Category Archives: Gaming in Education

Plants vs Zombies: what even a silly game can teach us about critical thinking

downloadPlants vs Zombies is a somewhat addictive, but fairly pointless game in which zombies invade your house and you use plants to fight them off! While the game itself has no clearly definable educational point, it illustrates well how games themselves represent best learning practice, and how they might be used to promote cognitive skills generally.

I came across a statistic quoted in a talk by Art Costa recently from the 2015 ICOT Conference, that 40% of adults are not metacognitive, presumably because they have never been taught to do so. Since metacognition, the ability to think about your thinking forms the basis of all critical thinking, this is a stat that should give us pause. It is clear that most people do not reflect upon their thinking enough and that teachers urgently need to find strategies that will help develop this habit in their students. I believe that games, even silly ones like Plants vs Zombies, represent opportunities to encourage students to practise thinking about their thinking.

To do well in the game, players need to solve problems. What plants combat what zombies? Over what distances? Having determined this, by trial and error, and testing hypotheses, players need to establish optimum sequencing and resource allocation to hold back successive waves of zombie invaders. Given that the game changes each time it is refreshed, the learning that occurs needs to be applied in new situations every time. While playing the game I was consciously aware of my own strategies: I went through an experimental phase of determining the last possible moment at which a plant needed to be placed to stop each type of zombie, and then from this data was able to form hypotheses about optimum combinations, and sequencing of placement to get the highest score. This allowed me to generate general principles which, in the heat of battle, could guide my actions when I didn’t have time to figure it out precisely.

Because games are so obviously based on strategy, I believe they represent the perfect vehicle for getting students to think about how they strategise in problem-solving situations. And because it’s a game, many do not balk at putting in this effort. So here’s my suggested lesson plan. Set your students some homework: to play Plants vs Zombies a few times. It is a free app or download. Then, in class, get them in groups to discuss a solution for the game, a sequence of moves that will always win, and present this to the rest of the class, perhaps as a screencast with voice-over. This will force students to verbally explain their thinking about their thinking, and help develop the habit of metacognition. One can then use the awareness of this experience to bring similar processes to bear on other, more serious problems.


Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

DSC01789Jane McGonigall, in her TED Talk talks about the four powers of games: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric and epic meaning. These are qualities often missing in the classroom, which games have in abundance. This year I ran an alternate reality game for our end of year programme in grade 8. Alternate Reality Games are games which present themselves as real life events. In this game, I assembled all the garde 8s for a collaborative project with another school. When accessing their website to contact them, students had to solve a mystery and save the fictitious school from alien invaders. To accomplish this they had to crack a few codes, sift through some clues to solve a mystery and figure out how to use the lyrics of a song to find a secret web-page to communicate the solution. I used a fictitious blog and some fake twitter accounts to sprinkle clues around.

The task was run on the second last day of the year as part of an extension programme, and was meant to show-case our cognitive education programme. There is a concern that our girls are not as confident in problem solving skills as we would hope, especially that they give up too easily. The current task was adapted from one I ran a few years ago, and was shortened, with a little more scaffolding early to try and ensure that students did not give up too early.

DSC01775In the reflection, girls were generally positive about the game, although significant numbers found the tasks too challenging, and felt they had not received enough support from me. This was deliberate, and expected. I wanted my role as puppet-master to be hidden, and I tried to act surprised and bewildered as events unfolded. What hints I made to groups who had given up were done purely to get them engaged in the task again. Some groups were unable to crack any codes and were sent to spy on groups that had done so. About two-thirds of the students did successfully crack substitution cyphers. All groups were able to correctly identify what the fictitious school needed to do to defeat the aliens, but the biggest struggle was over finding the easter egg on the index page, and translating the song lyrics into a URL.

I believe that students need far more exposure to problem solving tasks than they are getting, and that alternate reality games offer a wonderful way to accomplish this. McGonigall’s powers of games offer a useful perspective.

Urgent Optimism

The predominant attitude in games play is for players to search around for tasks to engage in. This was evident in this Alternate Reality Game (ARG). At times girls were running around the room to consult with other groups or find out what could be done next. One aspect of the game I particularly enjoy is the richness of the red herrings. A group can explore a blind alley and really enjoy doing it, uncovering all kinds of unexpected and unintended associations which appear to lead to clues. These red herrings are actually as beneficial in terms of problem solving than the intended clues.

