Games for Learning Conference

Myself with Harko Brown and our manu that he showed me how to weave

It is quite special to attend an inaugural conference, but even more special to be part of the dialogue before the conference and also be asked to help facilitate a session.

The Games for Learning Conference held at Te Papa in September 2017 was the vision of Rachel Bolstad from NZCER. Rachel has been doing some research into this area for the past few years and in some ways, this was the accumulation of the many different relationships that Rachel made over that time. The focus of the conference was “equity for social impact”.

Rachel was able to secure some pretty amazing keynote speakers, facilitators and participants to be part of this special occasion. Amy Freeden from the Cook Tribal Inlet Council that bravely invested the stories of her people into the game “Never Alone”, Yasmin Kafai Professor from the University of Pennsylvania who had Seymour Papert as her mentor, Bron Stuckey a researcher, educator and consultant in the learning through games, and our very own Harko Brown who lives and breathes Ngā taonga tākaro (our cultural games). There were teachers, game designers, students, game players. Never before have I been at a conference with so much diversity.

As a teacher who already uses gameplay and game design in my practice the focus of the conference for me was to see other ways in which to do this. I was constantly reflecting on the question “how could I use this in my classroom?”. This is also the stance I took while presenting my session on Game of Awesome with Aaron from Chrometoaster. I knew my audience; these teachers wanted something that they could do on Monday morning. We gave our participants permission to play, permission to be creative and adventurous and to try and use the GOA cards in different ways. I was really impressed at all of the new ideations of the game they came up with.

Much laughter and creativity in my GOA session

Some of my key thoughts/reflections/ideas from the keynotes and sessions I attended:

  • All you need is your imagination! Flying invisible kites is a game. Children are naturally playful and have great imaginations! (Harko Brown)
  • Learn knowledge or content through the game design process, the game at the end is just a bonus
  • A Cultural narrative in game design can be so powerful. Stories are powerful. Games are stories. (Amy Fredeen, Harko Brown)
  • Physical games are easy to change and modify as you just have to say the new rule out loud! (Ben Kenobi)
  • Situation and context help build a game, think about what this could look like e.g giant map/playing board, drama 
  • Games are systems thinking – simple or complex
  • There is a rich discourse when playing games. Listen!
  • Move over computational thinking – what we want to see and do is more computational participation. It is equitable, it is inclusive, it’s integrated and it’s fun! (Yasmin Kafai)
  • Gameplay can be drama, “teacher in role” and students living and breathing the context of a game
  • Games are life! They tell our stories, they are how we spend our time, they make us feel happy. (Harko Brown)
The group reflections at the end of the conference were incredible but it was a comment by Richard Durham (curriculum designer) that all my own reflections now come from (I wish I had written down exactly what he had said!) He mentioned that the conference itself had a different feel to it. It’s true, over the 2 days we were connected to each other through common values. We all saw games as ways to connect to each other, to empathise, to care. I know that I left feeling inspired to continue using games and game design as ways to help my students explore ideas, have fun and learn from each other. 
Tihei mauri ora!
Flying our imaginary kites back at school

Cue the bees

Today I took part in a leadership coaching workshop with Jan Robertson. She told us a story about how she got into beekeeping. I quickly noticed that there were many metaphors within her story about education. This is exactly what she asked us to think about and extend afterwards.

The first metaphor for me was when she mentioned the special waggle dance that bees do to their bee friends that directs them towards the food source. Intentionally some of them waggle them in a different direction, slightly off target, in the hope that they may find new sources of food.

This immediately made me think of the term positive deviants. Educators who veer off from the set course. Educators who are innovators, collecting new information, trying new things. This could also apply to our students. The ones who think differently. I call these students the “divergent thinkers” and to me they are the ones that inspire me the most.

Jan got me to reflect on what usually happens to those that deviate from the norm. She suggested that these people are usually the ones who get their wings clipped. Bees cannot fly without wings. It is our job as leaders to nurture these people. We don’t want all people thinking the same. We need people to challenge the status quo and to be curious about what lies beyond the normal parameters.

