The What, Why, and How of Gameful Learning

The What, Why, and How of Gameful Learning

What is gameful learning?

Gameful learning in my classroom combines best practices from research-based instructional strategies and project-based learning with the elements of games and design thinking to create highly engaging, differentiated, student-centered learning experiences.  This semester I am running two gameful learning experiences – one for students in my Earth/Environmental Science class and the other for students in my World History class.

Why is gameful learning effective?

Last week, I had the privileges of taking 4 students (2 from each game) to present during the NC Technology in Education Society’s Student Showcase.  My students did an outstanding job sharing their experiences with gameful learning and showing off their work from our class wiki.  I was impressed at how well they rose to the occasion to answer challenging questions from teachers and administrators who stopped by our booth.  Listening to students’ discussion with adults and one another reminded me just how valuable this learning experience really is. 

After walking around to view the other projects at the showcase, one student had this to say: “They’re all just showing tools like Edmodo and iPads.  Nobody else is really doing anything new and different.  Nobody is creating their own thing like we are.”  

Here are a few of my other favorite quotes from last Thursday:

“I know if I’m learning what I need to because the warm-ups and exit tickets are a check-in for me.  If I can’t answer the questions, I know I need to go back to the assignment and learn the material better.”


“Relating each lesson to our biome helps me understand the material.”


“I like learning this way because it’s a lot more interactive and creative than regular classroom instruction.  I think I understand it better because I interact with the lessons more.”


“I really like the game.  It’s so much fun I even complete quests online when I’m absent to make sure I’m not letting down my kingdom.”


“We’re creating our own colony as we go, so, we have to know the science to do it right.”



How do the games work?

ImageThe first game, Kingdom Quest, is the second iteration of a gameful unit for World History students studying the Middle Ages.  The game begins with each student drawing a role out of a hat: king/queen, lord/lady, knight, freeman, villien, or serf.  Students then conduct research to create their character – choosing an Avatar from Renaissance artwork and writing a journal entry to describe their daily life.  Students work in learning teams – “kingdoms” – to complete assignments, and they earn points as they learn, and their feudal roles extend to the classroom.  For instance, during group work the king/queen always delegates tasks, and students must have permission from both their king or queen and myself to get a hall pass.  Points are awarded for completion of assignments at mastery level, winning competitions, and various other challenges (such as addressing me with my proper name – the Fantastical Empress Prattina). 

The second game, Earth Quest, is my first attempt at creating an entire course using gameful learning.  Students are assigned to crews of aliens who are hoping to colonizImagee Earth after destroying their own planet by over population and poor environmental stewardship.  Student crews drew a biome, and chose a location on earth within that biome to establish a colony.  Currently one colony is on Australia’s York Peninsula in the rain forest, another is in Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, and the third is in the chaparral region outside of Los Angeles, California.  Students’ colony becomes their lens through which they view the content we study.  For our weather unit, students collected data about weather in their biome and made predictions for one week.  The next project will involve researching severe weather in their biome and writing a survival guide for members of their colony.  Points are awarded similarly to Kingdom Quest – for completion of assignments at mastery level, first and second place in competitions, and other fun activities.

In both games, students unlock “powers and perils” as they progress – such as the ability to expand a colony, set up an industry, attack another kingdom, or spread the black plague.

How can I become a game master?

Are you interested in creating a similar gameful experience for your students?  On June 11, my research partner and I will be leading a special Professional Development track – Rebooting the Classroom: Leveling Up Motivation, Collaboration, and Learning with Gameful Pedagogy for teachers interested in doing something similar in their own classrooms. Hurry – applications are due by March 15!  If you can’t make it to Madison or want to get started sooner, check out the Resources page at the Coalition for Gameful Learning, and connect with us on Twitter or e-mail.

Critical Thinking through Play: Choose Your Own Adventure

Critical Thinking through Play: Choose Your Own Adventure

The fork in the road
Photo “The fork in the road” by i_yudai.

As a child, I loved “choose your own adventure” books. I remember my teacher reading them to my class, and allowing us to vote about each decision to choose our own ending to the story. As I became a teenager, teen magazines published quizzes about dating and peer pressure in a similar format. I think the format is appealing because it allows readers to have some autonomy over the plot of the book, and allows readers to model risks without having to suffer any real-life consequences.  This leads to positive emotions like independence and satisfaction, and if the reader chooses the “best” ending, can also lead to a sense of accomplishment.  (Positive emotions and accomplishment are important aspects of motivation in any environment.  For more information about this, see my previous post on the PERMA model.)

Last week I came across an article about immigration at Mother Jones titled “Think You Can Beat the Immigration Maze?” The simple quiz allows players to choose a scenario and follow the steps to obtaining a legal green card for US immigration.  At once I was struck with the powerful implications of the article for games, learning, and literacy.

