There are a class of digital games which require the formation of “cross functional teams” (Gee, 2005). Cross functional teams are “a group of people with different functional expertise working toward a common goal.” The ability to take on and respect these different roles is a sign of good, healthy collaboration rather than simple “group work” where participants work side-by-side but not together.

To access the best gear in World of Warcraft, for example, groups need to be formed in order for certain content (raids or dungeons) to be successfully completed. The kinds of challenges the groups face demand there be a character up front sucking up all the damage from the big bad guy (a tank), someone staying out of trouble healing (a healer) and three other characters doing damage to the big bad guy (DPS – damage per second characters). Characters specialise in their areas and need to stick to their role if the encounter is to be successful; you cannot win a dungeon if your group comprises solely of one class or of people not sticking to their assigned roles (read: a Leroy Jenkins).

Players must understand their character’s abilities and roles, but also integrate and coordinate smoothly with the group as a whole, embodying what James Gee calls “cross-functional understanding” (2005). What you get then is a group coming together in a shared endeavour, each character an integral part of the puzzle. These dungeons constitute an “Affinity Space” – a place where experimental learning happens, where newbies and masters unite, knowledge is dispersed and leadership is flexible. In a World of Warcraft raid group you learn and grow together; fail and succeed together.

A group of people working together, taking different roles, communicating and collaborating? This is good stuff – stuff which indeed hits on many aspects of what we consider to be elements of good learning experiences:

  • It flexes many of Guy Claxton’s characteristics of powerful learners, most notably that of experimentation and the virtue of sociability (Claxton, 2013).
  • It takes a cue from not only a constructivist view of learning, where learning emerges from experiences, but also a connectivist approach where learning is strengthened and enhanced when nodes of knowledge (players) connect and diffuse knowledge.
  • It is an interactive approach to learning, not one in which learners are passive receptacles (Becker, 2011).

What is interesting is considering these informal, affinity based groups alongside the idea of identity and social inclusion as well. It allows students to experiment with different roles and identities, ones which could be altogether different from those they embody on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t matter how fast you run or what clothes you wear or what your recent writing sample was scored at – in a MMO (massive multiplayer online game) it comes down to how well you know your class, how well you can work together, communicate, collaborate and trust each other. Participation in affinity spaces can bridge barriers and bring people together.

Setting up experiences where students get to be a part of a cross functional team can therefore lead to great learning in and of itself, but can also be used as a springboard or scaffold into offline collaboration too. Cross functional teams are valued hugely in many areas because they can flexibly meet challenges and deliver creative outcomes. Helping students to be active participants in these kinds of groups – to be able to take on different roles (a leader or a follower, a devil’s advocate, an experimenter, or a dreamer) – is good stuff. The importance then would shift into reflecting deeply on your online experiences and taking those learnings into group projects, social interactions, and collaborative learning IRL. Thankfully there are strategies and tools that can assist this – de Bono’s Thinking Hats and NoTosh’s Design Thinking tools spring to mind.

Digital Games are not just the past-time popular media would have you believe, but powerful spaces for learning and powerful prompts into other learning. Using cross functional teams as a training ground for offline collaboration and social inclusion is one of these.

So – who do you want to be today? A tank, a healer or a DPS?


Becker, K. (2011). Distinctions between games and learning: A review of current literature on games in education. In Gaming and Simulations: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications (pp. 75-107). Hershey, PA: . doi:10.4018/978-1-60960-195-9.ch105

Claxton, G. (2013). What’s the point of school?: Rediscovering the heart of education. Oneworld Publications.

Gee, J.P. (2005). Good video games and good learning. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 85(2), 33-37.


Modern Learning. What is it? Is it even a thing? Are we to say all learning that’s not happening now is not modern and therefore not as good?


Here’s something: modern learning ain’t the furniture. It ain’t the devices. It’s ain’t the amount of 20% time you give your students.

It’s much more than the environment, the apps, the beanbags, the 3D printer, the interactive books, the e-newsletter, and the paperless records.

It’s about the learning. Good old learning. Good old solid old learning. Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.