Blissful Productivity

The ability to spend hours engaged in a task while losing all sense of time is one common in games, and absent in many classrooms! In the ARG, I noticed that while pursuing a clue, girls seemed to lose all track of time, but when they gave up, time dragged. This was an aspect of the game that I will need to improve on, perhaps by insisting that all clues solved get shared. Some groups translated the task into a competition to solve it first, and this  competitiveness, while useful, did hamper those who needed extra help at times.

Social Fabric

Most games are strongly collaborative, and players will help each other with clues, inventory and so on. In this ARG, too many groups became competitive, but, what was enlightening was that groups formed naturally. Nowhere in my instructions did I ask them to form groups, in fact I gave no instructions at all. Groups are often problematic in the classroom, but seem to be intrinsic to the game format.

Epic Meaning

Games have a purpose, one often not very visible in the classroom, and their relevance and importance are self-evident. This ARG had as its point the saving of the planet from alien control, and the students appeared to take up this task with gusto. I was at first bombarded with questions about what they had to do, but after it became clear that I was not going to say anything, or give any direction, the class naturally splintered into groups and started working on clues, not all the same ones at the same time. As soon as the narrative was revealed, once the easter egg had been found, groups seemed instinctively to know what to do and what the “game” point was. The task fitted into game play genres and so made sense. When the game was “solved” there were loud cheers and frantic attempts on the part of all groups to submit the solution online. I think even groups who had not “won”, felt they had shared in the task by solving parts of the puzzle.

In conclusion, I think that Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to offer the classroom. But they need to be carefully designed and structured. They are much harder than any board game, role play game or computer game, because they need realia rather than playing pieces or pure imagination, but this makes them, in some ways, more rewarding.


Holiday Projects – Learn To Code As A Family!

With the holidays fast approaching, I am filled with just a little dread. Not only will my wife trot out the DIY jobs jar, but, as a father of teenage boys I know that after a few mornings sleeping in, a few days of playing the new computer game, will come that moment when the inevitable question gets asked, “What can I do now?”

But these holidays I am forearmed with an answer. Learning to code is all the rage: for good reason. Firstly – it is good mental discipline – the logical reasoning, attention to detail, the need to plan and move from the generality of pseudo-code to the specific syntax of whatever language you are using. I think learning to code teaches you a certain kind of mental precision that children used to get from having to learn Latin.

Secondly – I believe that it is a digital citizenship skill, something we all need to know for a future where being able to tweak your machine, modify your applications will not be seen as something geeky, but something as necessary as breathing. We are fast headed for a technological future where we will be interfacing with machines not as isolated events during a busy day, but on a constant basis. That future has two possible paths, one in which all the coding of those machines is managed by corporations, and we have little say in how we experience our environment, apart from choosing from a list of alternate “templates”, and another in which we are able to tweak the code ourselves, and can deliver more personalized outcomes. I believe it is imperative that we try our darndest to be ready for the second alternative – and that means learning to code.

It worries me that we seem to be producing a generation of consumers rather than producers. When I was young, computers came more or less assembled with nothing on them. You pretty much had to learn to program to be able to get them to do anything. Even to get the programs that were on them to work you had to learn to type in DOS commands! These days computers come with everything on them, and you don’t need to learn a stitch of code to work them. We need to get back to that spirit of showing your machine who’s in charge!

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly, coding is fun. learning should always be fun, but especially during the holidays! It can also be an opportunity to experience learning together as a family. We don’t do enough of that. The natural order of things is that adults know more than kids, hopefully anyway! So learning tends to be about stuff your kids need to know, but you already know. Even if it’s stuff you’ve forgotten, like Algebra, it is never really a situation where the playing field is level. Coding, however, for most families will probably be a learning project the whole family can take on where all of you start as beginners.

So – here’s the challenge! Set up a challenge at the beginning of the holidays, a family project to code your own game for computer or mobile, learning to code as you go! This may sound like an impossible task, but actually the resources online are incredible, and make the task relatively painless. You can scale the ambition as you go. In many cases the tutorials and guidance is so good you can have a game going in 10 minutes! The rest is all about wanting to design your own game.

