Taggame-based learning

stanfield: 2.0

Now that our TLLP project is finished, the big question is this: what have I learned and how do I apply it to my next year of teaching.

First, my learning. For the most part, I see games as engaging for students. Most of the kids really enjoyed playing the educational games that we chose. They were excited and some even played the games at home. It’s always easy to give game-playing as homework :).

We used games at various parts in our teaching. Some games worked really well as inquiry provocations; to get the creative and critical juices flowing, to instigate good wondering. Other games took the place of direct instruction, giving students the basic knowledge needed to further their inquiry. Other games gave students the opportunity to practice skills.  We used games in various subjects: Science, Social Studies, Health, Math and the Arts.

So, with all of this learning, what does my classroom look like this year? Well, pretty much the same, but better. Stanfield 2.0.  I’ve taken the good parts of last year, the games I know work well (and NOT the games that were disappointing) and fit them in to our inquiry-based learning model. And, we are trying out new games! Minecraft Pocket will be making an appearance or two (or three, or four….) and lots more. Keep an eye on this blog for posts and game reviews :).

I wholly believe that games are an integral part of learning. They engage students to obtain background knowledge and further their understanding of important concepts. If they can acquire information while having fun, they become more invested in the topic and are more open to taking risks and furthering their learning through asking deep questions.

Would you rather sit and listen to a teacher talk for half an hour, or would you rather learn that same information through playing a game?


finally…..real game-based learning

Dave’s right…..having students blog about their learning was really effective. Real time documentation of their learning seemed to be much more realistic and doable for them–they didn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about what to write; as soon as they learned something about energy, they blogged what they learned. Simple, not overwhelming to those who don’t like to write.

But there is so much more to tell you about this unit…..

Here Dave shared what we did in our Conservation of Energy unit. It’s worth a look if you teach about renewable/non-renewable energies. The game we used, Electrocity, is a free web-based game that allows students to be mayors of their own cities. Their goal is, like any real mayor, to grow the city and keep the residents happy. Students must ensure citizens have enough electricity by building energy plants. There are many choices: hydroelectric dams, geothermal plants, coal mines, etc. How to decide? It’s built right into the game! Pros and cons are posted within each choice, allowing students to make informed decisions and learn more about each form of energy.

Next steps were having students develop inquiry questions based on whatever energy sources sparked their interest.  Then, they went down their own learning path. Finally, they shared their learning with the rest of the class.

Feedback was that students enjoyed it. They didn’t feel like they were being forced to learn and they liked that the learning was built right into the game. They cheered when it was Electrocity time….how’s that for engagement!

I will definitely use Electrocity again next year.



finding the right fit…part 2

I’ve been blogging quite a bit about my struggles with gamification in my classroom, but that is only half of our TLLP project. The other part is using game-based learning to deliver curriculum.

GBL is a fun way to up the engagement factor in a classroom, but is that enough to justify its use? At the beginning of this journey, I might have said yes because having the opportunity to play games was motivating for my students. If they were learning while playing, then all the better. It’s kind of like sneaking in the learning while they’re distracted by gaming.

Now that we’ve been using GBL in the classroom for 6 months and I’ve immersed myself in research for even longer, I no longer think engagement is enough to justify gaming in the classroom. The “fun factor” is short-lived as the novelty of iPads and apps wears off and I feel like sometimes we don’t get the biggest bang for our pedagogical buck with the games we have chosen. I still see the value of game-based learning, but I’m seeing that the way we’ve been applying it just isn’t enough.

We’ve been creating TLCPs and then trying to fit games into them. That’s been tough. Ontario curriculum is often different from its US counterpart, and many educational games are based on US content. And sometimes–many times–we can’t find games that explicitly teach Ontario curriculum.  So this time around, we found the game first and then planned our TLCP around it. Instead of the game teaching curriculum, we are using the game to explore curriculum. Simple, minute difference with big results.