This metaphor really stood out to me as a former “lone bee” who got sprayed with insecticide one too many times and had to shut her classroom door and waggle around in secret.

The other metaphor that I connected with was that of the position of the beehive. Bees do not like to be moved. To move a beehive you can only move it approximately 1 metre a day otherwise the bees will get upset. But sometimes the hive needs to move in order to thrive.

I thought of the rate of change that occurs in education within our schools. Change is inevitable and we need to get comfortable at being uncomfortable. However change has to be done in well planned steps. To move the hive out of the shade into a brighter spot requires patient, careful planning and timing. We can’t always move the whole hive in one go. Sometimes we need to persuade some of the bees to poke their heads out and have a look around first at the new spot.

Bees, hives and beekeepers provide a plethora of metaphor for education. Jane’s point was that quite often we don’t always remember what we learnt at a workshop or conference and that metaphors provide an inclusive way to connect with the subject matter. She even suggested we use metaphor to help our colleagues unpack their feelings or frustrations. This reminded me of Diti Hill’s “Theory as story”. The notion that personal narratives are an important part of our practice. Metaphors are stories that help us connect.

Learning in the Fast Lane – Success Starters

Unpacking Chapter 3 “Success Starters” from:

Learning in the Fast Lane
by Suzy Pepper Rollins (201$

“The opening minutes of a lesson hold tremendous potential for all learners”

The brain is ready for new learning at the beginning of a lesson, fades a bit then picks up at the end. Review work at the beginning of the session does not capitalise on the brains potential for new concepts in the first few minutes of a lesson.

The more novel and interesting the first part of the lesson is, the more the brain will hold on to new concepts and keep them stored as being important. Hands on is preferable as the retention will be higher. Routine will only flatline the brain’s involvement. Keep things interesting and unpredictable but find ways to connect with student’s prior knowledge, remembering that everyone’s is different.

We are aiming for authenticity and relevance in this part of the lesson. It has to engage every learner and not take too long.

Some ideas for success starters:

1) Role play

Put the students in charge. Get them to make the decisions and experience the “problem”. Critical thinking and decision making are necessary. Put the drama into the learning.

2) Surveys

Connect the learning back to the student. Are relevant and answers can be shared with the whole group.

3) Prediction

Is all about student’s anticipating new learning. Sorting is a good way to do this. This could be sorting items, words and/or pictures. Student’s are keen to know if they are correct.

4) Questioning

Questioning allows us to be curious. Students can create their own questions about a topic and share them with a group. Question starter cards (who, what, why, how etc) can also encourage students to engage in questioning.

5) Brainstorming

Sharing each others thoughts and knowledge in a range of brainstorming activities promotes high interest and participation. Those that don’t know much yet will start picking some key ideas up from other students.

6) Concrete Representations

Using equipment in maths or science, looking at photos, graphs, videos, picture books to engage interest and strengthen learning.

Some things to reflect on when planning lessons.

Learning in the Fast Lane – Chapter 1

Learning in the Fast Lane
by Suzy Pepper Rollins, 2014

A literature review…

Key idea behind ideas in the book:

That high impact instructional approaches will effectively improve outcomes for all students including those who are struggling. Targeting only the “tail end lag” with remedial gap filling will not help accelerate learning.

Chapter 1: How can we help students with gaps from the past succeed today?

