Fun leads to mastery in game-based education

Some of the most innovative, forward-looking alternative learning experiences for kids today are built on the notion of games and gaming. Edutopia, the teaching and learning website, even has a Pinterest board devoted to game-based learning. Many commercial games that teach biology, math, history, geography, and every other subject imaginable are infiltrating traditional classrooms, and for particular subjects or problems, that makes a lot of sense. But for this blog post, I wanted to look at why educators would create an entire curriculum based on gaming.

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

In New York City an innovative school for grades 6–12 called Quest to Learn is an evolving project to improve kids’ learning, empathy, and collaboration skills. In reading about Quest, I learned the basic tenets of the gaming approach—and then I was lucky enough to interview Austin’s own Cheryl Kruckeberg, who has been advocating for game-based education and running Game of Village, a program based on these tenets, for years.

Quest’s founders, a nonprofit group called the Institute of Play, created an alternative, publicly funded “school of choice” entirely focused on games for a few key reasons, including:

  • Games ask us to collaborate with others and learn by doing.
  • In a game, teachers and students can see immediately whether they are succeeding or failing and can go back and try again, or “iterate.” Failing is an important part of learning in any game, and (unlike a failing grade in a traditional classroom) helps motivate kids to keep trying.
  • Learning happens by doing!
  • Everyone gets to participate and contribute something unique to the process.
  • Feedback happens in the moment, not days or weeks later in an exam.
A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

My talk with Austin’s Cheryl Kruckeberg reinforced many of the notions above with real-life examples from Game of Village. Cheryl says that one of the best things about learning through play is that the consequences aren’t dire, so kids can go all out to win, but if they lose or make mistakes, it’s just a game. “Tomorrow they come back and try again.”

The problem in most grade-based education, says Cheryl, is that it tells kids that an “F” is a statement about who they are, and that may very well change how they think about themselves. “All of that judgment is gone in the concept of the game,” she explains. Kids are having fun and working together to improve, not anxious about judgment and evaluations from others.

“Play is the modus operandi of learning—the way to knowledge, to intimacy, to relationships with the world and people in it,” Cheryl continues. “Jean Piaget [the pioneering child psychologist] said that play is for the pleasure of mastery, and I think that’s right. Kids will do things for play and bend themselves into pretzels to overcome any challenge for the sheer pleasure of mastering something—to get to the next level in a digital game or board game, for example—when they wouldn’t do that for the sake of rote classroom learning.”

Readers of the blog may have met Cheryl a few months ago, when she wrote a blog post about exactly how Game of Village works—creating an entire alternative village-world on a 1/24 scale, with 3-inch avatars, or “peeps” who inhabit the village. Games ideally last about 25–30 days and include around 25 kids, but the time period can span an intensive five or six weeks, or can be spread out over an entire school year for one day each week.

From a recent Game of Village showcase

From a recent Game of Village showcase

I wondered what kind of learning objectives and structures the Game of Village mentors begin with, and Cheryl explained, “What we do is set some basic take-aways and usually a time period and geographical setting. It’s important to have some parameters, so that kids have something to push against. From there, they have a lot of freedom to explore.”

“Recently, we launched a village of the future, which kids love because of all the gizmos they can try. Our goals were to talk about sustainability and climate, including exploring sustainable living systems. The kids got an invitation to help the inhabitants of a distant planet that had used up all its resources. They had to build a model sustainable village and educate the aliens on how to use it. The kids had to research carbon footprints, carbon capture, how to produce electricity through solar, wind, and wave technology versus fossil fuels—explaining their impacts and long-term viability. They designed homes and civic systems. It’s exciting because the way each village evolves is organic, and the mentors release control of the game to the kids as soon as possible.”

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

Often the kids in Game of Village are of a similar age—around 10 to 14, but sometimes there are 8-year-olds, and those kids find unique ways of playing the game, says Cheryl. “The older kids get into the heady stuff and deep research, but younger kids do more of the crafting.” Just as in real life, both thinkers and crafters are critical to success.

Cheryl also believes that interactions between the students are invaluable in teaching students about nurturing and supporting each other. “We have kids who begin at a young age and then move into leadership roles as they get older. There are times when something the little ones need to do is a task they can’t handle, so we have older kids who are ‘village mentors in training’ and do safety training that allows them to help younger kids and reinforce their own learning at the same time. Our traditional schools separate kids so much that this important mentoring time is gone, and that’s a huge loss in our society. The Game of Village tries to avoid that separation. Kids need the opportunity to nurture.”

“For me, somewhere along the line education got separated from learning,” Cheryl explains. “People really want to learn, and that distinguishes us as a species. Sparrows will just build nests the same way, over and over—but human beings want to try this, that, and the other thing, always trying new alternatives.” In a nutshell—or an eggshell—this is what game-based learning provides.

