Gaming and learning – are they connected?

In 2010, I began experimenting with gaming in my classroom.

In my Grade Six classroom, ‘play’ wasn’t just about learning the facts and materials, but about creating an environment where they were most comfortable.  Using Wii Olympics to have students virtually play participate in Luge or skiing events and then write down, sort, compare and analyze their scores helped them see an authentic reason why we sort data. Watching the little JK students exercise for 15 minutes a day using Wii Fit or Wii Sports (on those freezing cold mornings) was fascinating.  Using NikeRemote on our shoes, we used game to track distances when we ran 3 times per week to reach our marathon goal. I was only beginning to discover the potential for gaming and learning. Connecting our games with classrooms across the world was the most fun. Skype spelling and math games was an awesome way to end our week. For me it really isn’t about the game itself, but about engaging my students. They identified with gaming. It was my way to capture them, when we couldn’t explore outside, or build ‘hands-on’.

Both Zack and Shawn, future TechEd leaders from Brock University (also students of mine) contemplate educational theories and structures by examining the idea of gamification of learning.  In his blog, Zach wonders,

“Imagine if we could give students a lesson they could take home and play? If they enjoyed the lesson they would be more apt to practice the material. They could share it with friends and interact with people in their class online”.

Shawn then makes a profound realization,

“It occurs to me now that my prejudice towards gaming was based on the belief that games were based solely on fun, and so in turn their educational usefulness must be minimal. How silly that was to assume that kids have to feel or even know that they’re being taught in order to learn something”.

Shawn and Zack ‘s posts compelled me to ask my two boys (ages 9 and 11)  if they saw any educational value in games (minecraft, wii, kinect) in the classroom or for their own learning. Their answer: No way. It is just for fun.

They have not made the connection between learning and play. I wonder if their definition of “learning” comes from their short experience with an established deep rooted system that still sees learning in a very traditional way. Sitting at a desk, direct instruction, preparing for tests, group activities, writing tests, memorizing facts, studying…

And yet, on this very Saturday morning, as I read through the blog posts, my eyes wonder. I watch my boys plant crops near water, discussing a location that optimisms sun. I listen to them talk about the best way to ‘make’ paper so they can create books to put on the shelves that they created for the school that they designed. I listen to them talk about the formula needed to make ‘ink’ for their pens…….and then I spy, as they use they internet to find out facts about ink, paper mills and sugar. Then my 9 year old says…lets make a cake. They were using Minecraft.
My eyes wonder to their unopened packpacks. I wonder, what homework they have.

But, as they see it…it is play, not learning. So how do we connect the two? I think that both Shawn and Zack clearly make the point that there may be link between learning and engagement. But, maybe its something more? Do these games also help us with our critical senses? Do they encourage us to talk and problem solve? Do they encourage more divergent ways of thinking?

I certainly do not fully understand the impact that gaming is having on my own children, but by reading about the projects and innovations that a few teachers are ‘action’ researching, my confidence in the use of the methods has definitely heightened.

Joel Levin, a high school teacher discusses his first days of school: –

So, instead, for the first class we’ll talk about:
What kind of world they will want to play in.
What kind of gaming experience they desire and what they’d like to accomplish.
And I’ll try to figure out what other auxiliary projects they want to try while playing the game. Such as writing projects, making Let’s Play videos, modding the game… or who knows! I’m sure they will surprise me!

It is very reassuring that in spite of tradition and set curriculum, teachers are still finding ways to incorporate new mediums into the classroom. Thank you Shawn and Zack for deepening my thinking on this issue.



New Teachers ‘…the times they are a-changin’

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’. (Bob Dylan, 1964)

There is a new group of teachers in town. For the next eight months, at Brock University in Hamilton, Ontario,  these teachers will learn and practice what it truly means to teach in the 21st Century. Nope. This doesn’t mean they will graduate as Information Technology Specialists. Nor does it mean that they will be computer programmers, or expert gamers, or trained ‘techies’.

What it means, is that they will truly understand how to work in a networked world, that doesn’t have the limits of walls, or buildings. They will learn why relationships, equity, environment and community are above and beyond anything in the learning model. They will practice a distributed leadership model by sharing their skills and knowledge across their program, their internship schools, and within the wider global community.  These new teachers will blog – not to just deliver information, but to share their learning, to reflect and to lead in an open and transparent way. Shawn, one Pre-service Teachers, explains,

“I have never integrated myself into a project of many people (strangers, really, though only for a short while) working collectively towards a goal larger than themselves. The fact of that now amazes me, because that is what 21st technology is all about. And with that realization, I find I’ve been incorrectly viewing new technology as an end in itself, and not the means with which I can make a contribution in “real life.” Touch screens, smartboards and live feeds are tremendous advancements, but they’re usefulness goes so much deeper then simple fodder for gadget hounds like myself. As a teacher, I am going to have to get very used to linking my life collectively with groups, and that is the first and easily the most important lesson this cohort has given me thus far.

A FEW GUIDING PRINCIPLES as we facilitate this journey of Teacher Education:

1. ALWAYS  participate in a  Professional Learning Network, be genorous and mentor others:

Virtual Associate Mentors/Teachers  have welcomed this cohort with arms wide open into an established professional learning network. Incredible demonstration of generosity of skill and time.


