from a relevant context. In a game, you learn content to perform tasks. Whether the game demands learning math content or social studies content, you are engaged because you are invested in winning.

Games also focus on critical thinking and solving complex problems. Instead of “drill and practice,” a good game demands that you use factual information to solve a complex problem.

Here are two examples of how teachers are implementing game based learning:

Games as Direct Lessons – iCivics uses educational games to teach a civics curriculum. Teachers are also using it to teach reading and argumentative writing, crucial foci in the Common Core Standards. In the game “Argument Wars,” players must evaluate arguments and evidence from a variety of court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona. Each case is a separate game, and the player takes on the role of a lawyer representing one side of the case. Students must identify the main idea of the argument they represent and choose the best supporting statements to satisfy the judge. They must also fend off the arguments of their opponent to win the case. The game is designed to be educational as well as fun. Teachers assess students through a written component, such as a traditional essay or persuasive letter to the Supreme Court. “Argument Wars” also tracks students’ answers and scores to give teachers more information on their progress.

Games as Secondary Lessons – Another popular game in the classroom is the puzzle game Portal, in which players have to create portals between two flat planes. The game was not designed to be educational, but teachers are creating contexts for students to learn science content while playing. For example, they can use Portal to help teach concepts like mass and velocity. After a traditional lesson on the topic, students are instructed to send cubes colliding in midair within the game environment. They can experiment with different speeds and collect data on the results. Teachers have students collaborate on different scenarios in the game to predict what will happen. The game provides an engaging and safe space to experiment and learn before applying the knowledge in an exam.

These are just two samples of how teachers are implementing game based learning. Some teachers are using more low-tech games, and some teachers are even turning their classrooms into games where students play every day. We have a unique opportunity now to use game based learning in the classroom as a way to encourage students to learn AND play.

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