Game-Based Learning Units for the Everyday Teacher: Part One


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 >


Game-based learning (GBL) is getting a lot press. It is an innovative practice that is working to engage kids in learning important 21st century skills and content. Dr. Judy Willis in a previous post wrote about the neurological benefits and rationale around using games for learning. She also gives tips about using the game model in the classroom. James Paul Gee has long been a champion for game-based learning in speeches, blogs, and books. Quest to Learn, located in New York City, infuses technology with game-based learning, where entire units utilize missions, boss levels, and the like for learning important standards. Here is the next step: taking these great rationales and examples and making it work for the everyday teacher.

Myths About Game-Based Learning
First, let’s clarify a couple things. One common myth about GBL is that it requires high-level technology. Another is that it is simply using games, whether physical or on the web, in the classroom. These ideas are not entirely true. Yes, GBL can be more rockstar when using technology, but it is not a requirement. No, GBL is not simply using games in the classroom. It is about making a rigorous unit of study a robust game, not just one day, where multiple games and challenges are used to explore concepts and learning targets in depth.

Gee refers to teachers as “learning designers,” and I couldn’t agree more. Teachers are the designers of all the components of the learning environment for students, from the management to the assessment. So here is the question for each educator: How do I design engaging game-based units in my classroom to assess important learning targets?

Inspired by the work I’ve seen, here is an overview of components and structure for the everyday teacher to implement game-based learning.

Overall Structure: Individual Quests and Boss Levels
A game-based learning unit should consist of both smaller quests and more robust boss levels. A quest can be done either individually or collaboratively in groups. These would be your lesson plans where you challenge students to complete tasks that will prepare them for the boss level later in the unit. They may be trying to figure out where to invade an area with their army, or they may be figuring out how they will be able to create an army unit for a battle, who will be in it, what roles will be needed, and how many of each. They may be doing a science lab to figure out who’s hand was on the murder weapon. They may be calculating times from interviews that suspects gave in order to see which suspect is most likely to have committed the crime. Again, these are engaging, game activities to have students learn and/or practice using content. Goals for quests can range from searching for resources to destroying something. The learning targets or standards for these quests are usually more individual and targeted, perhaps only a couple targeted standards. These standards for the quest however can be across one-two disciplines, or just in a single discipline. Objectives for the quests should be varied in order to keeps kids engaged in different purposes for learning.

Boss levels are more rigorous missions that require students to synthesize the content and skills learned in the quests. Students work with the teacher to create a capstone project or product that shows all they have learned from the previous quests. Boss Level problems or challenges can either be defined by the teacher or co-defined by the teacher and the student. Perhaps they are creating a crime lab with all the steps and tools needed. Perhaps they are creating a plan for a new emperor of the Roman empire to conquer the world. These boss levels assess and target multiple standards, usually across multiple disciplines, and they are all the standards that were practices in the quests before.

Overall Theme
You may have already noticed that all the quests are related under a thematic idea of question. Whether you call it a guiding or essential question, the intent is to frame the work in a theme. Perhaps they are trying to answer the question: How can we make plans to help the Roman Empire conquer the east? Or: What do police detectives do to solve crimes? Often scenario-based, it creates a challenge for students in a game-based fashion.

Need to Know
Game-Based Learning demands a “need to know” the content. In order to complete quests and boss levels, students will need to learn content and skills to do them. Instead of pre-teaching, the instructor teaches the material or facilitates the learning of material as students are engaged in the quests. The overall theme and mission is presented to the students, along with the quests and boss levels in order to create engagement to accomplish. During the boss level, revision or addition skills may also need to be taught, but again, there is a need to learn those skills and content.

Trial and Error, Timely Feedback and then Success
These challenges in the quests and boss levels demand that students take risks, learn from mistakes and reattempt. Throughout this process, teachers arm them with additional skills needed to be successful. Because students are engaged in multiple trials, teachers give immediate, useful feedback to students. This process of allowing for mistakes goes contrary to much traditional instruction, but gamers know (and yes, I am proud to be one) that the payoff feels great, and accomplishment feels more like genuine accomplishment rather than simply “getting it done.” The quests and boss levels that students accomplish end up having real value that students are proud of.

Teachers give experience points, badges and other incentives to keep affirming and rewarding students. Mozilla is in the process of creating a badge tool around 21st century skills, and it is an exciting preview to the potential of badges. I don’t know about you, but I do like getting badges and rewards on Foursquare and Empire Avenue. This is all very similar to other video games, where student characters are rewarded better equipment, accolades, and characteristics. Students might get the “Perseverance Rank 1,” “Helping a Teammate,” or the “Computer Search Term Guru” badge. They might get experience points to use to purchase “virtual equipment” for their avatar. These points aren’t actually used in their content grade per say. In fact, students do need grade points to feel rewarded. Students in a GBL unit get rewarded for demonstrated 21st century and other skills through a variety of methods to celebrate all kinds of success and to keep students engaged.

