GameDesk Opens New Game-Based School


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GameDesk, an organization that’s developing a variety of game-based learning initiatives, is venturing into new terrain with the opening of a new school and the development of new digital tools, with millions of dollars in funding from both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T.

The PlayMaker School, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will open in Los Angeles on September 7, with 60 students in 6th grade, and will operate as a “school within a school” at New Roads, an independent middle school.

Like Quest to Learn, the game-based school in New York, PlayMaker will incorporate principles of game-based learning into the entire instructional model, but with an additional focus on making and discovering. The goal is to engage students in both high-tech and low-tech games and modular, instructional activities. Individual students will work with an “Adventure Map” that will guide them to choose their own path, allowing for students to control how they learn and when they learn it. These modules will be not only individual tasks, but will also include group work. In a unit on kinetic and potential energy, for example, students will watch videos, play games, create digital roller-coasters, and create real-life models.

With ongoing formative assessments tied not only to the Common Core, but also practical digital skills, collaboration, critical thinking, and social emotion learning principles, the focus is meant to go beyond traditional schooling goals. Instruction will focus on providing context for the content, whereby students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. Teachers will play the roles of questioners, facilitators, and reflective agents.

More information will soon be released about the specifics of the program.


Lucien Vattel, the executive director of GameDesk, said he wants to scale the company’s tools and learning models to schools and other groups across the country. To that end, the company received $3.8 million from AT&T to fund two new initiatives: a learning laboratory called Learning Center, which will include a “classroom of the future” where new digital tools will be developed, tested, evaluated, and aligned with academic standards; and free access to an online portal of digital learning content, as well as support for teachers to learn how to integrate it.

“We see this as being a clearing house for all the best work in this space and we want the entire education community to contribute content to the site, from the professional developer, to the educator in Kansas, to the creative and tenacious parents and kids at home,” Vattel said.


As part of the professional development for the PlayMaker School, GameDesk also initiated a collaborative called DreamLab focused on not only creating many of the GameDesk’s projects, but also how to implement and sustain them. Instead of simply creating and implementing, however, they design in collaboration with student and teachers, to ensure that real needs are being met well.

Although still in its infancy as a component of GameDesk’s work, DreamLab hopes to provide professional development for teachers on site. In addition, they hope to build a portal where teachers can collaborate on lesson design and share their ideas for implementing the games in the classroom. In the past months as they prepared for the new school opening, new teachers received intensive professional development, learned to design games, played games, and understood the pedagogical principles around using games for learning.


GameDesk is also creating and collaborating on games that target the Common Core standards. Mathmaker, which GameDesk created, is focused on having students take on the roles of engineers to learn math concepts. This game, as well as others, is directed at amplifying STEM curriculum, and is being piloting and used in large urban high schools.

GameDesk also uses another math-focused game called Motion Math In-Class, created by the team at Stanford University Learning, Design and Technology Program, which is part of its math curriculum. This interactive iPad app helps students learn fractions, proportions and percentages.

Another unique game is Dojo, which uses play and biometrics to work on emotion regulation (not to be confused with Class Dojo, which helps teachers with classroom management). So far, it has been used successfully with diverse populations and even youth within or exiting the juvenile justice system. Players experience real-life challenges that test their emotions, but also gives them strategies and feedback on how to overcome these challenges.

More to come, as GameDesk continues to grow.

Assessing the Common Core Standards: Real Life Mathematics


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 >


Another buzzword that permeates the conversation around education is relevancy, and rightfully so. We want our students not only to make connections to real world problems but also to do these activities.

However, it is not simply in the task that we want students to mimic this real world connection. Students are already conditioned to do this. They are used to sitting and completing tasks. Even when the task might have great connection to the real world, it can still just be that: a task to complete. We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to perform real world math, just as the Math Common Core dictates. This common core standard below gives a great example and sets a good tone for what can be target for math instruction.

In a previous blog discussing Math PBL Project Design, I wrote about reframing the word “problem,” and pointed to this standard. For many of us, there is a very traditional meaning that is activated: a word problem in the text book, or simply a calculation to be made. In fact, the Common Core gives it as an example.

We can do better. We can assess learning in a much more relevant and engaging way. For instance, how do we assess this common core standard related to area and volume?

This standard is much less specific about what this might “look like” in the classroom, which leaves it ripe for innovation. There are a variety of products and contexts that could assess this standard. The major assessment, or culminating product in PBL terms, could take on the form of a podcast, presentation, marketing plan, or even a short story.

Perhaps high school students are creating a pool that can meet the needs of ALL people who want to use, from those who have special needs, to children, but at the same time needs to meet certain criteria is terms of standard amounts of water and size.

Perhaps middle school students are in charge of design a new and improved pyramid to be presented to the pharaoh, complete with a variety of antechambers.