As a history teacher who focuses heavily on current events, I was impressed at the learning possibilities using the article as it is.  Students can assume multiple identities and simulate the immigration process.  This is a powerful tool for teaching about the real challenges and consequences of immigration policy as it stands now.  Asking students to work through the quiz, and then discuss or write about immigration law, could be an excellent lesson plan for classes about civics and government, or for classes studying the history of immigration in the U.S.

However, I think the best part of this resource is the link Mother Jones includes toward the bottom of the article:

“Want to build your own Choose Your Own Adventure game? Check out our free, open-source tool here!. ” 

The link takes users to a github site with the code from the quiz.  This is fantastic, because as much as students can learn from playing games, they can always learn more from creating games.  Imagine the potential in a history class!  Students could create their own Choose Your Own Adventure scenarios for historical events.  This would be a great assessment to have students demonstrate their understanding of multiple perspectives about the same event.  It would also be an excellent assessment for scientific processes that have many steps (Carbon Cycle?)  or mathematical problems that can be solved multiple ways.  A simpler tool to use with a similar outcome would be Google forms, in which students can link questions to the next question based on the answer users give.

My colleague Tim, from the Coalition for Gameful Learning, had another great insight.  He immediately saw the potential for writing prompts using the game.  Tim teaches fourth grade, and many of his students enjoy Choose Your Own Ending type books.  Tim thought students could elaborate on each option and write their own book about immigration.

So whether your students are ready for html, Google Docs, or just plain old paper and crayons – the playful critical thinking opportunities for Choose Your Own Ending games are endless.  What ideas do you have for having students consume or create Choose Your Own Ending scenarios?


3 Easy Content-Based Games to Encourage Critical Thinking

This week’s #sschat explored the topic of critical thinking and how educators can better incorporate higher level thinking skills into daily practice.  What is critical thinking?  The Partnership for 21st Skills identifies the following skills related to critical thinking:

  • Reason Effectively
  • Use Systems Thinking
  • Make Judgments and Decisions
  • Solve Problems

The chat on Tuesday got me thinking about how games can be a great way to get students thinking critically because they naturally involve creativity and many other critical thinking skills.   Teachers often ask me if there are quick games they can tweak to fit their content area without a lot of preparation. The games described games below require little preparation, fit into any content area, and help students practice these important skills:

1.  Would You Rather? – Would You Rather is an excellent game that can easily be applied to any content area.  Divide students into groups of 3-4 and prepare (or have students prepare) a list of questions that apply to your content area.  Cut the questions into strips and put them in an envelope.  Make an envelope for each group.  Students should draw one question out of an envelope, and write down their answer.  The other members of the group should discuss the question and come to a consensus to predict how the person answered.  After they’ve reached a consensus, the person will reveal the answer that was written down.  Of course, this should lead to discussion in which the person justifies his or her answer.  You can assign points for guessing the answer correctly, but this game is just as much fun without keeping score.  For a twist that encourages even more higher-level thinking, ask students to assume the role of a famous person, historical figure, or fictional character when answering.  Here are some examples:

  • Would you rather be Marie Antoinette or Joan of Arc?
  • If you have extra money, would you rather save it or invest it?
  • You are looking for a place to settle your civilization.  Would you rather have a natural barrier to enemies or settle along an already-established trade route?

2.  20 Questions – Have students draw a concept you have studied from a hat.  Other students in their group can ask 20 yes or no questions to guess the concept.  This helps students develop their own working definitions of words and understand the specific characteristics of important terms.  Good concepts include specific items when you are studying several similar things.  For instance, you could use the organelles of a cell, world religions, or the characters from a novel.

3.  2 Truths and a Lie – Place students in small groups of about 4 and assign each student a role related to the material you have covered.  Give students a set amount of time to research or review material about the concept (you might supply class notes, Internet access, a textbook, or another source of information to help them).  After time is up, have each student present 2 truths and a lie about the concept.  The other students must guess which statement is the lie.  Good topics for this game include historical figures, political philosophies, major wars or time periods, scientific theories, famous scientists, mathematical properties, or famous authors.

How do you use games in your classroom to help students practice critical thinking and problem solving?

Oman Education Conference: Reflections and Questions

Oman Education Conference: Reflections and Questions

This week I had the privilege of attending a whirlwind 2 day conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which served as a time of collaboration and mutual learning between the Interactive Communications and Simulations department at the University of Michigan, the recently established Institute for Innovation in Education, the Omani Ministry of Education, Sultan Qaboos University, and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.

