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!

I’ve been dabbling with digital badges in my literacy sessions for the last two weeks. I made up a bunch of interesting badges on Credly such as ‘Feedbacker’ for asking others for feedback, ‘Thesaurus Rex’ for upgrading words with a thesaurus, ‘Curious George’ for asking a great question or wondering about something, ‘Plan(et)’ for having a full and well thought out plan, as well as one week only badges related to the writing of the week. Students then insert the badges they earn into their ePortfolios.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • They are motivating for almost all of my (most especially my) reluctant writers. I’ve gotten writing this week which was more carefully edited, more thoughtfully constructed, and in which more time was spent on, than what I was getting previously.
  • They provide a checklist of things to remember in the writing process. Planning – editing – feedback (both giving and receiving) + holding your ideas lightly and being curious. In the hubub of getting a draft out and delivered, these things can be put to the side. Badges provide a visual prompt and motivation to make sure to do these things independently.
  • They provide a talking point and buzz. They are conversation starters with parents and friends and prompts into talking about the writing process.
  • They can be reflective prompts. “So you got the planning badge – what happened with the editing? What can we do differently next time to meet the requirements of the badge?”
  • They appeal to the hoarders and collectors. Students are watching their badge page fill with badges as they achieve them each week – it’s a visual sign they are achieving those particular elements of writing.

But where does the line end? How long should I keep this up? I’m painfully aware that extrinsic motivation / external awards (as Mr Dan Pink explains) are not particularly helpful in the long run. Am I building a reliance on these badges? Am I only able to get decent writing if there is a reward at the end?

On the other hand – these students are now more regularly displaying characteristics of good writers.

Perhaps these badges are the ‘training wheels’ needed to build up the routines and habits around the writing process – much like this #28daysofwriting gig. At some stage the training wheels go, but only when they are ready and have built the confidence and expertise needed. Perhaps it is a just a Term 1 thing? At the moment, I’m happy with how things are going, but keeping an eye to the future when we move past badges into more intrinsic motivations for writing.

There are a few traditional staples which spring to mind when you think of Author’s Purpose – to persuade, to inform, to describe, to entertain. They do indeed intermingle and intertwine almost always, but they are there, and they are handy when breaking down a text or writing your own. They’re more than handy, actually. Figuring out the purpose of a communication can reveal it’s intended audience, explain language and structure, and empowers an author to make their own informed, purposeful choices from these elements.

A completely valid purpose which you don’t see very often, though, is … to think.

You can conceive of this in a few different ways. The first of which is in the more poetic, expressive sense of the word. Many people author something to make sense of how they are feeling – to think through their emotions. Some people write to get all their thoughts out of their head, and to be able to think more clearly. For some, grappling with this process of scribing your thoughts and bringing them into reality can enable you to stumble upon meaning, to come to terms, and to get closer to truths. Your purpose for writing is to provide the conditions for which this kind of thinking provides fertile ground to emerge from.

The other side of the “To Think” purpose for writing is related, but slightly different. You can write to make sense of complex ideas and to find connections, new avenues of thought and inspirations where there were previously none. Many writers would do this at the start of the writing process – scribbling down their half-brewed thoughts, potential plot lines and themes.

An example from myself – I spent the summer holidays immersed in a some key educational books, blog posts, and research papers. To make sense of all this input, I needed to output. So I wrote down all the little chunks of knowledge and thoughts which resonated with me on Post-It notes and stuck them to a wall in my house. I was writing to enable thinking. I could then see the big picture of all the bits I was learning and from there, start to find patterns and goals and clusters of similar and dissimilar pieces of the puzzle. I arranged and rearranged my Post-It notes as I synthesised my thoughts, combining ideas and extending others. Eventually it lead me to some professional goals and areas of focus for me as I entered Term 1, 2015.

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This kind of writing is done best in a form which is easy to move around or change – hence the use of Post-It notes but also whiteboards, blackboards etc. It speaks to the fact that thinking is not set, it’s in the process of being discovered, so you will need to erase and go over and scribble and change. It’s tentative writing. Writing straight into a document on a screen makes you write a certain way, confined by the boundaries of the screen, the linear lines, and the quirks of the particular programme. It doesn’t particularly lend itself to highly-flexible, visible, moveable, collaborative types of thinking and writing.

A few other examples of writing “To Think”:

  • Planning of any kind (like planning an assignment)
  • Annotating and marking up some text
  • Writing a To Do list or reminders
  • Brainstorming
  • Collating information when the links are yet unclear
  • An ideas wallet and bug list
  • Our weekly timetable at school, before it is finalised

Empowering students with the language and ways of doing that this term suggests, opens up a range of interesting avenues. Is writing to think something you can get better at? Does it happen at certain stages of the writing / creative process? How might it be woven into other parts of school / home life? How can this kind of writing and thinking boost serendipitous and innovative outcomes?

