Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guided Gaming Leads to Learning

I just believe that this is what play should look like when done through technology.

-Rachel Fondell
Rachel Fondell, a 6th grade humanities teacher, has something in common with Zach Lankow, a 9th and 10th grade religious studies teacher. While they both have a passion for reading, for working with their students, and for teaching their content, the commonality that is most striking is their willingness to give their students the freedom to play.

They both use iPad games, which are traditionally seen as distractions by many educators, as a tool for learning and creating in their classrooms with their students.

Click here to listen to the podcast.
Recently, Zach told his story to the editors at EdSurge. His students use Minecraft to build safe havens during the unit when they are studying the story of Noah’s Ark. They have to think about the details of the story, the message it is meant to convey, and which elements of survival need to be considered. His project is so innovative it was featured in the EdSurge On Air podcast recently.

These are pictures I took of Zach's students
as they built their safe havens.
I had the chance to observe Zach’s students building these projects. The room was loud and busy! Skeptics might think this was caused by students being distracted by the game and a clash of noises coming from devices all over the room. Conversely, even though each student was working on his own personal device, they were working quite collaboratively toward the learning goal. The noise was a product of their excited discussions. Zach calmly visited with each group and gave them encouragement and feedback throughout the class period. Everyone in the room was on task the entire class period. It was really incredible.

Zach’s students are in high school and are more mature than Rachel’s 6th graders. She felt the need to do even more research on games. She explains, "In our 1-to-1 tablet school, I began researching in response to my young students' desperate desire to play games at school."

Rachel’s school has built in times that are tech-free. For instance, students are not permitted to use any devices at lunch or at recess. But, there is a snack time that is less formal and her students have free time at home as well. Rachel wanted her students to learn how to manage their tech use during their free time. So she had some conversations with them.

"'Educational' games are often flimsy, don’t require critical thinking, and depend on rote memory. My students are attracted to games that most adults don’t consider 'educational.' I wanted something real, but not addicting. So we had a class discussion."

When asked, her 6th graders told her that the aspects of games that make them feel like they can’t stop playing are badges, levels, collectibles, and virtual currency. They were able to share with her that they want to play and experiment, but agreed that they didn’t want to feel like they were addicted to a game.

Rachel found Eden World Builder. She liked what she found. She said, "It has none of the addictive qualities my students identified, cost only $.99. It is like virtual Legos with unlimited combinations of blocks in many colors, textures, and with interactive properties. My students get to simply create and experiment."

Common Sense Media’s review of Eden World Builder is also largely positive and recognizes the same qualities that Rachel likes.

Rachel's 6th grader's model of the
U.S.S. Constitution in progress.
When Rachel rolled it out with her students, there was an initial excitement, of course. “The first day was exactly what I expected. For instance, they used the TNT block to blow things up. But then that got boring, so they started testing the functionality of the elements. They started challenging one another: Who could build the most extravagant house? How deep could they tunnel? One student is building a model of the U.S.S. Constitution complete with captain’s quarters and bunks for sailors.”

One of Rachel’s favorite conversations happened during this early roll out. She urged the students to play but to do so in a way that was helping them learn. One student looked embarrassed about what he had been doing with Eden.

“I’m not using it educationally, Mrs. Fondell,” he admitted.

“Show me what you’ve been doing,” she said.

Rachel continues, “He then went on to show me how he could set up enough speed blocks right in front of a ramp that, with the correct trajectory, would launch him high into the air. He had placed a trampoline block on the landing pad that bounced him back exactly where you had begun - thus creating an infinite loop. It was amazing.”

“That is educational!” she exclaimed. “You just engineered something really cool!”

The student had been applying critical thinking skills, designing creatively, and testing the limits of a program, all without even knowing it.

Rachel went on to have her students complete an in-class project with Eden. They have been studying the impact of humans on the environment in her humanities class, so her students had to demonstrate negative and positive impacts. Creations ranged from wind turbines that help create clean energy to oil spills, both seen below.
Wind turbines
Oil spill


Rachel and Zach both processed the merits and concerns of gaming with their students before actually rolling out the games, and then continued to process these ideas as students actually played. Not only are their students learning the content, thinking critically, creating some really cool media, and collaborating and sharing, they are also developing a key skill in our connected society. They are learning to think about how to use technology for learning and be self aware.

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About the Co-Author:

Rachel Fondell is a licensed middle school teacher who is passionate about making learning hands on and engaging for her students in English language arts and social studies. She has spent nearly six years in the classroom, working with 9-13 year olds in private schools. Currently, Rachel teaches sixth grade humanities at St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic School on the North Shore of Boston. This fall, she has enjoyed the challenge of implementing a 1:1 tablet program, striving to provide students with immersive, experiential instruction. Outside the classroom, Rachel loves to paint, tackle DIY projects, and explore the great outdoors with her husband and little red duck dog. She also moderates a middle school Yearbook Club and has been working toward her Master’s degree in Middle School Education.