The Wall

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” or so the saying goes, and apparently, there’s truth in it.  According to an October 2011 story in The Atlantic, the lack of unstructured play is making our children more anxious and depressed.  When I present on the topic of games and their value for learning, I usually hit this fundamental issue.  Play is valuable.  Powerful learning happens when we’re in that flow state.  I point educators to a great TED Talk by Dr. Stuart Brown on importance of play.  In his talk, he quotes Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, “The opposite of work isn’t play – it’s depression.”

This wall between play and work is entrenched in our fast-paced, corporate-driven culture.  Play is something we do on the weekends and perhaps in the evenings after we’re home from the office.  What’s frightening me, lately, is that I’m seeing this same mental wall in people’s minds between play and learning.  Our busy, test-driven classrooms allow little room for “sandbox” time, a time for simply exploring a concept of the student’s choice.  Our curricula are formulaic and, of course, time-finite.  We must ensure that all students achieve mastery before the summer.

It isn’t a surprise that the idea of bring play (and video games) into the classroom takes many educators aback.  After all, we’ve been thoroughly conditioned by the rat race.  What really concerns me is that this same division exists in the minds of even our youngest learners.  How do I know?  I’ve been moderating YouTube comments!  Several months ago, I posted a video of our 5th graders sharing their Minecraft creations.  At some point, the video became somewhat viral (as of this posting, over 600,000 views).  The huge majority of comments (over 4,000 so far) are coming from K-12 students.  I’ve been really surprised by the pushback I’m receiving from these kids.  Comments like, “You can’t learn from a game,  you learn at school,” and  “how can you learn while playing a game?” aren’t uncommon.

I often evoke Scott McLeod’s blog title when thinking about things like this.  Public education is barreling full steam down a path toward dangerous irrelevance.  Is what happens in the classroom truly meaningful to our kids?

C’mon innovators!  I know you’re out there.  Let’s reverse this trend, and bring play and exploration back into the learning process.  It doesn’t have to be through video games (though, that’s a good way to start).


NCSLMA 2011 – Gaming Librarians!

I had a fantastic two days at NCSLMA 2011, where I was honored to present on using video games in education.  Sarah Justice did an amazing job of organizing a great learning and networking opportunity.  Of course, anyone who has a Doctor Who Quote in their signature gets big props from me:



Gwyneth Jones delivered an call to arms for librarians across the state!  Let her passion for learning and “little monsters” (a la Lady GaGa) be an inspiration for us!  You can find her resources here and be sure to check out her blog, The Daring Librarian.


During awards, the media center of one NC school was described as “the hub.”  I love this!  That’s exactly what our media centers should be!  A hub of:  learning… inspiration… creativity…  engagement.   What will it take to make your media center that kind of hub?


There were so many great educators there, and I didn’t have enough time to meet them all.  The ones who I spoke with and who braved my sessions seemed genuinely passionate about learning and eager to try new things.  Today, some even endured part of my presentation on the street!  (Yeah, there was a fire alarm!)  There were great sessions scheduled during each time slot!  However, that’s the beauty of sharing and the web.  If you missed my sessions and are interested in learning more, all of my resources are here.  Steal… liberally.

5th Graders in Minecraft

I’ve said it before, but here I go again, “Minecraft is probably one of the most valuable games (for the price) available to the education community.” It fosters critical thinking and can be used in so many creative ways. Here’s a quick video I put together with my iPad at the end of last school year. It features some of our 5th grade students talking about their construction and learning in Minecraft. Apologies for the poor audio. I wasn’t aware I was covering the microphone at times. Lesson learned!


If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out Joel Levin (The Minecraft Teacher) – and the awesome folks at Massively Minecraft – There’s also a collaborative wiki set up to foster the sharing of ideas on the use of Minecraft. You’ll find it here –


Teachers Playing World of Warcraft

There is a certain thrill for me watching adult learners exploring a totally alien environment.  Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me?  I’m having those very sorts of opportunities in August as Peggy Sheehy and I lead teachers from around the world through quest-based learning experiences in 3DGameLab.  Our group’s quests revolve around the concept of using World of Warcraft (or similar MMO’s) in the classroom.  Our first week has simply been a chance to orient folks to World of Warcraft.  Simply put, we just want them to play the game, immersing themselves in the fantasy world of Azeroth.