Pacifica Village

Pacifica Village

Game of Village kids completed their creation of Pacifica, a sustainable village for the planet Kepler-9D, on May 19 at AHB Community School. Students at Integrity Academy will experience a full unit of Game of Village next year. More information about Game of Village and how your kids can get involved is available here.

And for another fascinating take on role-playing games and learning, check out a recent article by Paul Darvasi for KQED News, about Sword and Sorcery Camps.

Game on!

Shelley Sperry

Wow! This is your brain on shows about science!

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There are now so many great podcasts geared toward curious kids that it’s becoming hard to keep up! Podcasts are so great for car trips, both short and long, because they can spark lots of new topics for conversation and learning–and can often touch our emotions or make us laugh, too.

I thought I’d do a quick rundown of a few science-oriented pods you may not have checked out yet, because there’s a new one out today that looks like a lot of fun: NPR’s Wow in the World.

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Although individual local NPR stations have long produced content for kids, this is actually the first venture for the national public radio network. Hosts Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas combine forces in episode one to bring science, technology, and all things innovative to elementary-school-age kids, including what early humans ate and whether saying “thank you” can make you healthier. And it looks like each show will feature a few questions to talk about afterward and some extra reading for kids whose curiosity is really in overdrive.

I feel a little like I wasted some crucial entrepreneurial time in kindergarten and first grade since learning about six-year-old Nate Butkus, who has been hosting his own Show About Science podcast for more than a year. Nate interviews scientists about everything from lava lamps to genetics. He is charming and gets right to the heart of the matter with every question.

Recently, worlds collided when Nate did a show from KPCC in Southern California in order to interview the host of Brains On and see a Tesla coil in action. Brains On! is an American Public Media podcast that explores fun, sciencey topics such as the Science of Slime and How Do Pianos Work. Adults host and kids co-host the episodes, which run around 20 minutes.

But Why has a great hook: Kids ask the questions (But Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers? Who Was the First Person?) and a parade of experts answers them each week. The show originates from Vermont Public Radio.

And whatever you do, don’t forget about our own Austin-based Tumble, which we’ve raved about before and was voted one of the best of 2016 on iTunes. They have a super newsletter that rounds up lots of science and other pod recommendation for kids.

Let us know if there are any podcasts you want to share!

Shelley Sperry

Finding the river within

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We are delighted to welcome Sensei Jonathan Hewitt to share some of his deep wisdom with Alt Ed Austin readers. He is the founder of Life Ki-do Martial Arts, one of Austin’s most beloved, effective, and elevating enrichment programs.

Go with the flow. A profound way to live, but sometimes that’s easier said than done—and what exactly does it mean anyway?! Growing up, I powered through life. My goal was to be the best, the fastest, and the most popular. I was in control, and I was going to make it all happen. But wait— was I really in control? And even when I won the gold medals and got the approval, why did I feel so empty inside?

I realized at a pretty young age that I needed to look inside rather than outside for peace, fulfillment, and happiness. I spent many years searching for answers studying martial arts, psychology, mindfulness, and meditation. What I’ve come to is a place I call the River.

One of the reasons I like this word is that I work with children, and it’s an easy concept for kids to understand and relate to. But it also describes perfectly a beautiful way to live: rivers are always flowing and always moving toward something greater. Inevitably there will be obstacles in its way, but the River moves around those obstacles and never gets stuck. To me, the River is about putting your heart into life and giving it your all.

What it doesn’t mean is being perfect. I call the River’s two opposites Ice and Puddle. Being like Ice is trying too hard, feeling pressured and stressed. Being like a Puddle is not trying enough, feeling lazy, bored, and disinterested. The thing is that we are all like Ice and Puddle sometimes. It’s part of being a human being. The important thing is to not get stuck in judging ourselves and instead keep returning to the River over and over. It’s a fluid state, remember? Not a fixed, end-all state of perfection.

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Finding the River has not only transformed my life but also transformed the way I teach martial arts. I grew up in and taught for many years a rigid, traditional type of martial arts. The techniques were based on a set of preset circumstances—he does this move, so you follow with that move.

But life never happens that way, right? So why not practice martial arts in a way that reflects how we want to live life: dealing with spontaneous situations in a fluid manner? We practice how to take an opposing force and use it to redirect the flow. In martial arts, this might be a physical force, but in life it can be any circumstance or even (and most commonly!) our own inner emotions and thoughts.

The amazing thing is that when you are in the River, your experience with a partner becomes about connection, care, and cooperation rather than about comparisons, competition, and control. These are deep foundations for how to be in relationships with others in the world. Instead of seeing another human being as someone to fight with, or compete with, or compare yourself to, being in the River allows you to feel empathy and compassion for that individual. In our dojo, everyone supports each other to be their very best. Being not like Ice or Puddle allows you to be present and sensitive to your partner’s needs while also communicating honestly and clearly your own needs.