  • Prior knowledge frees up working memory (Hirsh, 2003)
  • New concepts need to be connected to existing schema
  • The misconception is that to learn new things, one must go back and “fill the gaps”
  • Going backwards decreases student motivation
  • Acceleration is about having success in the present by preparing the student for what is happening that week
  • Acceleration puts students in the “fast lane” as they already have the prior knowledge and the basic pre-requisite skills ready to learn the new content alongside their peers
  • Vocabulary is key – students need to know both the pre-requisite vocabulary and the new vocabulary as it will help to link with prior knowledge.
  • Student confidence and participation will increase when they are prepared for this new learning
  • Time needs to be set aside to work with the acceleration group
The framework for Acceleration
Step 1: Generate Thinking, Purpose, Relevance, and Curiosity
Hands on starter activities that get students wondering. Concrete before abstract. Real world examples and thinking. Success starters.
Step 2: Clearly articulate the learning goal and expectations
Explicit and student friendly. Helps define the purpose of the learning.
Step 3: Scaffold and Practice Essential Prerequisite Skills
“Students could master this if they just knew xyz”. What are the high priority gaps? Create scaffolds for success.
Step 4: Introduce New Vocabulary and Review Prior Vocabulary
What does it mean? What does it look like? Need multiple representations. 
Step 5: Dip into the New Concept
Needs to be something that the rest of the class won’t see – cannot repeat the learning experience. Idea is that the student can say during the class session “I know something about that!”

Starting Collaboration Reflections

What’s on top?

  • Creating times in the day/week for normal classroom activities that are not curriculum based (hidden curriculum)
  • Managing use of learning assistants as in the mornings there are 6 adults in the space
  • Whole group sessions – split into 2?
  • Getting to know students who are needing those strong relationships to ground them
Innovative Learning Spaces (ILS) are really bound by context.  The context will guide the programme. What may work for one school or class may not work for another. I am fortunate to be working with another teacher who has a shared understanding of how children learn and what an effective year 6 programme looks like.  We have 2 other teachers that support us that also have this shared understanding.
My wonderings to share with my teaching team:
  • If there could be a block each week that isn’t a shared learning time?
  • If the structures that we set up for literacy and numeracy could be explicit about how the Learning assistants are used?
  • If we could give feedback about having less Learning Assistants in the first 3 weeks as we establish our collaborative practices?
  • If areas outside of literacy and numeracy could/should be done in smaller classes?
  • Would more time with my smaller class help those students who need to anchor themselves and find their place?
  • Gather some student voice
  • Do some reflection with my teaching team

Intentions for 2017

Kererū – my favourite bird and good luck charm

I like the word intentions rather than goals. Goals imply that you have to succeed, check it off the list, reach something. I think that everyone has the best intentions at the beginning of the year and that intentions can lead to best practice – a living, breathing and continual state of being.

My first intention is to look after myself this year. I intend to get up early each day and begin with a walk or run to get my circulation going. I started doing this in the holidays and immediately noticed a difference in my state of mind. I also intend to drink more water each day, I find that I get so busy that I forget to stop and hydrate which isn’t so great for the body or the mind.

My second intention is to make sure I have work/life balance. To do this I intend to set myself some specific tasks for before school (a time of day where I don’t seem to get anything done) and to use google tasks to keep track of what needs to be done. I also want to utilise some of the lunch hour and finish my work (if possible) before I go home. I’d also love to have my weekends free, I know that this one may be a little harder to do each week but the intention is there!

Both of these intentions are to do with my hauora (my health).

Hauora is comprised of 4 areas:

Taha tinana – physical well-being
Taha hinengaro – mental and emotional well-being
Taha whānau – social well-being
Taha wairua – spiritual well-being

(Ministry of Education, 1999)

To be the best teacher for my students I really need to look after all 4 areas.

I have a special place that I like to go to clear my mind and recharge, and that is Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. As a member I can go whenever I want and spend as long as I like. When I am there it is possible for me to not think about school.

This weekend while I was taking a track away from the crowds I saw so many juvenile birds – tūī, tieke, piwakawaka and large flocks of pōpokatea. I spoke to a family that passed me on the track and they had seen nothing. This got me thinking about the need to be observant in both life and at school. We need to take the time to notice, to be present and to see what we can take away from the experience. Being present doesn’t have to mean being seen and heard, for the quieter I was, the more birds I saw. I intend to take this quiet presence, this notion of observation into the learning environment.

And lastly as we merge our year 6 classes completely and become a learning whānau of 61 students and 2 teachers I intend to spend quality time building relationships with the students and working collaboratively with my co-teacher. I intend to use the quiet observation to help understand the learning needs that exist in my classroom, noticing the small things and making sure that they too are having their hauora needs met.

