This the blogpost I wrote as part of my responsibilities as a Teacher Fellow for Filament Games last summer.
Games 23, 2015 — INSIDE FILAMENT “We have been very fortunate to work with outstanding teachers from all over the country through our Teacher Fellow program. Today, former Teacher Fellow, Peggy Sheehy, reflects on her time at Filament Games.”
I attend a lot of conferences. Sometimes I’m presenting and sometimes I’m not. Regardless, I always SCAN the program to see what sessions are offered pertaining to games and education. My MO is: if I detect a gaming session, and an actual teacher is the presenter, then hopefully optimistic, I’ll give it a go. Sadly, experience has taught me to find a seat in the back, so when the PowerPoint Jeopardy slide shows up, I can make a swift and discreet exit.
On the other hand, if I find a session offered by a commercial enterprise, I’ll be curious enough to listen in, but I’ll sit right up front. In this manner, when I get up to leave, not only am I “voting with my feet” but I’m also making my opinion crystal clear to the other attendees. Usually it only takes a few minutes for these corporate folks to demonstrate that they’re totally clueless about what actually happens inside a classroom, or about how learning works and what today’s kids find engaging, or what teachers really need.
A recent report projected educational gaming to grow into a multibillion-dollar industry by 2018. In addition, for the last three years, video games were listed in the Horizon Report as up and coming trends for deep learning, and the US Department of Education has not only sanctioned the concept of using video games in the classroom, but is actively organizing around it.
Still, teachers are dragging their feet. Year after year, they dig out that old reliable Jeopardy© template so that when they’re asked if they use games in class, they reply with great satisfaction, “Of course I do!” To be fair though, let’s consider the fact that those teachers are already overwhelmed by the constraints of standardized testing and a stale, outdated curriculum. Not what they signed up for…
But I’ve also learned that teachers aren’t likely to venture into a whole new pedagogical approach unless it is mandated. The “if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it” attitude is pervasive and entrenched among our ranks. But I would implore my colleagues to think again—-it is broke; just ask the kids.
As much as I strive to maintain a professional demeanor at conferences, my frustration has often resulted in eliciting “heated discussions” with the corporate reps who present these “pseudo games” and tout them as “the best educational game offerings”, This results in my obligatory interview starting with what has proven to be the most telling question, “Who are the educators on your staff?” That usually results in a lot of sidestepping banter and sales pitch rhetoric. Heaven forbid I use the term “pedagogy” in my inquiry, oh and, NEWS FLASH!—- someone on your staff who taught for a year or two and then quit does not count as having an educator on staff! These are just some of the more salient points I bring to the forefront.
I swear I’ve seen corporate reps flinch when I’ve entered their sessions, as often my reputation as a “gaming vigilante” has preceded me. I choose to consider this reputation a “badge of courage” of sorts—- for I readily admit that any semblance of pride, or embarrassment, or even professional demeanor might fly out the window when I’m fighting for my kids! I’m tired of hearing them say, “This game sucks” or, “Well, I guess it’s better than a worksheet.” It baffles me that so many companies who claim to be designing educational games have absolutely no input from an educator. What’s the problem?
Well for starters, these “educational games” are mostly chocked full of artificial incentives, or are merely simulations that might be very distant cousins to games, or, worst of all, they may simply be digitized worksheets. I’ve seen it over and over again and I’m weary of this approach of designing educational games that try to “trick” students into learning by “draping dull academic instruction in the superficially appealing disguise of a game. Instead of placing the fun of discovery and mastery at the heart of the game, these imposters use the trappings of games “as a sugar coating” for their otherwise unappetizing content (1).” Most educational games attempt to combine a fun game mechanic with distinctly uncorrelated content. By doing so, the deep learning possibilities are missed, and the end result resembles a multiple choice worksheet more than it does a game.
I’ve had enough of these (mostly) well-intentioned educational game producers and their misinformed attempts to extrinsically motivate kids to learn via digitizing mandated content. My kids deserve better—all kids do.
Truth be known, my kids do get better. I’ve always used board games and commercial off the shelf games in my classroom to support learning. But seven years ago, when I met Lucas Gillispie (from Surrey County, NC) at Games Learning and Society (GLS), a floodgate opened and all of the possibilities that had been cloistered in the realm of ideas were set into motion. GLS is a conference where educators, researchers, and game designers share a space, so Lucas and I put our heads together, and came up with a plan to run an after-school program using World of Warcraft (WoW). The WoWinSchool Project began that fall as an after-school club designed to support literacy for kids who were disenfranchised and didn’t function well in a traditional classroom environment. These are the kids for whom school as we know it just doesn’t work.