Whiplash is a newly released, critically acclaimed (8.6/10 IMDB, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 88% Metacritic) movie doing the rounds. It’s about a young drummer named Andrew attending the cut-throat Chaffer School of Music – the top music school in the US – and being absolutely hammered by his teacher, Fletcher. I mean outright, no-holds-barred, verbal (sometimes leading to self-inflicted physical) abuse. He’s a tough, tough teacher. This is Fletcher to Andrew in one of his tamer moments, after a practice set in which Andrew is out of time by milliseconds:

“Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”

Fletcher constantly pushes Andrew to (and over) breaking point in his pursuit of the tightest, most perfect band. He shouts and yells and tricks and schemes to put Andrew in the most challenging of places to see if he survives. It’s a trial-by-fire for Andrew, whose hands bleed with effort and brow beads with sweat.

As I watched the movie I was torn: Fletcher was a horrible, horrible person – abusing and stressing and shouting, but at the same time, he was pushing Andrew to heights he could have never reached otherwise. Andrew was working so hard, practising so much and had so much expectation heaped on him that his potential was unleashed – he became a drummer only one could dream of being. Andrew made it – but only because of the savage approach that Fletcher took.

Fletcher wasn’t his friend.

He wasn’t there to molly-coddle.

He was there “to push people beyond what’s expected of them”

Here is Fletcher explaining his approach, later in the movie:

“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Chaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

This raises the question – was Fletcher an effective teacher?

Effective? Definitely. Good? Probably not.

Where is that fine line between pushing a student to their potential and being a utter tyrant lie?

In my experience there is a sweet spot that Fletcher goes too far over, a “Goldilocks” spot where the learning, feedback, and relationship is “not too hot and not too cold” – where high expectations are balanced with care and respect.

It’s an interesting thought though – if it took you, as a teacher, to be a utter tyrant, to push a student to their true potential, would you do it?

2015 is my fourth year as a proper, qualified teacher and it’s been one heck of a journey. Compounding this is the fact that I was lucky enough to be a foundation staff member at a brand new school, so right from the very start I was born and raised in a fundamentally open and collaborative environment. I’ve never taught in a single-cell classroom. I’ve never not had visitors walk through constantly. I’ve never not had massive collaborative meetings. I’ve never not had other teachers swirling and bubbling and teaching around me, day in and day out.

We team teach at our place. To explain this a bit more, we have large, open plan teaching and learning spaces. Our “hub” (combined learning space) is ratio’d for 100 students and four teachers. As a four person teaching team we work very closely to squeeze every last benefit out of the fact we team teach – increased flexibility, efficiencies in planning, sociability, role modelling effective (mostly!) relationships, a wider range of personalities and skills students can latch on to, diversity of opinion and ideas, teachers “on roam” supervising self-directed learning while some are in workshops… the list goes on.

As a beginning teacher, team teaching was a phenomenally supportive, safe entry into the world of education. From Day One, I was surrounded by experienced, amazing teachers and because of the open plan learning environment, I was able to observe them working their magic seamlessly and naturally. I learned by osmosis. I learned alongside, much like a apprenticeship.

So I was in a constant state of observing other teachers but also being observed myself. This enabled me to get feedback on every aspect of my teaching – sometimes formally but mostly in the chats and questions and comments which happen all the time when team teaching. I was able to get comments on my planning, able to discuss students at a fine grained detail, able to be supported in tricky meetings. We even found that the traditional PRT mentor role was not really needed – it all just happened as a natural part of the team.

Any downsides? Perhaps. I guess when you are in your own classroom you need to do all the jobs a teacher normally does. In a team teaching environment, it’s easy to share out jobs. What I mean by this is that in some cases, I was “late to the party” learning how to do certain types of assessment, or the planning of events, or the coordination of groups. I’ve never had to deal with a reliever because we just cover ourselves. We’re getting better at this though – about making sure BTs get the same amount of responsibility and chance at a range of jobs. It just takes an awareness of this aspect of team teaching and you can sort it out.

So I can honestly say team teaching as a beginning teacher was a fabulous, rich experience. It nullified a lot of the pain points of just starting in your own single cell classroom and amplified many of the positive benefits of an apprenticeship-type model of learning.

For any schools thinking about embarking on a team teaching adventure – hire a BT! It’s the best start they could possibly get.

***A big shoutout to Urs, Tara TJ, Lisa, Andrea, Ang, Amaria, Demelza, Mike and all the other amazing teachers I’ve had the benefit of learning from. You guys rock!