4 Things Game Designers Can Learn from Classroom Teachers

Whether or not you are interested in making games specifically for the classroom, spending some time with teachers can teach you plenty about how to be a better game designer. Here's some of what I picked up in just two short days talking with teachers at the annual Games in Education conference.
August 18, 2014
Games in Education

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to do participate in the annual Games in Education conference in Troy, New York. This conference, put together by the terrific people at 1st Playable Games, as well as WMHT and the Troy City School District, is a rarity in that it bring together two groups of people who don’t often spend a lot of time together – classroom teachers and educational game developers. A group of about two hundred of us gathered in a handful of conference rooms and discussed our work, sharing innovations, best practices, strategies, and challenges that we’ve encountered at the intersection of technology and learning.

Which begs the question… why don’t educational game designers and developers spend more time with classroom teachers? After all, it stands to reason that we have a lot in common. Teachers face many of the same challenges and opportunities that we do: they spend their days grappling with how to make curricula digestible for kids; they struggle to engage an often skeptical audience; they are frequently faced with staggering budgetary and technological constraints; and, mostly, they long to see kids engaged and excited about what they’re doing and their ability to do it.

So, whether or not you are interested in making games specifically for the classroom, spending some time with teachers can teach you plenty about how to be a better game designer. Here’s some of what I picked up in just two short days in Troy:

1.  Keep Focused on Outcomes

Teachers are wonderful at keeping a laser-sharp focus on the end user – their students – as well as the end result they’re trying to achieve. If a lesson plan or a team project they’re implementing in the classroom doesn’t help their students grow in their understanding, teachers don’t waste precious time on it any longer then they have to. We talk a lot on this blog (even just last week!) about the importance of user testing and iteration, but it’s still easy for us as game designers to get hung up on an idea we find charming or fun and lose sight of whether or not it ultimately matters to our audience.

For teachers, basically every day in the classroom is a focus group, forcing them to see their plan in action and adjust to meet the needs of their students. As designers, we could use to embody this same sense of immediacy in our thinking. Ask yourself, is what I’m making working for kids, right now? If it isn’t, how do I make it better?

2.  Remember, Every Kid is Different

One of the greatest challenges a classroom teacher faces – and pretty much every classroom teacher does – is dealing with a diverse group of learners and trying to move them all forward together. Carla has posted some excellent resources here on how to better understand the different developmental stages that children go through, and it’s important to remember that a three year-old has very different abilities than a six year-old. But it’s equally important to remember that every six year-old is different from every other six year-old.

As designers, we can look to teachers for strategies on how to address these discrepancies. Building intelligent scaffolding and supports for those who may be struggling into a game is the digital version of a classroom teacher pulling aside a struggling reader for some one-on-one coaching, or having a more skilled student work with a less skilled student to solve a difficult math proof. Ask a teacher how they work with diverse learners in their classroom, and odds are you’ll come away with some new strategies you can use in your designs.

3.  Hack Your Toolset

Teachers are brilliant at dealing with scarce resources and making the most of them. Most of the teachers I spoke to at Games in Education were using some sort of technology or software tool in ways that it wasn’t originally intended for. I saw teachers who used Google Docs for collaborative editing, Facebook and Twitter for storytelling, and their school email networks to engage students in discussions.

As game designers, we often find ourselves complaining about a lack of time or resources, as if those constraints are all that’s standing in the way of our success (“If only I had more money, I could add some animations that would really make this sing…”). Thinking like a teacher means starting with the resources that are available, and forcing yourself to creatively apply them in new and flexible ways. If teachers can hack their toolset, so can you.

4.  Respect the Kids

This is the lesson I take from basically every experience I have watching kids interact with games I’ve designed, and it came out loud and clear in my conversations with teachers at this conference. One striking example of this was the presentation of Paul Darvasi, a Toronto-based teacher who created a truly inspiring recreation of the mental ward from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in his 12th grade classroom in what he calls “The Ward Game.”

Facing an English class full of soon-to-graduate seniors who couldn’t care less about their last month of school, he challenged them to a complicated alternate reality game that accompanied and enriched their reading of the novel. Although it’s far too complex to summarize in this post (there’s a video that will give you a much fuller sense here), it was inspiring to see the amount of freedom this teacher gave his students to figure out the game’s intentions and dynamics, and how much they clearly grew from that experience. One striking result was that his lowest-performing students, those who had struggled all year in his class, stepped forward and were amongst the best and most successful in the group.

In game design, we need to remember that whatever we’re making, however carefully constructed, is ultimately just a tool that kids may – and hopefully will – play with in different ways than we intended. Creating experiences that allow children the opportunity and the risk of making their own decisions isn’t always easy, but it’s well worth it for them to be able to come out of an experience feeling not just, “I did that,” but also, “I figured out how to do that myself, and I did it my way.”

I could go on and on about the amazing teachers I met at GiE, and how much I admire the difficult work they do in the classroom every day. But I’ll leave it here for now, and simply encourage all of the game designers out there to reach out to teachers they know the next time they are grappling with a design hurdle. After all, there’s no one with a greater well of knowledge in making effective and meaningful learning experiences for children.

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