Perhaps elementary students are in charge of creating an organic garden to sell certain products at the local farmer’s market.

(A word of caution, don’t give students the exact criteria, instead make them research and make decisions on what the criteria should be.) Again the genre is not as important as the rubric that demands specific criteria. As long as the rubric is clear and transparent where students must demonstrate math skills, include examples, etc, then we know that students are in fact learning the content standard, or common core standard. If you as the teacher need a specific graph, then make sure to include in the rubric. If you need written explanation around the mathematical calculations, then demand it. If you need diagrams and measurements, then make sure the rubric demands it. Grading is not a surprise anymore. It is clear and transparent.

When looking at the potential for work with this Math Common core, make sure you have high expectations for the level of work your students can do. The old definition of the word “problem” is not rigorous. Redefining the word “problem” within the frame of Problem or Project-Based Learning is rigorous, and still demands real world connections in an authentic way. If we want our students to really wrestle with math concepts, then we must create space for this work to happen, and create assessments that mirror this complex work.

Tips for Using Project-Based Learning to Teach Math Standards


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 >



Let’s be honest. Designing PBL for Math can be a different beast. With the pressure of high-stakes testing and a packed curriculum, I often coach teachers who are nervous about giving time to a robust PBL project. In addition, because of the plethora of math standards, it can be difficult to choose the right learning target(s) for the project. Here are some tips for teachers designing individual Math PBL projects.


Reframe the term “Real Life” Math

Many standards include the idea of applying math to real life. We all want this as teachers. We want our students to not only see the connection in math to real life, but also to explore them. Below is an example from the Math Common Core Standards.

Solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations.
3. Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions and decimals) using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; fonvert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies. For example: If a woman making $25 an hour gets a 10% raise, she will make an additional 1/10 of her salary an hour, or $2.50, for a new salary of $27.50. If you want to place a towel bar 9 3/4 inches in the center of a door that is 27 1/2 inches wide, you will need to place the bar about 9 inches from each edge; this estimate can be used as a check on the exact computation.

4. Use variables to represent quantities in a real-world or mathematical proble, and construct simple equations and inequalities to solve problems by reasoning about the quantities

There are many more standards like this throughout the Common Core that related to “real life” math. This is a great place to start, but we can do better.  I think the real potential lies in the redefining the word “problem.” I think this term has been sampled over the years. When you say “math problem” we often envision an equation, whether that be word or simple calculation to solve. Couldn’t it be more? What if the problem was that we need to find the most cost effective design for a classroom, given materials and certain parameters? What if the problem were to predict what would happen if the oil spill in the Gulf had not been stopped, and using this information to convince policy makers to make changes in environmental protections? What if the problem was to create a salary schedule for the student store to reward hard workers while still keeping a profit? These are the types of ideas teachers need to be having when thinking about the word “problem” in math. The old definition of the word “problem” is not rigorous. Redefining the word “problem” within the frame of Project-Based Learning is rigorous, and still demands real world connections in an authentic way.


Pick or Make the Appropriate Time

I know the structures in place for Math teachers. Sometimes there is not enough time for a project. Sometimes, it’s just not the best use of time. If a standard needs to be covered in a short week unit, then it isn’t the best place for a project. However, if there is a 3-week unit coming up around a specific math learning target, this would be a great opportunity to create a project. There is time and space for you the teacher to get your “feet wet” in implementing the project. In addition, you might be able to combine the learning targets in a project that seem to fit together. Your allow time increases and you can have students create products that demonstrate learning of both targets or standards. As a teacher, be creative with the time you have, either in looking for the best opportunity or creating an opportunity.


Pick a Standard with Easy Real-Life Application

“Don’t try to fit a square peg through a round hole.” Sometimes you can try too hard to make a PBL project align to a math standard. Some are easier than others to align. Pick standards that you know or have seen used in real life. If you are unsure, ask you colleagues. I like to say, “The Wisdom is in the room.” I’m sure your colleagues, whether it be math teachers or CTE teachers have some great ideas. Pick standards that clearly can have a practical purpose in analyzing a problem and/or design a solution to that problem. It is much easier to teach Right angle triangles, number sense, or graphing in a PBL project that it is factoring. (PS: I would love to hear from any teachers who have managed to create a PBL project from a seemingly difficult math standard. You rock!)

As teachers, we always have structure and forces as work, from the federal to the school level. Curriculum and Instruction can be a challenging place to navigate in these structures, especially where the curriculum and pedagogy is counter-paradigm to the traditional. I encourage teachers Math teachers specifically to give PBL a shot, regardless of the structures. Hopefully, these tips give you some strategies and comfort you enough to implement Math PBL projects in their classroom. Feel free to steal ideas from the Buck Institute for Education’s Project Search, but make it your own. Remember, if we want our students to really wrestle with rigorous math concepts, then we must create space and environment for this work to happen.

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