Gaming the System & The Epic Quest for Professional Development

This month, I am re-reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee and Reality is Broken

Seriously, If you haven't read What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee and Reality is Broken

Semiotic Domains & Affinity Groups 

Okay, so this is really two concepts from Gee, but they are integral.

The pursuit of common meaning in specific areas of study or professional pursuits has existed at least as long as the concept of career specialization. The Samurai of Feudal Japan understood the human body in ways that most of us cannot comprehend, just as Specialist Surgeons do today. Reading a book on Budo (pick your art) or Heart Surgery would be difficult and meaningless to most of us out of the context of practice. As James Paul Gee explains in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Semiotic Domains are social spaces where knowledge is co-constructed and meaning is defined by social agreement. We all belong to our own little semiotic domains. In fact, being a teacher opens up to a world of objectives, pedagogy, and myriad educational psychology terms and concepts that other people aren’t familiar with. You know how you can discuss teaching with another teacher in a way that you couldn’t possibly do so with a pharmacist, farmer, or your dental hygienist. Incidentally, I don’t know why my hygienist always asks me about teaching. She knows I can’t respond with all of that gear in my mouth. Gear I don’t know the name of because I don’t belong to the semiotic domain related to dentistry. This brings us to the next thing I've been thinking about, Affinity Groups.

Those of us with the fortune to have practice in a specific Semiotic Domain are prone to forming affinity groups. Chances are, if you're a teacher and you use games or gamification in the classroom, you're in an affinity group. That's why you're reading my blog. You likely found it by checking the hashtag, #gbl or #gblfriday, on Twitter or it was shared with you by someone who does. As teachers, we have our own vocabulary and practices related to our field. I'm also a web designer and I practice Aikido. All of these domains have their own affinity group with their own specific norms, vocabulary, etc. In these groups, members share similar goals, values and motivations; as a consequence, they become powerful settings for learning. Additionally, because both experts and novices within a semiotic domain usually make up affinity groups, they allow novices to learn the advanced skills from experts.

In my estimation, 98% of what happens in schools consists of teaching domain specific material to students in the complete absence of any real experience in that Semiotic Domain, let alone participation in the related Affinity Group. In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee shares the story of trying to comprehend the manual to a video game without actually having played the game and compares that to what our students must feel like when trying to comprehend something like a Biology text book. This is probably why Biology is taught in a science lab, rather than a classroom. The actual practice of science leads to a better understanding of the knowledge specific to the domain of science. Of course, for whatever reason, students typically spend more time in the lab reading from a textbook and filling out worksheet packets than they do practicing actual science. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think a big one is resource scarcity. Worksheets are cheap and readily available. Lab materials are expensive, limited, and require a great deal of preparation.


Epic Meaning 

Our current students, labeled as the "Net Generation" by some, share some common characteristics, most of which are not surprising. It isn't earth shattering news that these kids prefer texting to phone conversation and aren't averse to publishing personal information on social networking sites etc. etc. What surprises many of my colleagues, most of whom are used to laying out the benefits of our curriculum in terms of how this will benefit you, is that Net Gen students tend to be "strongly motivated by academic projects that have a real-world component, particularly those that address a major issue like the environment, homelessness or poverty" (Characteristics of Net Generation Students). Maybe it's the lifelong exposure to global communication, via the Internet. Maybe it's the ubiquity of massive online games that encourage epic, world-saving feats. One way or another, Net Generation students consider themselves active global citizens. In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal says that, "Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions." I would argue that compared to reality, as many of our students now experience it thanks to their transfer of their epically-heroic and globally-minded selves from the game world, schoolwork is trivial. We've been thinking that our students are asking, "what is this State standardized assessment going to do for me?" Maybe they're asking, "what is this State standardized assessment going to do for world hunger / the AIDS epidemic / global warming?"  


Gaming the system

In games, providing hands-on experience within a semiotic domain is usually established by the rules the designer puts into the game. As the player interacts with these rules, the local meaning of the elements on screen gets validated or corrected as needed. As James Paul Gee notes, a game manual will make little sense out of the context of actually playing the game. Why then do we give our students mathematics textbooks with formulas and drills and expect them all to comprehend mathematics out of the context in which said formulas were derived? Probably because we lack the resources to provide that context. Also, it's quite difficult to build Epic Meaning into the school day, beyond the occasional service project. This is why so many of my colleagues around the world are turning to game based learning and gamification strategies to make their classroom experience more relevant and engaging. Making the leap from a standard behaviorist classroom model to a game-based-learning or even a gamified model is quite difficult and often ends in frustration or simply the application of gimmicky useless gingerbread, like the ubiquitous "badges".

For me, the key to this whole thing is using game mechanics to make content more authentic and engaging, thus providing context. Gamifying my classroom routines or classroom management is not only hokey, but also follows a trend that may be a bit dangerous and counterproductive to building 21st Century Skills. Unfortunately, I'm still struggling to make this a reality. That doesn't mean I'm not trying.  

I've found that a level of comfort with Project Based Learning (or problem-based-learning) tends to go a long way towards truly including the elements that make games successful at teaching into your classroom routines. It also helps to have an assessment system that is additive in nature. Kids are only motivated by failure if it isn't actually fatal. The problem is that true Problem (project) Based Learning is really really hard to accomplish. My whole class is based on this idea, but I'm still struggling with the whole "is organized around an open-ended driving question or challenge" concept (Wikipedia). Unfortunately, that one concept is the essence of project based learning and what makes it most game-like.

The Quest for Professional Development

I need help, mentoring, and guidance. We all do. If we're not growing, we're dying. Professional Development, despite seeming to many teachers to be in never-ending barely manageable supply, is a scarce and closely monitored resource, at least in the public sector. As a Public School teacher, I am provided professional development by my school district at in-service events and course reimbursement for education-related courses at approved universities. This sounds awesome, but despite cries for #edreform, 99.9% of what's offered or approved is pretty much the same five ideas re-packaged with new names and generally focused on making students better prepared to pass standardized assessments. I can take about 500 different courses to expand on the knowledge my district has already given me on "reading in the content areas" or "sequence of instruction" or "writing behavioral objectives" etc. What I can't do, unless I'm independently wealthy and don't need reimbursement, is take a course in Game Design Theory or Gamification, for example. There is one course I've found (by way of disclosure, I occasionally teach it), "Simulations and Gaming Technologies for the Classroom™ by PLS, but beyond that there is nothing.

There are people out there providing this type of training for educators in the private sector, like Studio Q, a "dynamic professional development program for the community of teachers, administrators, designers and curriculum specialists in a game-like learning model, provided by Mission Lab for the Quest to Learn schools. Believe me, I wish I had the motivation, vision, and personal resources to start a Quest to Learn school locally, but that wouldn't necessarily help the bulk of my public school students anyway. Besides, I love my school, and I believe in the people I work for and with. I want to make this place better if I can, rather than abandon it to start something new. I would love to see some Graduate Education programs offer a course or two designed by Mission Lab. I would love to be able to provide workshops in this for my colleagues.

An Invitation

As I said earlier, I need help. Hit me up in comments. Tweet me. Contact me on Edmodo. I'd love to talk about...
  • Developing authentic problem based projects.
  • Game Design
  • Game Based Learning
  • Gamification


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