Thursday, April 13, 2017

How Does Game Based Learning Work?


Game based learning is a powerful instructional strategy that leverages student familiarity with and enthusiasm for games and combines it with proven instructional strategies.
The prime benefit of game based learning is in motivating students to engage with challenging learning tasks. The mechanism has not been fully researched but it is likely rooted in the fact that play is an innate drive for humans. Games have been present in every human culture throughout history. In fact, it is arguable that it is built into our biology with evidence of play in other mammals. Student interest in games can be maximized by understanding the interplay between games and motivation.

Daniel Pink’s thinking about motivation, based on the research of Deci and Ryan, says that once a person's basic physical needs are met, people are motivated by the need for autonomy, mastery, and meaning. Game based learning is a powerful way to incorporate these needs into instruction.

The best games provide players meaningful choices that determine their success. The game Chutes and Ladders for example quickly becomes tedious because success relies solely on the randomness of a die roll. The game Risk on the other hand has die rolling at the root of its mechanics but players make decisions on where to move their pieces weighed against the likelihood of success based on die rolling. Likewise, instruction that insist on compliance with a set method or strategy do not appeal to the human need for autonomy. An instructional game that allows for students exploring multiple strategies for reaching an understanding of what works and also what does not work through their own strategies rooted in their own understandings and skills is powerful. While this idea is incorporated into many instructional strategies, a game based approach builds in an implicit mechanism for this and can give students freedom to explore at their own differentiation, instead of a teacher attempting to plan for every differentiation.

The best games give players multiple paths towards mastery. The classic Super Mario Bros. video game highlights how games can start with easy levels that allow players mastery of the basic skills of the game. Boss battles at the end of each level check for mastery of those skills before allowing a player to move on to more challenging learning. Getting an answer right or wrong is stressful situation for students. While winning and losing a game is a normal outcome, particularly if students are given permission to play again until they master the game. A well-crafted game based experience gives students opportunities to explore their thinking on a subject and work through the various outcomes until they discover a viable path that is also tied to understanding a standard or learning target.

Corps of Discover, a game created by our game based cohort for 4th grade students. It incorporates 4th grade literacy, math, science, and social studies standards into a challenging game of exploring and surviving based on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The best games allow players to choose meaningful roles. In many digital or pen and paper role playing games, players decide their own part to play in the game. This allows players to develop strategies around the strengths and weaknesses of the role they play. Perhaps the greatest meaning is allowing students to experiment with new roles. James Paul Gee, the godfather of game based learning, speaks about the Identity principle in his thinking on game based learning. This is the idea that games are good at allowing players to explore the taking on of roles that they do not normally have access to. Games allow players to explore the identity of being an explorer or a warrior. A well-crafted game based learning experiences can give students a safe and accessible way to explore the identity of being a mathematician or a writer, a scientist or a leader. The narrative theme of a game can offer this connection to students as well. A game based system can be customized to various narrative themes to fit student interests or paired with a unit of study in a similar fashion.

In Tacoma Schools, we have spent the last four years developing game based approaches with teachers and have learned a few lessons. Game based learning does not need to be digital. Game based learning is often associated with video games such as the classic Math Blaster. Many early educational games were focused on repetitive skills acquisition. This may be good for homework or an extended learning activity but in school, game based activities should be built around higher depth of knowledge to maximize their effectiveness and use of school time. Creating digital games tailored to specific learning requirements of a teacher is likely beyond their ability and resources and may sink a game based initiative. Games that are built on readily available objects in the classroom such as math manipulatives, games that are on paper, or even movement based using the students allow for a teacher to explore viable game based instruction without investing too much time or money. It’s best to start small and be prepared to improve over many drafts and playtests. Students are the best play testers and they will give you good feedback on if your game is engaging and effective. Above all it is best to try something and improve it than to not try at all.

Submitted by:
Damond Crump
Instructional Facilitator
Tacoma Public Schools

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Critical Question Series: How Does Project Based Learning (PBL) Ignite Enthusiasm and an Appetite for Deep Learning for Both Students and Teachers?