While there are many tools to stay in the River, the most effective by far is the breath, and we practice it all the time. With the kids, we call it Ninja Breathing to imbue the breathing with a sense of empowerment. Harnessing the power of the breath allows us to be relaxed, focused, calm, and present. Ready to see challenges as opportunities to grow rather than as obstacles that are impossible to overcome. Ready to let it come, let it go, let it flow. Like a River.

Jonathan Hewitt

Awareness, acceptance, and admiration for kids with ASD

It’s a little late, but as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month comes to a close, I wanted to make sure to highlight some of the great work being done for Austin kids on the autism spectrum. Autism is a collection of neurological, developmental disorders that used to be divided up into many categories, but now researchers believe they all are variations of the same thing: Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. The CDC estimates about 1.5 percent of kids in the United States are on the spectrum, and it’s something they’re born with, not the result of any trauma or environmental factors.

Kids with ASD often struggle with communication and social interaction, have heightened sensitivity to the world around them, and sometimes have some trouble with motor skills. The Autism Society of Texas (formerly the Autism Society of Central Texas) has loads of materials for parents, children, and educators who would like to become advocates and allies—or just want to know more. Their website also highlights camps for kids on the spectrum in the new 2017 Recreation & Camp Guide for Students with Special Needs, available in English and Spanish.

One of the best ways we can become good allies for kids with ASD is to help everyone learn more about it, including children of all ages. I can recommend Amethyst Schaber’s YouTube channel and especially her “Ask an Autistic” feature for its straightforward answers to common and not-so-common questions. Amethyst’s friendly face and voice will help younger children understand that ASD isn’t a scary thing and that some of the common “stims,” or forms of stimulation used by people with ASD (like hand waving or eye movements) are nothing to be afraid of.

Another terrific video primer for middle and high school kids who want to learn more about ASD is Khan Academy’s “What is autism spectrum disorder?”

For those who would like a resource in English and Spanish, make sure to take a look at Autism Spectrum Explained. This website was created by a college student whose sister is on the spectrum. The clever videos show viewers that different doesn’t mean non-functioning—in one case by using the analogy of PC and Mac operating systems.

Many schools in Austin and surrounding areas offer services tailored to children and teens on the spectrum within inclusive learning environments. These include alternatives like The Rise School of Austin, William’s Community School, Odyssey School, and The Magnolia School, as well as St. Francis School. For a complete list of ASD-friendly schools and other educational programs, go to the Autism Society of Texas 2017 Resource Guide, which offers links to education resources, both private and public.

Shelley Sperry

The Alt Ed Library: Open 24 hours

Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.

—Isaac Asimov in conversation with Bill Moyers, 1988

What Mr. Asimov said almost 30 years ago is still true for many students, but in Texas, the United States, and the world, the sameness of learning is now being challenged in myriad ways every day. If you’re interested in how students, educators, and parents are revolutionizing schooling and unschooling, a trip to the education section of your bookstore or library is a good place to start—but we know from experience that sifting through all those titles isn’t easy.

We often recommend books to our clients, so we decided it would be useful to bring those recommendations together in one place. Today, on Independent Bookstore Day, we’re happy to introduce a brand-new feature on the website: our Alt Ed Library!

We’ve put together a curated list of books on a wide range of  topics, from forest preschools to DIY higher education, and from the slightly unconventional to the radical. We’re including links so you can take a look at reviews, and if you’re interested, buy the books from an indie bookseller or from a certain ubiquitous mega-retailer. (Just as we celebrate small, independent schools, we love supporting small, independent bookstores, and IndieBound makes it easy to do, either online or at your local brick-and-mortar shop.)

We plan to expand the list and hope our readers will contact us with recommendations for additions. Please check out the AEA Library here, and enjoy the read!

Shelley and Teri Sperry

Media Monday: A very alt alternative to college draws critics and fans

If you’re interested in keeping up with what’s new in the education tech world, the EdSurge podcast often introduces listeners to the latest trends and debates through lively discussions with experts and advocates. That’s the case with their latest episode, which covers a for-profit alternative to college called MissionU, which I hadn’t heard of elsewhere.

The MissionU program, which takes only a year to complete, is designed especially for young people who are ready to jump into a career immediately rather than exploring subjects through the traditional liberal arts and sciences curriculum of a four-year college or university or a two-year community college.

One particularly intriguing aspect of the program, which is based in the highly entrepreneurial San Francisco area, is that it requires no tuition upfront, but instead asks for payment after students are earning income. According to MissionU’s website:

There are no upfront costs for MissionU; we only get paid when you do. Once you're earning at least $50,000, you'll pay back 15% of your income for the first three years.

Take a listen to the pro and con discussion on the EdSurge podcast, and see what you think about this highly experimental approach.

Shelley Sperry