This conference was an amazing opportunity to hear what other alumni from ICS programs are doing in their classroom, get acquainted with a variety of interactive technology-driven projects, and network with like-minded educators from the U.S. and Oman.  In addition I got the unique opportunity to hear about successes and challenges facing Oman’s education system.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the history of Oman, in 1970 the country went through what they refer to as the “Blessed Renaissance” when the current Sultan, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father and took over the country.  Sultan Qaboos initiated many changes and reforms including universal schooling, building an infrastructure, developing universal healthcare, and strengthening the Omani economy.  Previous to 1970 many Omanis were forced to leave the country to receive a good education or even find a paying job.  Women were not allowed to go to school, and students studied using camel shoulder bones and sticks to write.  (For a fascinating look at the Blessed Renaissance, check out Voices of Oman, which is a compilation of easy to read oral histories from people who lived through the changes.)

Today things are much different.  Nearly 50% of Omani women graduate from high school, and women are outscoring men at the university level.  Oman has developed a sophisticated system of education that ranges from primary to university level, including technical and vocational universities, and they are intentionally studying education reform in other countries, such as the U.S., in an effort to avoid mistakes that others have made and ensure their population is prepared to support their job market.  A fairly recent shift in education in Oman has been to move away from teacher-centered classrooms to more student-centered instruction.  Like all nations, Omanis are particularly concerned with developing 21st century job skills in their students, such as communication, collaboration, and work ethic.

Over the course of the 2 days in Ann Arbor, I had the privilege of hearing about and networking with the following innovation educational technology projects:

Place Out of Time – How would a conversation between Muhammad Ali and Napoleon on the subject of the intelligent use of force unfold? What might Queen Isabella have to say about the importance of a diverse society? Come to the Alhambra Palace and find out! 

Place Out Of Time is a simulation of a trial, where students play guests who come from a range of places and times throughout history to discuss some of the great issues of humankind.

Earth Odyssey – Earth Odysseys is an interdisciplinary adventure learning activity that “sends” students to places they may never visit in person. Using a web-based format, middle school and high school students are engaged in an intensive interaction with peers from around the world, and with a staff of university mentors. Student participants learn about the world’s geographical and human diversity as well as the rich and varied cultural expressions of its people.

International Poetry Guild – The International Poetry Guild is a web-based language-arts program that develops student’ writing abilities while encouraging them to become critical, appreciative readers of poetry. IPG combines the individualized activity of writing poetry with the teamwork needed to compile “journals” of student work. The Poetry Guild can easily be incorporated into any language arts curriculum in junior and senior high schools.

Sonlig – Sonlig aims to reduce energy poverty and increase employability possibilities for youth in areas where rural electrification is a significant barrier to accessing technology tools. Sonlig has developed a science kit and curriculum that introduces learners to solar photovoltaic energy allowing them to build something functional: their own solar photovoltaic charging system.

Mapmaking in the Community App – The Mapmaking in the Community Game provides students with an opportunity to create maps and make connections in their local community and in the process build literacy and math skills.  Students make a variety of conceptual and geographical maps to organize thoughts, experiences, and ideas of the people and places that surround their daily lives. Students use a variety of tools to gather their data and collaborate with classmates to reflect on their findings.

Cultural Views – Using digital photography to explore and connect autobiographical stories to wider cultural, political and social meanings

I was at the conference representing my own project, the Coalition for Gameful Learning.

Based on my conversations at the conference, I’ve developed the following questions to delve deeper:

What can we learn about formative assessment and effective feedback from online mentoring programs such as Place Out of Time?  How can we work together to improve student learning and investigate effective feedback?  How can we implement what POOT has learned about mentorship and feedback into analog and hybrid classroom games?  How do student responses on POOT reflect low-stakes writing

(As a possible entry point to answering this question, I recently received an e-mail from my principal encouraging us to use the ATLAS “Learning from Student Work” protocol to reflect on our own practice.  Here is the protocol from the National School Reform Faculty.)

In Oman they reported that they are struggling to motivate male students, and that, overall, male students are less engaged and performing more poorly than female students.  This is also a trend in the U.S.  What can we do to engage male students and hold them to the same high expectations of learning and achievement as female students?

During our jigsaw discussion time with POOT, someone asked if there was a list of frame games somewhere that teachers could easily customize by plugging in their specific content.  Would it be worthwhile to investigate this concept and include it as a chapter in our book?

The Institute for Innovation in Education that is emerging at the University of Michigan identified goals, approaches, and implementation of the institute.  Goals include Inquiry, Curiosity, and Empathy.  Approaches include Playfulness, Social action, Collaboration, and Design/Innovation.  Implementation will be across multiple locations and ages.

      • As always, I am curious about the interplay of playfulness and social action.  How are these approaches complimentary?  Are they related?  How could playfulness beget social action?  What are some examples of this at work?  I think there is a lot of potential here that we are using, but we have yet to explain, investigate, or interpret it fully.
      • This segment also led me to ask questions about my own classroom.  How am I engaging students in inquiry, curiosity, and empathy?  How are inquiry and curiosity similar and different?  How do teachers engage in these practices, and what supports are available to practicing teachers to engage their own inquiry, curiosity, and empathy?