As we move into week two, we’re asking our participants to look at the game through the lens of education and instructional design.  World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game.  This first week has reminded me of just how much I take for granted:  the jargon, game culture, and of course the technical side of things.  We have a range of prior knowledge among our participants from those who have multiple level 85 characters, the highest level in the game, to those who have never experienced any virtual world, much less a game-based virtual world.

One of the first quests for our explorer-teachers this week is to examine how the game’s designers essentially are instructional designers.  The game has to teach you how to play the game.  This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and testing on the part of the designers.   Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, have become masters of this, as their subscriber numbers (around 12 million) indicate.

We asked our teachers both newcomers and veterans alike to reflect on their first experiences in the game and to consider what lessons we might apply to our classroom instruction.  The first responses coming in are very telling:

After a couple of unhappy days, something happened that turned it around for me. People started helping me – not only that, but on two different days, very advanced players went on quests with me. What a totally different experience it was! I loved playing. It was so much fun, and I was learning a tremendous amount by following their lead and asking questions. It’s lonely to struggle by yourself, and many times I thought that this must be how students feel when they get stuck and are not allowed to work with anyone else.

This response really highlights the value of the social component, something that good games typically foster but too often our classrooms discourage.  Another teacher shared this observation:

Each quest would expand the area you could investigate. Each quest would introduce you to more and more challenging obstacles to overcome. Some quests taught you how to fish, earn money with a trade, and use different talents. You were not tossed in the middle of the pool with all your skills in place, you had to learn them one or two at a time. New skills built upon previous knowledge.

This mastery-based approach is not common in our schools, primarily because time for learning is a set constant.  The mentality is, “if you don’t get it, sorry, we have to move on.”  Keeping your experiences within your “regime of competence” is a concept also reflected by this educator:

WoW is good at starting you off small – just a few spells, easily defeated baddies, and quests that let you go practice your skills without aggroing mobs. The game is also good at keeping you within your skill realm. You won’t find any level 30 foes in the level 1 areas so you’re usually pretty safe from biting off more than you can chew.

On the concept of feedback to the player (what we might call assessment), one of our educators shared this observation:

I could see that I was making progress, and that was motivating. Also the frequent advancing in levels at the beginning stages. I was so happy when my level went up! I’ve rarely seen this technique done in education, but it could certainly be borrowed.

I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and reflection of these educators I had to go ahead and share it.  There are many more educators who’ll be sharing their reflections on exploring World of Warcraft this week.

Are you a gaming educator?  What parallels can you make between game design and good instructional design?

Three Things I Didn’t Tweet from #ISTE11

@PCSTech says – Where preaching is happening, it’s directed at the choir. #iste11

60secMy first session at ISTE 2011 was with Will Richardson.  It was an excellent rallying cry.  A call for us to wake up.  The problem?  The people who really need to hear that message aren’t in the audience.  Will’s talk frightens me.  Why?  Because what he’s describing is simply the current state of technology.  He’s not speaking as a futurist, here.  And, as our learners move forward the relevance gap between school and the real world grows wider and wider.  In an age of automobiles we’re educating them to be buggy whip makers.  I worry about this gap, because, as one colleague said it, “this new landscape of technology is like the Wild West.”  Our kids are rushing in but typically without the guidance and wisdom of adults who are also pioneering ahead.  The result?  Well, just spend some time on XBox Live or look at what the average video posted to YouTube or the dialogue on Facebook.  I want them to share their lives and their creativity in these new media.  They should be.  But, they need guidance from us.

@PCSTech says – The real innovation is not in technology but in thinking. #iste11

ipad2bubblesheetI spent enough time in the vendor area to make it from one end to the other.  I am pretty confident in saying that I saw ZERO examples of any tools that were revolutionary.  I didn’t see any gadget, tool, service, or resource that fundamentally shifts instruction.  Every demonstration was instructor-centric.  “Look at what you as the teacher can show your students…”  Interactive white boards are bigger, snazzier, and offer more razzle dazzle than ever before.  Student response systems have only made standardized testing easier.  Like we need it. Some of the technology I saw was downright disgusting, like this tool that allows you to use an iPad 2 to score standardized Scan/Bubble sheets.  Seriously people?