I see educational games like this:

1. rote learning games–These games use repetition of skills to improve fluency. They might be for math or for learning the alphabet. If you took the educational piece out of it, there wouldn’t be much left. 12. deeper games –These games are stand-alones; that is, without the educational aspect of it, it would still be a great game. Users need to think critically, problem-solve and make decisions that will affect the outcome.  The game can apply to different pieces of the curriculum.


Early in this project, we used all #1 apps. Now we are making a shift to #2. And it feels right. I still see a place for some #1 games (math fact fluency, practicing writing the alphabet for those with fine motor issues, Daily 5 Word Work), but for deep learning, #2 games are the way to go!


sharing the passion

Yesterday I was at Nipissing University (Brantford Campus) to present to teacher candidates who will be graduating in April. A great little setup there: a bunch of classroom teachers doing something different in their classrooms, sharing with the future of our profession. I felt fortunate to be a part of it.

I chose to present on both game-based learning and gamification. I know that these ideas can be considered outside-of-the-box, not your typical teaching strategies. And I know that these new teachers are trying to become comfortable with just getting through a teaching day, never mind asking them to consider trying something innovative. They are not at the point of taking risks in their profession, they are conservative and safe. I remember being there, treading water, not even thinking about rocking the boat.

So I went in with low expectations, not looking to convert anyone, but certainly hoping to plant some seeds of interest. The end result? Well, several audience members asked thoughtful and relevant questions about iPad configuration, purchasing apps and equity in technology. A few came up to me afterwards to ask about assessment and using games as reward for finishing early.  Many were having fun playing the games on the iPads I had distributed (immerse them in the idea and they might think further about it’s application!).

And I had one teacher candidate who got it. She approached me after the presentation and was excited. She wished she had this when she was in school because there were math concepts she struggled with, and she thought that having more practice using games for engagement would have helped her tremendously. She said she would be contacting me in the future to learn more.

Does that make a successful presentation? You bet! I was thrilled to be able to affect others, for them to now at least consider that games and gamification can be useful in the classroom.

Here is the link to my Prezi.


second time around

So we are just starting our second unit within the game-based learning/gamification project. The topic is brand new to us in grade 5 land due to curriculum changes here in Ontario: First Nations and Early Explorers in Canada (pre-1713). Here are some neat things that are happening, and some others that I hope will happen soon.

1. Finding the game. We spent hours looking for games that might be suitable for this topic. Of course, it’s such a specific point in history, it was a difficult task. Then we shifted our thinking away from the certain era and instead thought about what we wanted our students to learn. We wanted them to understand what it was like to explore and settle in a new environment. This made it much easier and we found a few games that could connect. Then Greg found it: New World Colony. If you’ve ever played the board game Settlers of Catan, it’s quite similar (even down to the hexagonal tiles).

2. Success with the game. Having students play New World Colony was great for our students. The game was one of our provocations for the unit’s start. As the title alludes, students are settlers in a new land where they need to compile resources, build settlements and battle to gain more land and resources. Students began to grasp the idea that early explorers in Canada had little and had to work very hard.

3. Student reflections. At the end of our last gbl-based unit, we had students reflect via blogging how apps and games helped them learn about the topic. The reflections were poor, in that they felt the games didn’t help them at all. I was shocked: they were so engaged that they had to be learning something. Then it hit me: they had learned so much via inquiry throughout the unit that, looking back at the basic information obtained through the games, they felt they didn’t really learn a lot from them. So, in this unit, we got them to blog right after playing the game, before the inquiry begins. This is what we got. Much more reflective than before, and a great assessment piece for the schema that they are developing.

4. Gamification.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on game mechanics as opposed to awarding badges. I want this unit to look different. Have quests and achievements. Celebrate progress. Get the kids excited. Explore our platform  with the help of Jared Bennett. Continue to use Twitter and blogs to further my understanding of this. And being okay with this piece of the project being a work in progress.


great expectations

Good teachers have high, albeit attainable, expectations of their students. I do. Matter of fact, I have high expectations of everyone–my family, my colleagues, myself. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes, not so much. Go figure.