Here are some sites you can use (mostly free):

This list is not exhaustive, but represents some of the most popular sites.


What Hogwarts has to teach us about Online Education

hogwartsHogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry has recently launched itself online. You can enroll at the legendary school, join a house, buy your textbooks online at Flourish and Blotts with money placed in your vault at Gringotts Bank and enroll in courses such as Defence Against the Dark Arts or The History Of Magic. Your professors and teaching assistants are volunteers. You have textbooks to read for each course, sometimes a prezi as well, and write essays and take online quizzes to pass your courses, gaining points as you go. You can also collect chocolate frog cards which pop up periodically! You can join a dorm, and make friends from among your fellow students. Your points contribute to House points, and there are leaderboards and bragging rights to be had.

All good fun – but what can it teach us about real schools and their online offerings?

In essence Hogwarts presents itself as a pretty mediocre MOOC. The learning material is created by volunteers and the quizzes and assignments suffer from the same vagaries as one finds on Coursera, for example. Some are well thought out and others are idiosyncratic and bear little connection to the instructional input. Some courses promise engagement and others are pretty pedestrian. No surprises then!

The gamified elements are not innovative either – the usual Points, Badges, Leadersboard stuff! But simple is often best. I like the way that students’ academic assignments earn House Points, and maybe schools need to look at this. The moment your assignment has been graded, your points are incremented. The site is in its infancy, and I am sure many features will be added, many opportunities for exploring the world of Harry Potter in unique ways. Fan fiction is already an option, and users may write their own books and post them.

What is genuinely exciting about Hogwarts, of course is its brand! You’d have to be quite churlish not to feel a twinge of excitement upon receiving your acceptance letter – who would not want to study at Hogwarts?! The glossy look and feel to the home page exudes confidence, and is exactly what you’d expect from an elite school. It is this aspect, the sense of wonder which real schools need to try to emulate. Not all schools are exciting as Hogwarts, but schools need to find what is exciting about their ethos and mission and sell it to their students.




eSports & The Curriculum

945214_10152287654974008_1706979993_nThere has been a great deal written about the place of Chess in the curriculum, and quite a bit about games play and learning, but I have yet to find much said about competitive eSports and its place in the school.

Team sports have a long history of regard in educational discourse. One only has to think of Thomas Arnold and Rugby school, muscular Christianity and the long tradition of sport as a socializing and humanizing agent. But video games? The predominant perception is one of anti-social behaviour and damaging acculturation to violence. Research, however, tends to present a rather different picture. Games are in fact, intensely social affairs, Third Spaces affording opportunities for networking and community building.

I would argue that eSports, such as CounterStrike and DotA have a very definite role to play in the modern school, taking on many of the roles played by cricket, soccer or rugby for a digital generation. They are team sports every bit as much as football, and give students an opportunity to learn to co-operate and collaborate, to build team strategies and learn to accommodate strength and weakness within social contexts.

There should be inter-school leagues, school tournaments and inter-house video gaming contests – absolutely. I am not arguing that this should replace physical sports, merely that eSports has a definite place in the 21st century school.

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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in eSports, Gaming in Education


Creating Flash Games – Communities Of Practice in the Classroom

We are so used to hearing bad news about the state of education and teaching, but teachers can make a difference, and it is important to remember this. My youngest son takes piano, and in the last concert he messed up his piece. It has been playing on his mind, and as this term’s concert approaches, he has become more and more nervous about it. His piano teacher has been working with him to try to get him into the habit of carrying on playing, instead of stopping when he makes a mistake. He came back from his last piano lesson very upset. His teacher had shouted at him for stopping! His teacher also gave him a poem to read about perseverance and fortitude. In the days that followed he resolutely sat at the piano practising not stopping! He may mess up again – the concert is next week, I don’t know, but what has impressed me as a parent is the patience and fortitude of his teacher in getting him to the point where he is a great deal more resilient, and now appears to have a level of confidence about his ability to face up to his hoodoo!

flash gameAt the moment I am very aware of the tendency many students have to give up when the task becomes difficult. Most of my grade 10 students are in the process of finishing off Flash games they have been designing, and this year most groups have been far more adventurous and ambitious than usual! This has meant that instead of using core skills taught in class to construct their games, they have downloaded tutorials off the Internet and included coding well beyond their understanding, and, I hasten to add, mine!