Part of gaming is role-playing. It’s exciting for students to take on a persona related to the unit. Are they Spartan warriors? Are they detectives? Are they space explorers for NASA? Students like to pretend, even secondary students. Students like to create. Part of getting them engaged in the persona and unit is allowing them to build on their avatar. They aren’t simply creating a character in one day. They build a back story and continue to tell it. They improve their skills with incentives and experience points and/or badges awarded. Just like a role-playing video game, students become someone else, and they learn skills and content through this avatar.

In this blog we went over the overall structures and elements of a GBL unit. In the next blog, we will look at actually planning out GBL unit, using Wiggins and McTighe Backwards Design model. We will see how GBL modifies and build upon this proven model of curriculum and instruction.

Using Project-Based Learning to Engage Parents in the School Community


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Project-based learning (PBL) is a fantastic way to increase parent and community involvement in your school in a truly authentic way. Instead of finding lots of little strategies to engage parents, PBL provides an opportunity to use one part of your school identity, the curriculum and instruction, as the leverage to have parents present at the physical space. Here are some tips and strategies on how to use PBL to increase parental involvement.

Public Audience

One of the essential elements of effective PBL is a public audience. Every PBL project must have a public audience. This can look like a lot of different things. The public can be judges or audience for the final culminating work or presentation. The public can come in during the middle of project to help coach students on their work as experts in the field. There are a lot of options. All of these could be parents. Every parent has some area of expertise to share, from health care to technology. I recommend creating a roster of parents, their areas of expertise, and how they would be able to volunteer. Parents will want to come to school if their knowledge is leveraged in a legitimate way.

Educating Parents about PBL

Because PBL is nontraditional, it is imperative that parents understand what it looks like, what the grading expectations are, and why the school believes it works. Parents are going to ask the same questions other community stakeholders will ask. “How will this help my child do well on the standardized test?” “Why are you grading 21st century skills?” “How will you help my child who doesn’t like to work in groups?” You will get these questions, so be prepared, and have education available for parents about the components of PBL.

Transparency of Projects

Every time you do a PBL project, it is important to let parents know what work your students are doing, and also to excite them about it. Communication with the home about schoolwork is nothing new, but this provides a focused, timely moment to communicate. In addition, it also provides an opportunity to debunk any misunderstandings about the PBL project that is occurring. If you are doing a project on health and AIDS, you can take the time in the letter home to parents to assure that the project is not sexual education. A quick e-mail or letter home about the PBL project can excite parents, solicit their expertise, and clarify expectations.

Culturally Responsive Projects

Find ways for the products you have students create to be culturally responsive. Find ways to weave student culture into the project so that parents see that it is being valued in the work students are doing. If you are having students do a project on world religions, then have each student reflect on his or her family and personal beliefs. If you are having students investigate hidden histories of the oppressed, have them investigate the cultures of their families and communities. Make it intentional.

Because the public is an integral part of PBL, it is a real way to engage parents in the school and work that students are doing. It is not without challenges, but with these tips, you can make parents partners in an important part of your school identity.

Twenty Tips for Managing Project-Based 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 >


1. Use Social Media One of the best ways to document collaboration and engage students with technology is use social media platforms like Edmodo. Students can use it to share ideas, you as the teacher can use it to formatively assess where students are in terms of products and content knowledge, and it is a great way to have real evidence of collaboration.

2. Meet with Team Representatives
As a teacher, when making announcements or doing a short mini-lesson for students, it gets really old to have to continually ask, “Can I have your attention, please?” You don’t need to. Instead say, “Project Managers, I need you here to pick up a quick memo with announcements about our presentation day.” Or perhaps say, “Head researchers, I need to teach you a quick mini-lesson on search terms to teach the rest of your group.” It saves you time and it saves students’ time, preventing a “time suck” in your classroom.

3. Play “Slacker Hard Ball” We all have “slackers,” so sometimes I put them all in one group. Now you might think I’m crazy for that, and that they might not do work. But here is what can happen: Often, one or more in that group starts doing something. The minute that happens, I make a public praise of that student’s work. Before then, that student had no “street cred” in my classroom, and now they do. Hopefully that moment can empower the student to excel.

4. Formatively Assess Often In order to make sure students are getting the content and skills they need, good teachers use many formative assessments. You know this. And it also holds students accountable. It ensures that they are getting good, thoughtful feedback to improve their culminating products and performances. If you are formatively assessing, you are managing your classroom effectively with accountability, reflecting on your teaching and their needs, and ensuring quality PBL project products.

5. “Give Up Power to Empower”
This is my mantra for teaching. For too long, students have been conditioned not to have power in their education. As PBL helps to empower students, the teacher must be willing to give up the power to them. Don’t be a helicopter. Be present, but also give space for them to take ownership and problem solve.