Confession: I thought we would jump into this project, being noobs at game-based learning and gamification, only having a rudimentary idea of what it was all going to look like. And I thought it was going to go perfectly. High–unattainable–expectations.

I don’t expect this of my students. I know they need background knowledge. I know they need time to explore. I know they need to make mistakes and things might need to go badly so they can reflect, learn, make changes, try again.

So, why didn’t I have the same expectations for myself and this project? I don’t know. But I have been disappointed in how things are going. Frustrated with the lack of high-quality games that connect to grade 5 curriculum. Bummed that the streamlining of badge distribution is just not working. Downhearted once I realized that my badge distribution layout I was once so excited about, isn’t true gamification.

And then I reflected.


Figuring out how to learn from my mistakes and move forward in a meaningful way. Taking stock of the good things that are happening in in the project. Allowing some pride in the achievements so far. Realizing that it’s a journey, and that good things take time.

Revising those high expectations into realistic expectations. It’s a struggle for me.


starting up–musings of the past 2 weeks

It’s been two days short of a month since I last blogged. Thinking back to an initial post, I have not listened to one of my reflections: blog often because the memory ain’t what it used to be.

But I digress.

The exciting news is that we have started our first gamification/game-based learning unit on the human body. My last post described the layout of the badges, which I’m already rethinking. Yes, I would like students to earn badges for the academic achievements aligned with the curriculum. But I want the them to access more: easter eggs that students have no idea they can achieve, character badges such as showing improvement, showing innovation in publishing and giving effective feedback,  and badges  based on achievements within the apps/games they are playing. So much possibility! So little time to design them all!

The apps/games we are using are working out well for the most part. In science, we first introduced Tiny Bop’s Human Body which was the perfect app to begin the unit.


Engaged from the first seconds, students explored the interactive organ systems. Best part for our IEP students and ESL students: no text, nothing to read. This evened the playing field for everyone in that all students had the same entry point and all could independently explore the app. And boy, did they ever explore! After 20 minutes the students were begging for more! Even now, two weeks in, this is their favourite science app.

We are using a couple of other anatomy-type apps: Spongelab’s Build A Body app and Anatomy Browser.


We had to chat with the students about these two apps because they include the reproductive systems for men and women. We will eventually explore that system later in the year when we do our health unit on growth and development, but for now, we’re leaving it alone. Now,  these aren’t games, but they are engaging and interactive informational resources. They are used right now to evoke questions,  curiosity and inquiry for when they do their research project, much more true-to-life than any textbook could be. And we will be introducing the Human Defense app, a Pokemon-like game that teaches about the immune system, soon.


In math, we are focussing on adding and subtracting, with and without decimals. While this is mostly done through pencil and paper practice, we do allow the students time to practice fact fluency so that they can solve equations quickly. We have found several fun ones: Math vs. Zombies is exactly as it sounds; you have to transform the zombie into a person by solving math equations quickly.


Similarly, Sumdog is a game where you have to quickly answer the math equation to gain snowballs to hit down ice towers, akin to Angry Birds. Sumdog is web-based and completely free, and students have been playing at home so they can level up and gain XP (experience points).


3D Math Racing  is a great little app that has users in a truck rally where you have to solve math facts quickly to remain in the race. The equations are changeable (1’s all the way to 15s, easy/medium/hard levels) so everyone can participate.


The common thread in all these apps/websites is that speed is a factor. The faster the number problem is solved, the longer you get to stay in the game and the more points you earn.  Using these apps, we hope, will improve fact fluency and quick problem solving.

Further, as our year progresses, we will be using Prodigy more frequently.

 Screen shot 2013-10-27 at 7.44.21 PM

This is a wonderful, FREE, interactive math game that has participants battling mythical figures by answering math problems correctly. Teachers can align questions with grade level curriculum and the specific expectations of a math unit and they can analyze results of each student when they are finished playing the game. This can inform next instructional steps, and see where specific weaknesses lie. Also, it can be played for free at home as well. The motivation is there for many students to play this game on their own time, so they can earn virtual rewards, level up and gain XP. The single limit to us using Prodigy daily is that it is not yet tablet friendly, as it relies on Adobe Flash technology. In the near future, our hope is that Prodigy will issue a Flash-free website that can be used on our iPads.