@PCSTech says – Please don’t put “educational” or “serious” in front of “game.” #iste11

koduIf you are a gamer or a member of the 97% of our student population who plays electronic games, then you know what real games are like.  When you go home, you immerse yourself in the fast-paced action of Call of Duty, conquer dungeons with your guild in World of Warcraft, or get your daily workout while dancing in front of your Kinect.  Educators, please don’t try to sell your “educational” or “serious” game as a game in that light.  It won’t help the cause of advancing games as a viable tool for learning in our learners’ eyes.  When it comes to games in education, there are two areas I think we should pay close attention to:  student-created games like Pat Yongpradit is doing (using tools like Kodu/XNA, GameStar Mechanic, or Game Maker) and the use of commercial, off-the-shelf games (like Civilization, SIMS, or World of Warcraft).

For me, the real meat of the conference came in the conversations between sessions and over meals.  EduBloggerCon was quite possibly the most valuable experience of all.  I think the un-conference format really fosters deep conversation and networking and I’m hoping to adapt the format for professional development in my district.

Want to do a WoW-Based Project in Your School? Here’s Everything You Need…

Over the past two years I’ve been approached by several people from around the world inquiring about our World of Warcraft in School Project.  Yet, despite the numerous contacts, I’m only aware of two other schools/school systems who’ve started similar projects.  Of course, there are many potential barriers from costs to people-barriers.  Craig Lawson (@midlawsondle) and I have worked over the past year to create a full-year, standards-aligned language arts course that is based on World of Warcraft.  We have several goals in doing so:

1.  We want to demonstrate that there is value in considering commercial, off-the-shelf games for curricular integration.

2.  We want to share our work with anyone else who might take it on, and in doing so, expand the network of educators who are exploring the potential that games like this hold for the classroom.

3.  We want to create a model (using the term loosely, here) upon which similar projects, perhaps using other games might be built.

4.  We hope that others will look at the work and expand on it, improve it, and share it.

5.  We want to show that, “Yes! You can do this.”

Last Friday, we decided to kick it out of the nest.  It’s a work in progress and we sincerely welcome your feedback.  If you want to start something similar in your school, it contains most of what you need to get started.  For what’s missing, well, that’s where the power of networking comes into play.  Contact me, especially via Twitter (@PCSTech), and I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps.

If you’d like to download the .PDF of the curriculum, you can find it on the project wiki or preview it below:

WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey


Boise State’s 3D GameLab on EdGamer Episode #11

3dgamelabVery excited to have had a hand in helping Zack and the cool folks at the EdGamer podcast connect with the cool folks behind Boise State’s 3D GameLab.  Chris Haskell, one of the visionaries behind the 3D GameLab, joins Zack Gilbert for this week’s EdGamer episode 11.  If you’re not familiar with 3D GameLab, it’s essentially a tool designed to support a quest-based learning format that emphasizes learner choice while guiding learners through a course of study.  I really feel a tool like this could prove invaluable in moving us to a new paradigm of instruction.  Chris Haskell and Lisa Dawley get it.   Check it out the podcast at:


Google’s Readability Search – Games and Other Topics

Did you know that Google would allow you to view readability-filtered search results?  I was tipped off to this hidden feature by Alicia Taylor, a district media coordinator, who sent me the Huffington Post article on the feature.  To use this feature, simply conduct a Google search, then on the left side of your results, click “More SearchTools” and select “Reading level.”  The results of your searches can then be filtered by basic, intermediate, or advanced.  So, I compiled a small sampling of results (% of results at each level), mostly games and a few other topics and put them in a table.  Interesting results:


Happy searching!


Coming This Summer: 3D Game Lab

Teachers! Looking for a great way to incorporate game-like elements into your curriculum? Lisa Dawley is hosting a completely online professional development program and access to the 3D Game Lab!  I’m proud to say that I’ll be contributing to this program in August.  It’s going to rock!  The official website and information about signing up can be found here –  Check out the video and the flyer below.