6. Set and Debrief Goals for “Work” Time Implementation or “work” is not simply given over completely to students, especially when students who have never been given that space to work are asked, all of a sudden, to take complete ownership. Set goals for work for the time, debrief those goals, and set next steps. It will scaffold the process of students taking ownership and it will help students to hold themselves accountable.

7. Reflect on the Driving Question Continually revisit the driving question of the project. Just like with rubrics, if you don’t use the driving question, it will mean nothing. Help students make sure the work they are doing is working toward answering the driving question. Help students keep the eye on the prize.

8. Use Team Contracts Students are more likely to follow the norms of the classroom when they set them themselves, especially in their groups. It helps to decrease possibilities of escalations where there is teacher vs. student. Instead, issues that arise in the classroom become student vs. what student said they would do. Use templates, give samples and other resources to have students create effective contracts to manage themselves.

9. Group Students Intentionally When creating teams for a project, I never do random grouping. These students will be in these teams from two to six, or even eight weeks. We want to set them up for the best possible success, so make sure you are considering all forces at work, whether it’s behavior, ELL, academic ability or artistic ability to set students up for a successful team.

10. Have Students Choose Or Have Voice in Team Role If you are using authentic roles in the teams for the project, have students rank choice and/or choose their role. It will empower them to be experts and gurus in a specific area of content or skill in the project.

11. Differentiate Instruction through Grouping There is always a time and place to differentiate instruction in teams for PBL. When doing PBL projects that demand a lot reading, I create teams with varying reading ability level. This allows me the opportunity to really work intensively with a group to build their abilities and push them far. Again, as long as it is intentional, create teams to allow you to differentiate instruction.

12. Use Heterogeneous Grouping It is great to have students learn from the strengths that each one brings to the group. Balance groups with leaders to push groups along. If your project has a major artistic component, make sure there is a student with that strength.

13. Allow for Conflict I know, it’s difficult. When we see our students having issues and arguing, we need to remember that they are problem-solving. We need to not be “on them” instantly to make them stop arguing. Arguing and conflict is part of the process of collaboration and making decisions. Be present, but, again, don’t be a helicopter. Teach them how to solve conflicts.

14. Celebrate Achievements Don’t forget to celebrate the work that students accomplish. Students need affirmation. Mozilla is piloting some cool new badges to celebrate student learning, especially in the area of 21st century skills. Use stamps and gold stars. I don’t know why stamps and stickers have such power, but they work. And they help to celebrate student work and learning.

15. Give Useful and Accessible Feedback
Part of conducting formative assessments is giving good feedback to students. Feedback should be specific and doable so that students can later implement the suggestions you give. Useful feedback will ensure that there is something specific to do, and there is always improvement that needs to happen. There is no “dead” time because there is always feedback to implement.

16. Use and Return to the “Need to Know” The Need to Know is a living and breathing document that you create with students at the beginning of the project, where you ask students what they need to know in order to accomplish the project you have presented them with. After the initial creation, you must revisit it to let students see what you have armed them with and and also solicit more “need to knows.” It will keep the momentum of the project going and also help students see what they now know!

17. Hold Students Individually Accountable through Individual Products In addition to collaborating on innovative products, students should be demonstrating the content and skills of the project individually. I want to make sure that each student walks away with the same content and skills that they are learning through the creation of their group products.

18. Allow for Voice and Choice in Products Voice and choice will allow students to use their strengths — from artistic to techie — in a project. It will help keep them engaged by honing their ways of knowing and showing that knowledge. Give them options of choice in the group and/or individual product, and be sure to allow their voice to shine in the project. It will keep them invested and engaged.

19. Demand High Expectations Do not fold! The minute you fold, the minute you let students know that you will change the due date or modify requirements, they will know they can goof off. My due date and requirements do not change because I have used the Teaching and Learning guide to backwards design my calendar. High expectations create great products and urgency! Consider reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence.

20. Empower Students Absent with Achievable Goals We all have students who are absent, and hopefully with the creation of authentic and engaging projects, they will want to come to school more often. Regardless of the reasons for which students do not attend regularly, we have to welcome them to our classroom with open arms and also with achievable goals. I recommend helping groups set goals each day with chronically absent students that have achievable outcomes for that day. That way, there is something he/she can get completed for the group without serious issues of incomplete or lost work.

Bonus! 21. Create Engaging Projects that are Authentic and Relevant
The best tip I can give you is to create an engaging project where the outcomes and learning are relevant and the audience is authentic. When kids are engaged, they are less likely to be behavioral issues. Honestly, if I am experiencing major issues in terms of classroom management, the first question I ask myself is, “How is my project not authentic, relevant, and engaging, and how can I improve?”

A quick note on these tips: There is no real silver bullet to get every single kid under the sun engaged in your classroom, but good teachers use all the strategies they can muster. That is what these tips are; strategies which can help you ensure that all students work towards amazing PBL projects and other assessments in your classroom.