For a full school year we met in our respective computer labs after school with our tribes of kids, and really just played WoW with them. I designed an occasional challenge, but for the most part, we simply provided
the space for them to play and we played alongside them—-observing and gathering anecdotal evidence where we could. When school let out in June, Lucas and his lead teacher, Craig Lawson, devoted a good part of the summer to designing a full year’s ELA curriculum supported by WoW, and the WoWinSchool Curriculum was offered as an elective in North Carolina, and a remedial/support class in Suffern Middle School. Ultimately it became the framework for my 6th grade humanities curriculum when I returned to the classroom three years ago. I used some of the original quests and wrote new ones to address the learning goals of the humanities curriculum. I already had the roadmap —- and I’d learned from the best!
WoW in School, now known as MMO School, has been the recipient of many awards, most notably, the Gamification Award for The Best Use of Gamification in Education. Lucas and I have been interviewed many times, had numerous invitations to appear in webcasts, and international doors have opened for us as we traveled to India, France, Australia, and New Zealand to share our approach to games in education with international teachers. Most of the time they want to know how this works in a public school. What does it look like? The inherent learning already present in WoW is complimented by teacher-designed quests, (in my case now systematically addressing every CCLS for 6th grade ELA) and delivered via a unique quest-based course management system originally out of Boise State University, 3D Game Lab. Now a product from GoGoLabs, 3D Game Lab was the answer to my prayers.!
By creating my course in 3D GameLab, I was able to design and align each quest to the appropriate CCLS. As a result, the project is Common Core aligned, because of the technology component, it’s STEM, and my classroom is “flipped” since the quests are available online in 3D GameLab and can be completed at home. Utilizing the pedagogical foundation that I acquired in my undergrad and graduate degrees, plus the existing quest model from Lucas, I also needed to become a content master, while remaining cognizant of the developmental profile of 6th grade learners. No small task.
To that end, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on pertaining to games and education, I’ve revisited the learning theorists, becoming reacquainted with the likes of Papert and Vygotsky. I’ve presented at major education and gaming conferences, and really listened to some VERY smart people. And I’ve spent countless hours playing the games; tracking the learning within, and applying that knowledge to these new quests. However, the most informative thing I do to shape my design, is talk with the kids. I watch them play. I ask questions and I ask for advice and feedback. So, when I sit in a conference session and see some cheesy offering being touted as an “engaging and powerful tool for learning” and I know it is nothing more than an interactive worksheet, I admit to feeling a bit superior. I’ve challenged the industry about this problem more than once, in many different forums, both online and face-to-face so I guess I deserve that “gaming vigilante” reputation. But as an early adopter, or, some may say, a renegade, I have to realize that I really only speak for a select few pioneers who have chosen to take the leap and use commercial video games in their classrooms. The majority of my colleagues across the country are just beginning to be exposed to the idea that video games might actually be substantial learning tools.
That’s why the idea that these “pseudo-games” being doled out to the uninitiated majority of teachers might potentially become the accepted educational game standard terrifies me. One might suggest that this is a ripe opportunity for commercial game companies to step into the academic arena of games for learning? (I’m talking to YOU, Blizzard!) Yes? Or, even better, what a great time for the existing educational game companies to step up their act, and produce some games comparable to the commercial offerings our students play outside of school. So I continue to attend conferences, cautiously hopeful, keeping an eye out for that renegade game—the one that could stand up to commercial games in terms of quality and engagement value, yet serve to support a distinct academic concept or learning goal. For years they were non-existent.
Then quietly, offerings such as Journey and Gone Home gained acclaim at the Games for Change Conference in NYC, but have little hope of mainstream distribution to schools. Why? Because these indie developers rarely have the big picture in mind, and lack the business acumen necessary to know how they might get their games into schools. It takes a seasoned teacher, who “gets” games like Lucas Gillispie or like Paul Darvasi (Toronto, Canada)
to play the game long enough to unearth the pedagogy. Paul’s work with the indie game, Gone Home, is a consummate example of the powerful potential these games, not initially intended for education, can contribute to the classroom when a skilled educator is at the helm. Regardless of the fact that every year, videogames gain more credibility, and more and more research reports proclaiming the power of games in education surface, the uninitiated (non-gamer) teacher is unlikely to buy in until one of the well established textbook companies distributes “the latest, greatest advance in student engagement” –and some pale, reconstituted game resembling Jeopardy or Concentration or Tic-Tac-Toe, is delivered to their schools accompanied by a teacher Guidebook containing prescribed lesson plans, tidy little workbooks, and differentiated options.
Therefore, at Serious Play, when I grabbed a back row seat in a packed room for a presentation by two reps from Filament Games, a Wisconsin based educational game company, I was feeling dubious at best. I remember sitting smugly and listening to the presenter, waiting for the inevitable evidence to surface proving they had NO IDEA what happens inside a school, or that their idea of a “learning game” was nothing
more than some interactive worksheets, or a series of incentivized math problems to solve, granting the player five minutes of action gameplay.