Podcast review: Games are good for you!

Note to Self: The Secret to Making Video Games Good for you 

Produced by WYNC studios 

Cross posted at

Quite often gaming is looked at in a negative way so it is refreshing to hear research that frames gaming in a more positive way. This particular episode is an interview with Jane McGonigal a researcher at the Institute for the Future. Yes this is a real place and yes I want to go there!

Jane’s research focuses on the neurochemical changes that happen when we are playing and how we can better understand how our brain works when we are playing. How can we “hack” this experience and apply it to our real lives in those moments when we need more resilience?

To quote Brian Sutton Smith, Developmental Psychologist and expert in play:

“the opposite of play isn’t work, the opposite of play is depression” 

McGonigal further unpacks this quote to state that when we are playing games the positive emotions that we experience such as; joy, wonder, excitement and success, are the opposite of the clinical diagnosis for depression. Woah! Well okay, that’s a bold statement! But to give it even more credit, this is research based on which areas of the brain area stimulated/under-stimulated in both states!! Maybe video games really are the new self help! I’ll be reaching for the iPad next time I’m feeling a little down… (my wondering here is if anyone has done research that measures shift in emotion when going from sad to playing games???)

Candy crush saga, Bejewelled, Solitaire… you know those games that you just play that don’t seem to be of any value yet you spend hours playing while you take a break from reality? Are they actually valuable then?

Well, when we are able to stop thinking about things that are bothering us and take a break from reality we are incorporating techniques from both cognitive behavioural therapy and meditation. I interpret that as gaming as meditation, gaming as a healthy way of disassociating. I can hear your brain right now crafting an argument against this and that’s cool because this is all sounding way too good right? McGonigal also did a meta-study of 500 pieces of research about gaming and wellness. Half of those found negative correlations, half positive. The key to positive outcomes was the ability to relate game play to reality in a meaningful way. If you were unable to do this games became an escape from reality, a downward spiral. Life gets worse, play more games = unhealthy outcomes. 

Unfortunately this is the picture of gaming that is painted in the media, and is on the mind of parents of teenagers. That is not to say that this negative image doesn’t exist, it’s just really hard to break when you are someone like me trying to use games and game design in education in a positive way. McGonigal has found research that supports the idea that escapism games are okay for us in short bursts. They can even help us break habits like sneaky snacking (I am actually keen to try this one and am tempted to put a post it note on the packet of biscuits saying “play a game instead”). She also points out that self-regulation is optimal, play the game to help you but know when you’ve had enough. Choose the game and see what it does for you. Jane actually designed her own game to help her through a bad case of concussion.

Her advice to parents is also very poignant. Do not shame your children about the games that they play. Do not tell them they are wasting their time or that they should be doing something else. If we frame gaming negatively like that then we stop that relationship between gaming and reality that was mentioned earlier. They will think games are for escape and they will head down the negative path. Instead ask them: “what have you gotten better at since you started playing this game?” Be interested in what dispositions they can transfer into their real life. If a child can talk about these abstract ideas then they have made that link, if they are referring only to things that exist within the game then they need us to help them bridge that gap.

The last question that Jane McGonigal was asked in this interview related to games and addiction. Addiction as a “thing” is currently being challenged in the science world and the latest research is saying that addiction is a goal orientated action that gets stuck on one particular thing. With gaming the person needs to transfer those things that give them that “buzz” into other activities so that they don’t get stuck with that one thing that gets them feeling like that. That makes me sense to me. Perhaps we need to be more aware of how we can shift children and teenagers especially towards other similar stimuli?

There are so many games out there that challenge people and build on skills needed in the real world. When you play online with and against your friends there are also many benefits. A good game has transferable skills. Games can be good for you but ultimately it is you, the player that needs to make decisions about what you play, why you play and how long you play for. Own your gaming and make it part of your life not an escape from it!