While this is fantastic and students have really stretched themselves, and learned a great deal in the process, it has placed many under stress and led many to want to give up, often a mere semi-colon away from working code!

Common problems included not being able to convert code written up in Action Script 2 tutorials to Action Script 3, not being able to edit code copied from tutorials to different purposes,and simply being very over-ambitious. I have had to spend many afternoons with students trying to help them adapt their code, searching the Internet for solutions and scouring Adobe manuals to find out exactly what a gradient box is anyway! It must be remembered that this was a general class, not a programming class.

The fact that I did not know how to solve many of these problems without searching the Internet, that I was in many ways learning alongside students was for me, a great experience, and a window into the kind of communities of practice that I would love to set up in my classrooms, but which is often elusive because I do know the answers already. It becomes too easy just to tell students what they need to do rather than work alongside them.

flash 2Teaching students to code is an obvious place where communities of practice can be very effective. Where one group had solved a coding issue in their Flash games, I asked them to help out another group with similar problems. This model worked quite well – because students were quite good at explaining things to each other, and it took the pressure off me when I needed to put in some solid research over some knotty problem.

As an English teacher I try to turn my writing classes into communities of practice, and I always write alongside students when thy are doing an exercise. I share my thought processes as a writer and show them that I also have some good results, and some duds when I write, that I also find it hard,  that I often also get stuck, and change my mind about what I want to do. I ask for their opinion about a word choice or as for an idea, and I hope this helps encourage students to see that learning a skill is an ongoing process, and that you need to be persistent, and have confidence that you can find solutions, and it’s OK to start without knowing all the answers.

But most of all it teaches persistence. When you are alone it is often tempting to give up. But working in groups and seeing that no-one is giving up, helps to keep going. Or, when it comes to the piano, having a teacher shout at you, is often necessary!


Gaming to Learn

starcraftI’m doing a course on coursera on Gaming and Learning and the assignment for the first week is to play a new game for 30 minutes and reflect on your experience. So … this is it. I run a Mind Sports Club at my school, so I’m not exactly a rank newbie, but I don’t really have the time to play games, so I’m not experienced either.

I chose to try to learn how to play Starcraft because I’ve played a bit of DotA/Warcraft before, and that’s what the kids in the club play all the time, but none of them plays Starcraft. What have I played in the strategy game genre before? Age Of Empires really and that’s it! I jumped into the tutorial with some trepidation – I’m a 50-something, and when I watch the kids playing DotA it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me! The tutorial took me through movement, combat, resource production, etc pretty painlessly. The right-click / left-click conventions were similar to other games so most of what was new was the terminology, background narrative, and getting used to what the graphic representation meant and what sort of thing one needed to do to do well in the game.

The tutorial was punctuated by the usual video narratives giving background exposition, and I guess helped set the scene. But I was still pretty nervous. Reading what I was seeing on the screen was not easy. The characters are small, and how do you know one from another? From experience I know that after playing for a bit it becomes familiar, but games have become more difficult for my middle-aged eyes to read!

starcraft 2At this point the fact that I was able to follow the game mechanics so easily calmed my anxieties, and I was able to concentrate on trying to figure out the most that I could about the framing story and game aims. And at that stage my 30 minutes was up …

What did I learn about how I learned? I learned by doing – that is probably the main factor, My fingers started to get used to the movements needed to perform actions quickly enough to be competitive in any game. My brain started to perceive patterns, and drawing on my experience with Age Of Empires I started to wonder about what my own strategy should be. Within moments I was thinking metacognitively.

I also learned immersively. I can’t really remember now, 24 hours later what any of the characters were called, or what the gas they mine is called, but I do have a sense of what it is to be immersed in that world, and some sense of what things I need to be doing to succeed.

And I learned things with a growing sense of wonderment and awe. When my thirty minutes was up, and I had a meeting to go to, I was reluctant to stop. I could quite happily have continued for hours! I wanted to learn more!

To my mind that is a clear indication of what video games have to teach us about learning. They model what it should be like, and so often isn’t in our schools and work-places.

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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in Gaming in Education, Mind Sports, MOOCs

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