Highly engaging learning, much like life, is a never ending process of encountering problems and exploring solutions. Project based learning is a powerful solution to the complex problem of practice educators continually encounter. How do we create the conditions in which students and teachers are truly engaged in learning that is meaningful, connected and real?

In a PBL classroom, learning is designed to answer essential questions, commonly generated by the students, to explore content across disciplines. Real world, relevant topics provide the why that fuels students to ask and answer increasingly more rigorous questions in a personally and socially meaningful context.  PBL classrooms are well suited for cooperative learning, developing essential college and career ready skills.  Both students and staff are engaged in authentic learning that is co-generated and collaborative. Units of study develop over several weeks leading up to demonstrations of learning including complex projects and presentations.  It’s real, a bit messy at times and thoroughly captivating for all involved. 

PBL allows kids to be kids! Students ask a lot of questions (i.e., Can we live on Mars?  Why do we need trees? Where does all the rain water go?). PBL gives learners the freedom to exercise that natural curiosity about life.  In a PBL environment, answers are not provided for students instead they are allowed the means to discover the answers.  Encouraged to pursue their own curiosity, learning which tools to use, students experience real success as problem solvers and creative thinkers.  Within this context, learning how to read, write and solve mathematical problems has direct purpose and application. Students own their learning and are motivated to learn content and skills.   Students practice collaborative skills like active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and valuing others’ knowledge and skills.

Likewise, teachers access their natural curiosity about the art and science of teaching. By working together, teachers research topics, plan which state standards students will learn, and refine their own collaboration skills.  For experienced teachers and new teachers, there is genuine professional growth and excitement for their communal work.  Experienced teachers share their knowledge of effective instruction and content.  New teachers infuse collaboration with innovative technology and pedagogy.  PBL fosters more organic collaboration.  Teachers seek out opportunities to work together during breaks, after school, and online.  Healthy professional relationships, essential to successful schools, are created through doing the work together. PBL provides the opportunity for staff to work closely together on things that matter to them which deepens staff bonds and mutual respect. They encourage each other, push each other gently, and grow together; a genuine professional learning community.

So what does it look like in real life?  Sherman Elementary, is a K-5 school in Tacoma with 426 students.  The Sherman teaching staff is strong in the sciences and our families include artists, professionals and creative entrepreneurs.  It’s the perfect mix of techies and fuzzies!  The staff started small with a few teachers collaborating around PBL cycles.  Their enthusiasm and success spread throughout the building.  Now, five years later, we do multiple PBL cycles school wide each year.  We integrate literacy, math, and art into science based cycles. Informational texts at different complexity levels are used for research.  Parents with professional expertise (a chef, an entomologist, a salmon biologist, a cartoonist) and business partners (a farmer, retailers, architectural firms) add to the richness of classroom discussions.  Students use our Maker Space to create prototypes and revise and rebuild after receiving feedback from these experts. Teaching and learning is fun, engaging for teachers and students, and rewarding for everyone.
Project based learning is an answer to the age old problem of how to enhance student and staff engagement to improve learning outcomes. At Sherman, the ownership of learning is clear and compelling for both students and staff. Resources are abundant: curiosity, questioning, collaboration, commitment and community. It all starts with a problem that needs a solution or a question that needs an answer.  Students and teachers alike have plenty of those!

Anne Tsuneishi
Principal, Sherman Elementary
Tacoma Public Schools

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

If Something Isn’t Working, Do We Try Harder - Or Do Something Different?

A thoughtful colleague once posed that question at a staff meeting where tensions and emotions were running high about an issue we were grappling with.  The reaction was immediate...stunned silence.  I remember sitting there wondering, “What’s the right answer?”  I went over the thoughts and actions that had led to that meeting and realized that we had been trying to solve a problem by doing the same things repeatedly with...unsurprisingly...the same result.  At that point, the discussion took a turn for the better as we started brainstorming new ideas and strategies to solve our problem. 