If anyone has any other iPad apps or websites that might relate to what we are doing, please let us know. Our next foci are Early Civilizations/First Nations People, and Data Management & Multiplying/Dividing.




game-based learning and gamification

The project has two angles: game-based learning and gamification. Two totally different beasts, I have come to learn. This is how we hope it comes together in our classrooms.

Wikipedia states that “game based learning (GBL) is a type of game play that has defined learning outcomes. Generally, game based learning is designed to balance subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.”

Right now, I’m seeing this as linking specific educational games and apps to curriculum expectations as a facet of the instructional program. This means that students play games so they can learn and so they can practice. Further, I want to use GBL in critical thinking and application: students use what they have learned to navigate through games by making knowledge-based decisions, and they apply what they’ve learned by critically reviewing the game and by designing their own games.

Gamification Wiki states that “gamification typically involves applying game design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. Gamification has been called one of the most important trends in technology by several industry experts. Gamification can potentially be applied to any industry and almost anything to create fun and engaging experiences, converting users into players.”

In the classroom, learning becomes a set of goals. Once goals are achieved, students earn virtual rewards such as badges, points, virtual coins and the like. Students are proud of their accomplishments being on display, a huge motivator. Plus, they  work harder to achieve the goal to have a badge to display.

In simplistic terms, this is what we see happening in our classrooms in September. Over the summer, as we learn more about these concepts, our view may morph into something entirely different.


what are we proposing?

(*First Learning About Blogging* Blog as it happens! I’m trying to remember what happened months ago and it’s tough. I’m trying to get caught up on the events leading up to today, but it would have been much more effective and efficient if I had been blogging along as events unfolded. A lesson learned.)

Our proposal centres around game-based learning and gamification. We want to focus on using games, game design and gaming technology to enhance student learning, especially with English Language Learners and students on Individual Education Plans.

Our hope is that the game aspects will transcend any language or ability barrier so that all can succeed. Levels out the playing field, if you wish. We are also considering that students will be more engaged in the learning process, will take more of an active role in their learning and will enjoy coming to school more.

I have concerns. I’m unsure how parents will receive the news that their child will be “playing games” all year. On a similar note, I am not sure how my colleagues will view this project. Seriously? You’re going to let students play all day?

The key here is sharing of information. Our group will hold community information sessions and we’ll be sure that our staff team, including administrators, clearly understands what we are attempting to undertake. We’ll be welcoming so that others want to ask us questions and observe our classrooms.  Outside of our school, we need to consider Board-wide impact of our project and beyond that, national and international communities need to be informed.

Transparency is crucial. Which leads back to this blog: I want to document every minute of my thinking, reflection, successes and failures.  Nothing hidden, no questions avoided. We’ll also be tweeting along the way. Our students will be blogging their learning.

Anyone else I need to consider sharing information with?  Any other way I can share?


the journey begins

Last fall I attended the ECOO12 Conference in Toronto. I was amazed at the wealth of knowledge not only in the session leaders but in the participants as well. I was excited to be there and the vibe was incredible. High interest leads to high engagement in adults too!

One session in particular caught my eye: Gaming in the Classroom, by Oren Grebler. The thought of engaging students with fun activities sounded appealing, a no-brainer really. What kid doesn’t like games? The session was great, and when I came out of there I knew I wanted to try this and take it even further.

Shortly after, I ran into Jared Bennett, one of our tech gurus (in grown-up terms, 21st Century Fluencies Consultant) at HWDSB, who suggested that, along with game-based learning, I might consider gamification in the classroom as well. I’ll be honest, I had no clue what he was talking about.

Returning to school, I spoke with my administrators, Joanne McIntosh and Stephen Yull, who suggested I pursue an application to the TLLP. Dave and Derek joined in and the rest, folks, is history.


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