It’s about maximising the learning opportunities that a student encounters. It’s about developing understandings of the world. It revels in holistic, authentic, complex contexts. It is dispositional and reflective. It’s collaborative. It’s worldwide and connected. It prepares students for their future – and yip, you know what – that means learning how to get by in our education system as well as the world they are growing up in, digital and otherwise. Modern learning is in the moments – those times when the teacher / student relationship is challenging yet supportive, providing guidance when the times get tough. It’s about providing students the chance to play and tinker and find their talents. It’s based on research as well as hunches. It’s hugely personal. It’s hard work for all involved.

It’s about heaps of other stuff I haven’t even thought of / come across / do yet.

Why then is the acronym ‘MLE’ so pervasive? The environment is a piece of the puzzle, for sure, but it’s not the whole puzzle. You can have a stunningly new environment, but not be a place where great teaching and learning happens and likewise, you can be in an old-school building and still provide those students with a meaningful, effective, freakin’ fantastic education.

In saying that, when an environment as well as a teaching and learning approach are running in tandem, good things can happen. Spaces can have an impact, but only when they are used critically and purposefully to enhance effective pedagogy, relationships, and student agency. The spaces and the things in those spaces and the things those spaces allow become tools in a battery of ways that learning experiences find fertile ground to emerge from.

What follows is a few lessons we’ve stumbled upon in our four years exploring what learning can be like in one of these ‘Modern Learning Environments’. It’s always changing though, and always up for discussion, so they’ll probably be different next month. That’s OK though – it’s part of the game: always changing, always based upon the students, the current research, and the current passions of the teachers. I’m not saying these things are universal, or they will work for you, or even if they are really working for us – just things which feel right and that seem to be going well lately. They are probably more structural than pedagogical, but they’re something, at the very least. Many of you will be doing this stuff already too – I’m not claiming any unique knowledge.

So, some current rules of thumb:

1) Integrate reading, writing, and inquiry

Reading and writing and inquiry flow in and through each other. They are so interrelated and can build on and support each other. This grows strengthens understanding across all sectors. We have termly inquiries where big ideas frame students’ personal investigations, and our literacy falls out of these – we don’t even call it reading or writing, just the name of the big understanding for that term. Integrating maths is on our to-do list, but this is slightly more complex – a work in progress.

2) Only work with groups of students / individual students whom need that particular learning experience

This means knowing your students at a fine-grained level, across a range of skills, knowledge and competencies. We use a web-based tracking system called the Amesbury Learning Framework which breaks down the core learning areas across the years. Teachers and more importantly students upload evidence to show they are meeting specific criteria. A student can be both a traditional Year 8 in one area, a Year 6 in another, and a Year 3 in another. This also helps us form targeted groups from a wide range of students. Students can “use their feet” if they feel they already know the material.

3) Talk less, way less

Let the students work the hard parts. Stop waffling. Be succinct (but this requires you know your stuff). Delineate your instruction – is it a nugget of knowledge you want students to learn, is it practising the application of the knowledge, or is it self-directed / independent learning time?

4) Team teach

Team teaching allows a number of things. It means not every teacher needs to be teaching – a teacher can be “roaming” supervising independent students. It allows flexible, needs-based grouping regardless of year level. It allows students to work with a wide range of students and be challenged or supported as necessary. It allows teachers to work together as a unit and learn from each other. It lets you be efficient with planning. It models effective (mostly!) adult relationships for students. It lets you have close, deep learning discussions with one particular student or massive collaborative discussions with 100 of them.

5) Independent Time

What are students doing when they are not with you? Cutting down on instructional / waffle time means students have more time for independent / collaborative time. When students are not in a workshop with a teacher they can be following a Must Do / Can Do set of tasks targeted personally to them by their particular subject teachers. Students have the ability to choose how long to concentrate on a certain task, and which ones to do and in what order. They have time, too, to follow their own passions. Because we team teach, these students can be supervised and supported as necessary. And yip – students will make the wrong choices all the time, but this is a rich opportunity for learning and if that’s not what school is for then what is? Reflective conversations abound in this environment.