After 16 years of teaching grades 1-5, I became a Tier 3, middle school math teacher.  That first week I looked out at my new students and saw them slouched down in their seats avoiding eye contact with me or looking back at me with boredom, challenge and even fear.  I was going to have to do something different to grow their intelligence to understand the concepts and skills necessary to exit the class and change their fixed mindsets to growth mindsets.  I guided my students to write mission statements like this:  Use a math growth mindset to grow our math knowledge and skills so that we can exit this class and be successful in a regular math class, college, career and everyday life.  I also significantly changed what I had my students learn and do in the first 2 weeks of school. The following are a few of the growth mindset learning activities I guided them through in the first few weeks:

      Learning the difference between a growth and fixed mindset
      Discussing how a growth mindset can foster success in math class and beyond
      Learning how the brain is like a muscle because it grows when it is exercised/challenged
      Connecting goal setting to practice and perseverance
      Defining/learning/strategizing about grit and overcoming obstacles
      Discussing what it means to be a “math person”
      Learning about the benefits of asking for help

Throughout the year, my students reflected on their mindset over the last unit of study and set growth mindset goals for the next.  I posted growth mindset messages out in the hallway for them to see as they entered my classroom.  Messages like: “What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence.  The only consequence is WHAT WE DO”.  I taught my paraeducators how to use growth mindset language with the students.  I invited students to share their success “stories” so that others could learn from them. 

Then our math department made the brilliant decision to read Mathematical Mindsets:  Unleashing Students’ POTENTIAL through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and INNOVATIVE TEACHING by Jo Boaler as a book study...and I realized that there was so much more to fostering a math growth mindset!  I know many of you are familiar with this research-based book that gives educators a proven, practical roadmap to mathematics success...but the question is will we now have the creativity and courage to do something different?  Maybe a more important question would be, “Do we truly believe that ALL students can learn to high levels.?” And if we do, what are we willing to do differently to make that happen?  Will we find a way to:

      Give ALL students access to the highest levels in math at school...stop ability grouping?
      Take the time to give students open/low floor-high ceiling math tasks that encourage the opportunity for important learning and making important connections so that students believe that math is a learning subject and NOT a performance subject? 
      Teach math so that students appreciate the beauty of mathematics, explore how maths are connected and learn how to apply the subject?
      Teach in a way that shows students that math performance is NOT associated with they understand that the best mathematicians are slow at math because they are deep thinkers and want to make connections, think logically and apply the depth/breadth of mathematics to a variety of students understand that math is a creative, visual, connected and living subject to do great and everyday things?
      Not give up on one student...even if they have given up on themselves?  Act like we know we are the dream-keepers?

I now pose that all-important question to my students every year on the first day of school.  I give them a 3 X 5 index card and ask them to write the question on one side and their answer on the other.  I guide a brief discussion about their thoughts and answers to the question, but when they ask me to tell them the right answer I reply not today.  I give them a big, welcoming smile and tell them that we will find the answer together as a class.  And we do.  I purposefully look for every opportunity to ask that question again as individual students, collaborative groups and the whole class try to persist in solving a problem with an ineffective or inefficient strategy.  I foster independence by posing that question initially instead of giving immediate scaffolding or support.  They begin to understand that I am encouraging creativity and the courage to try something different.  They begin to understand that there are many ways to solve grow.    I believe that we can change and grow as educators too.  Currently three fifths of U.S. students fail mathematics.  My question to you is, “Do we try harder or do something different?”

Amy Sperline
Instructional Coach/Mentor
Jefferson Elementary
Richland School District

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Is it time for us to change the way we respond to discipline?

When it comes to managing discipline in our schools, punitive consequences have been the primary instrument in the toolbox of educators for decades (Swain, & Noblit, 2011). As Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (1966). As we know, there is no single tool that can fix every problem. However, because of our over-reliance on punitive measures, especially suspensions, we have ended up causing more harm than good for those that we have committed to serve.