2. ALWAYS demonstrate that good teaching means learning together in a variety of ways, with a variety of tools.

Teacher Candidates using the Livescribe pen to make audio and digital ink recordings to capture their thoughts about Professional Teaching Standards. They ask, “What does Society expect from its teachers? They explore a variety of mediums – text, audio and digital as a way to express their thoughts and as a method to share with others.


3. ALWAYS demonstrate that good teaching means facilitating a SAFE, CARING, and EQUITABLE environment where everyone can learn using a variety of skills, and talents.

Teacher Candidates explore symbols in learning. Here, they personalize rocks in a deliberate effort to begin the process of relationship building. They begin to understand the power of CREATIVITY and ARTS when working within a diverse group.


4. ALWAYS collaborate and share

Teacher Candidates gasp as they see the power of co-creating for the FIRST time. They explore the content and pedagogy that is modeled to them and they relate this  to their own journey as Teacher Education students through the TPACK framework.


5. ALWAYS be open to learning new skills and new methods of learning and teaching.

All Teacher Candidates are required to take an Technology in Education course which provides them with an opportunity to explore a variety of new teaching tools. They work in classrooms with integrated Front Row Audio systems, Smartboards, Wireless internet. They are encouraged to bring in their own devices. They have access and can sign out projectors, iPods, Livescribes and Video Cameras. They are provided with class time to learn web 2.0 tools and they use blogs and podcasts to share their learning.


I find myself in complete awe of all of this. Is it really happening? Is this the change we need?

Connected Coach – an authentic Professional Development Model

From the bottom of my heart and with every single fibre of my body, I thank those leaders and principals and district decision makers for giving teachers an opportunity to learn with other teachers in an authentic, customized and  inquiry driven  environment that focuses on the most current and changing educational pedagogues. Thank you.

There were  many key events that have happened in my   professional life over the last six months. Events that have changed my approach and my understanding of teaching and learning – especially as it relates to teacher Professional Development strategies. One of those events was my experience as a connected coach with the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP).

While I’ve never had the opportunity to be a participant in the Powerful Learning Practice model, I have followed PLP for the couple of years.  It is hard not to pay attention to the many free PLP webinars, articles, and on-going dialogue between educators at all levels across the globe. In fact, right now PLP is offering a free 2 week e-course about Web2.0 in the classroom.

In March 2011, I had a phone discussion and interview with Sheryl Naussam-Beach about what I can offer to the PLP organization as a connected coach. I was a bit skeptical because I wasn’t sure if I had the essential skills needed for this position. In my role as a classroom teacher, I have never been trained formally as a coach. But, in the online world, I have acted as a mentor and coach to many networked teachers and learners across the world. I have spoken and written about this topic passionately. Online methods of learning are reshaping how information is delivered, understood and synthesized.  We are seeing a world of co-everything. We insist on collaborating, on sharing, on co-creating, on co-editing – and yet, we don’t insist on formal online training for our teachers about how to use and implement 21st Century Learning skills both with each other and in a classroom context. I worry about that. I really really worry about that.

For several months, I participated in rigorous on-line  coaching training with Lani Hall and Dean Shareski, our connected coach facilitators and six other connected coaches from across across our globe. This training consisted with a mixture of theory, research and practice. We read and discussed Chapters from, The Reflective Educator’s Guide (Coaching Inquiry-Oriented Learning Communities) and then we spent several weeks practicing a variety of coaching techniques on each other and then providing feedback for improvement.  It was fascinating and exciting to learn this way. It is rare for me as a teacher to get to practice a technique before implementing it. It is rare to get on-going feedback from my colleagues or leaders.

The leaders and other connected coaches in the PLP insisted that even in an online environment, relationships come FIRST. And so, we spent eight weeks getting to know each other through digital story telling, online conferences, skypes, twitter, Facebook conversations and in the Ning network (a private space for us to chat and offer support).  Eventually, we had an opportunity to practice some of the techniques learned with groups of teachers from both ElPaso, Texas and in Australia – both with very different focus. In ElPaso Texas, we engaged teachers in conversations about Digital Story telling and with the Australian cohort, the teachers went through a rigorous action research about Inquiry Based Learning.

As the work with these cohorts comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on  what made this experience so meaningful.  It wasn’t very hard to conclude that the engagement we all felt was a result from the authenticity of the training.  Teachers were empowered to think critically, to work at their own pace, to ask questions and discuss alternative answers. Teachers were given an opportunity to share stories and work at a pace that suites them. Teachers were given choice and freedom to create projects that were open ended and based on a variety of techniques and research methods.

As someone who writes often about the importance of authentic teacher training, I can’t help but feel extremely inspired by the amount of work, effort, and passion that is being put into the PLP process.

From the bottom of my heart and with every single fibre of my body, I thank those leaders and principals and district decision makers for giving the PLP opportunity to teachers. It is these teachers who are become the digital leaders in education.

It is my hope that Ontario takes this kind of Job Embedded learning serious. There are so many possibilities around this model of PD. I urge our program conusltants and system/district leaders to take a serious look at offering this opportunity to your educators.

Brenda Sherry, an Ontario Educator writes about PLP Ontario and offers this opportunity to all Ontario schools for the upcoming school year!