But it never came—and I slowly had to admit to myself that these guys from Filament seemed to know what they were talking about. The games Filament modeled were smart, well crafted, and fun! The two representatives (whom I later learned were at the top of the Filament food chain) were actually discussing the game design elements as they pertained to modalities of learning. They were dropping names like Jeremy Bruner, and while they spoke I hopped onto their website and read, “Our team is a creative, interdisciplinary group of people who are making a difference modernizing education and revolutionizing learning!”
These guys talked a damn good talk, but that was no reason to deny them the “Sheehy Inquisition,” so when they concluded and opened Q&A, my hand shot up. Surprising myself, I didn’t open with the usual, “Who are the teachers on your staff, informing your design?” question. No, I actually prefaced it with a compliment,
“You seem to have grappled with the same design issues that teachers do.”
The tall one just smiled and nodded (*was that smugness I perceived?) so I let him have it,
“Can you tell me if you have any actual teachers on staff?”
“Yes,” he answered, “as a matter of fact we do. Every summer we hire real teachers —-who are currently in the classroom—-and we bring them on staff as Teacher Fellows to help inform our design.”
This guy was my new hero!
Fast forward to this past summer, when I received the news that Filament Games was accepting applications for their Teacher Fellowship positions, I jumped on the chance! The application process was rigorous—-in addition to the very lengthy application, they asked for a lesson plan, a review of one of their games, and then two phone interviews. I have no idea how many people applied, but I was pretty
thrilled when I was awarded one of the two Teacher Fellowships. Major bonus: a very close colleague, Marianne Malmstrom, (*aka Knowclue) received the other. Now I was ready to see if it was just the guy at the helm who talked real pretty, or if this company actually understood the dilemma that teachers face finding games that work.
Before I headed out to Madison, I put it out to my social network: “Developing new pres. What do you think game designers need to learn/know from teachers?”
Here’s the best of the responses:
Rory Newcomb (Mumbai): How to make the learning critical in the games that they design, not just an accessory of the game.
Dean Groom (Australia): How to avoid making things boring and irrelevant to youth culture. Brendan Jones (Australia): Don’t think that learning and fun are mutually exclusive.
Liza Martin New York): To allow students to creatively respond to the game, not just learn to win. Engaging kids’ creativity allows them to become problem solvers. Developing games that only permit a finite set of resolutions doesn’t help the kids develop skills.
Christie Allison: Learn from teachers: What kind of scaffolding should be used to increase self-monitoring so students “know what they know”, and know what they have recently learned. Ex. Journal, in game reinforcement, etc.
Jill Berkowicz (New York): Instead I’d ask, “What do teachers need to learn from game designers?” (I responded, “that’s last year’s pres, Jill! tee hee)”
But it was this one response that arrived at 7:30 A.M. on the day I was to present to a room full of game designers, that floored me! Read it. Then read it again:
Natalie Denmeade (Australia): “Game Designers need to know what a privilege it is to hold the focus of a precious young brain for hours of every day in the most formative years of their lives. Do not underestimate your influence – you are a teacher. Your innate understanding of Mother Nature’s trick to wrap up learning in play (and dopamine hits) gives you a super power. Use this wisely. Don’t resort to lazy storytelling to create drama and momentum, explore other ways that don’t involve damsels in distress, or mere sidekicks. As our modern day storytellers and Bards you reflect a society you are not responsible for making but we challenge you to do more than simply mirror what is and instead move us into what could be.”
These were the words that would steer me at Filament every day. Thank you, Natalie!
The Teacher Fellow is expected to become a full-fledged employee of Filament Games for the duration of the onsite portion of the Fellowship, and also complete a roster of responsibilities outlined
in a contract-signed, sealed, and delivered before the flight to Madison. There was also a great deal of references to non disclosure entities. All neat and tidy, “business as usual.” I was suspicious to say the least. At this point, the experience felt very “corporate” and I wondered if there was going to be any real creative juices flowing once I was on site. Granted I was impressed with the professional expertise that was demonstrated sorting out the many logistics of the travel, housing and contractual responsibilities— a gargantuan task.
Late approval from the grant end of things had created a housing shortage fiasco- but Filament resolved it by putting us up at an amazing lakeside AirBnB for the first weeks, and then a full service hotel for the duration. Since the hotel was a few miles away from the office, they gave us use of the company Prius, and for times we were traveling within the city, a metro card. Pretty sweet. Still I wondered just how much “teacher input” would be requested… how much impact I might be able to have.
I finally arrived at Filament Games, ready to take them by storm. But that never happened, and here’s why. To start with, it felt as if every single member of that team went out of their way to make me (us) feel welcomed. These folks were all about the age of my kids. Some were shy, some gregarious. Some brought their dogs to work and some had started a “Cloak Club” since the impressive new offices on the tenth floor traded panoramic views for some rather drafty spots.