At its core, suspensions remove students from the classroom and ultimately from their opportunities to learn. Students who are routinely suspended end up missing out on crucial instruction time which often leads them struggling to get through the remainder of their course. Research has indicated that there is a direct correlation between students who are chronically suspended and high school dropout rates (Barr & Gibson, 2013). When these students begin to fall behind, they become more likely to act out in the classroom, which then creates a vicious cycle within the discipline system.

To further compound the issue, national data has revealed that our current punitive practices have created a discipline disproportionality among various groups of students. Minorities as well as students in special education programs are suspended two to three times more often than their white counterparts (Skiba et al., 2011). Also, these same students are three times more likely to be introduced into the school-to-prison pipeline (Wilson, 2014).

It is easy for us to forget that schools also serve as a protective factor for our students. For many of them, it may be the only protective factor they have. Today's students have experienced a variety of adverse childhood experiences, and in many cases, the home may not be the safest place for them to be. Also, more and more schools are becoming the primary source of nutrition for our students. When they miss school, they miss out on meals.
When students return from a suspension, the relationships that may have been harmed by their initial behavior have not been repaired by their consequence. This, in turn, creates tension not only for the student but for the teachers as well as the student’s peers. Due to the lack of a proper reintegration back into the classroom, the student may lose the sense of belonging they once had and may find themselves struggling to succeed and once again acting out as a result (Barr & Gibson, 2013).

With all the adverse effects of punitive discipline, we need to find a way to create equitable opportunities for our students to succeed so that our already disadvantaged children don’t become even more disadvantaged. One method that has been studied and shown to be successful is transitioning away from punitive practices in favor of restorative ones (Gonz├ílez, 2012).  Restorative Practices focus on the idea that school is a community and when harm has been done to that community it has a significant impact on its members. To repair the harm that has been done, a variety of practices are recommended including formal conferencing, community service (which directly benefits those harmed), and other alternatives to suspension.                      

The Restorative Practices philosophy focuses on the idea of “building social capital and achieving social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making” (Wachtel, 2012). It stresses the importance of building and maintaining relationships while at the same time holding students accountable for their actions and repairing the harm that they have caused not only to individuals but also their community. The fundamental philosophy of Restorative Practices is that,

Human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them. This hypothesis maintains that the punitive and authoritarian to mode and the permissive and paternalistic for mode are not as effective as the restorative, participatory, engaging with mode. (Wachtel, 2012).

Restorative Practices can be broken down in to two main components; the proactive social emotional learning aspects and then the reactive Restorative Justice element. The proactive elements include using circles to build and maintain community, using affective statements (statements that express how you feel), and using affective/restorative questioning.

The Restorative Justice element helps to open dialogue between those that have been harmed and those that have done the harm by giving everyone a voice and letting them reflect on the incident. Formal conferencing works with all parties involved through a method of mediation. This process helps to peel the onion and highlighting underlying issues while at the same time facilitates a conversation on what needs to be done to make things right so that everyone’s needs get met, relationships can began to repair, and the students can be reintegrated back into their community.

Barr, R. D., & Gibson, E.L. (2013). Building a culture of hope: Enriching schools with optimism and opportunity. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

González, T. (2012). Keeping kids in schools: Restorative justice, punitive discipline, and the school to prison pipeline. Journal of Law and Education, 41(2), 281-335.

Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science; A reconnaissance. New York: Harper &

Skiba, R. J., Horner, R. H., Chung, C., Rausch, M. K., May, S. L., & Tobin, T. (2011). Race is not neutral: A national investigation of african american and latino disproportionality in school discipline. School Psychology Review, 40(1), 85-107.

Swain, A. E., & Noblit, G. W. (2011). Education in a punitive society: An introduction. The Urban Review, 43(4), 465-475.

Wachtel, T. (2012). Defining restorative. International Institute for Restorative Practices: IIRP Graduate School.

Wilson, H. (2014). Turning off the school-to-prison pipeline. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 23(1), 49-53

Alden M Clark
Counselor/Admin Intern
Covington and Pacific Middle Schools/Evergreen Public Schools