6) Keep the doors open

Be open and transparent. It’s confronting at first, as a teacher, but there is so much learning to be had. Students can then choose the best places and spaces which work for them as learners too.

7) Go online and offline

Be critical about the whole IT thing. Don’t force it. Know when offline beats online (hint: it’s quite often).

8) Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water

Education isn’t new. Being a “21st Century School” means taking what we have learned from the past and moulding it with what we know now, not completely reinventing the wheel. Much of what worked 40 years ago still works today (albeit slightly more quickly, personalised, and connected!).


So, a nonexhaustive list of a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

School should be a place to maximise the learning experiences students encounter (whether teacher led or student led). It’s about the teaching / learning relationship. It’s about being open and transparent and helping each other. It’s about growing dispositions as much as knowledge and skills.

A ‘Modern Learning Environment’ isn’t just about the environment.

Heck, it isn’t the modern part either.

It’s about the learning.

Good old solid old hard-yakka learning.


I’m a gamer at heart. Have been since Dad bought home a brand new Apple IIe sometime in the late 80’s. I played everything from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, to Oregon Trail, to Lemmings, to the original Prince of Persia, and haven’t stopped since. After high-school I took a tumble into World of Warcraft and spent a good (read: very good) amount of time in Azeroth. I was in a serious raiding guild, even. I’ve since moved away from the MMORPG scene and am enjoying my PS4. I’ve just finished playing The Last of Us, which was a brilliant, captivating story and enjoy pwning n00bs via epic headshotz in Battlefield 4.

I’m also an educator, passionate about leveraging the affordances of the digital age for good learning.

Naturally then, I have come to this most recent paper in my Masters programme, “Game Based Learning”. Here is where my current thinking is at regarding gaming and education and it’s challenges and opportunities…

Games have the ability to be platforms for great learning or platforms for mindless consumption. I’m not saying that mindless consumption is a bad thing – I do it all the time, but only at home after a hard days work and when the 2 year old is asleep. School is for learning and challenging and growing the skills, knowledge, and dispositions people need for an increasingly digital future-world. Games are risky, perhaps, at school, because game-design is based on elements which immerse the gamer into the game world, keeping them wired in and playing. Educators need to be careful, critical, and judicious when selecting how to best use games for good, solid, helpful learning.

You can ham-fistedly, haphazardly introduce games into the classroom without considering their effect. Much like app selection, it’s important to choose games with a critical eye. Is this just fluffy, round the edges learning, or will the experience of the game truly bring about deeper understandings and authentic learning. Is the game a skill and drill game (which has it’s place) or a sandbox game? Games such as Minecraft and apps such as Explain Everything are powerful platforms where students can be flexing their creative muscles and producing innovative, personality-filled learning, for example.

But where might games fit? The technology is here, the will is here, but if we are mandated by the Government to be focusing heavily on reading, writing and maths, and being judged by the public and the Ministry on our reading, writing, and maths data in league tables and such, is there room for the judicious use of games? I certainly hope so, but can’t quite see how they might fit together just yet.

It’s my intention in this paper to find where the two may meet – gaming and traditional school stuff we have to do.

There is the other side of the coin here too – building the skills, knowledge, and mindset a programmer / creator of games requires. This is amazing, authentic learning, so rich in both skill development and dispositional development. To have students growing up understanding the world around them is created and create-able by themselves, not just there to be consumed, is powerful learning.

I’m also interested in this lingering notion that gaming is for socially-inept weirdos. I’ve felt it myself when explaining to people how I spent a few hours playing a certain game on the weekend. They don’t quite get it. The only people I can really talk with about gaming is my 7 – 11 year old students! What cultural, social pressures would gaming in a classroom face? Quite a hefty amount, I presume.

So that’s where my current thinking is at regarding gaming in education. A slight inch of sceptiscism which I’m finding odd considering my years and years of gaming experience, but mostly curiosity and interest and a true desire to find out how games could fit into the multitude of other competing considerations which swirl around schools. I’m really looking forward to exploring these challenging questions further.

Game on!