Game On 2013

At PLSM back in August I pledged to run a PBL unit getting my computing students to write video games and publish to a public audience. This may not seem like a lot to you but it was for me.

I’ve never written a video game before, let alone teach and inspire students to do so, using a programming language I’ve never really used before. My students have only just learned how to code – in Python – so, a different language (syntax, UI, etc).

While I’ve run PBL before, I’ve never had a public audience. I honestly didn’t think it was necessary until challenged at PLSM. And yet when I launched this PBL with my students, I told them they would have an audience beyond me, beyond the classroom,and possibly beyond the school.

My students took on to the task well enough BUT they did not take the public audience bit that seriously…..which, of course, challenged me even more! and made me more nervous as well. This PBL was running mostly AFTER formal assessments were done so I was also worried about the motivation factor as their efforts would not go towards grades or report comments.

The original plan was to have this Game On event with the public audience being the target audience of the game, i.e. our junior school (K-6 students).  But as end-of-year schedules typically are, it was difficult to find time to schedule the event, let alone synchronise with junior school as well. I’ve yet to share this with our junior school.

And, to complicate matters, we decided to use the event to launch the idea of a computing club ready for next year. The good thing about that was the opportunity to collaborate with @townesy77.

What I really wanted from a Game On event can be summed up thus: give my students a public audience, raise the profile of gaming, raise more interest in computing (why just play games when you can make them, right?), outsource feedback and give purpose to learning (software programming and concepts). Lofty aims needed a big event!

yada yada yada….let me just tell you a few of my strategies (which fortunately worked):

  1. I picked Scratch because no downloads/installs were required for either developer or game player. That, plus Scratch has a Studio feature which makes it super-easy to create and share a game arcade.
  2. I participated in the PBL. That is, I went through the PBL myself and designed and wrote my own game. Two, in fact. This forced me to learn Scratch more. Having to think through different algorithms demanded by the different student projects made me learn super-quick
  3. Get @townesy77 to do her magic…creating posters, organising and running the Xbox station for the Game On event, setting up the computer lab with generic logins ready to play the Game On Arcade, help me to announce the event at assembly, etc etc etc
  4. Get my students to talk up the event, invite their friends as well as speak at assembly
  5. The turning point was getting Google to sponsor the event. Much like how my Google excursion came to be, I just asked. Well, okay, I wrote a proposal! And they gave me enough funds to buy prizes and more besides (and really, this is worth another post…really, really). When I told my students about the sponsorship, they were stunned (as was I) and realised that I was serious about this public audience thing. I told them I sent a link to the arcade as part of the proposal (with only 3 games in it then) and that it wasn’t just me holding them accountable for delivery. Amazing!
  6. I tied prizes to feedback. For every 3 game reviews, each reviewer got a chance to win a prize (chocolates). The drawcard, however, was the Google goodies – which I got from my visits to Google (I just remembered I haven’t blogged about my other visit!). It’s a pity not all my students were at the event because they missed out on feedback that weren’t written – the buzz, the ‘oh, this is fun!’ comments, the ‘that looks good’, etc.
  7. Get my students to decorate and help out at the event.
  8. I called on my PLN to visit the arcade.

The Game On event today was amazing! My room looked amazing. The prizes looked desirable. The ‘sponsored by Google’ thing provided more gravitas. Many came and participated on the 2 main activities: playing Game On and Xbox. All up, I got over 60 entries to the feedback draw with contributions from all year groups! Ditto with Xbox participation. This is awesome stuff considering there were other events happening at the same time!

I’m knackered but my heart is full 🙂

Thank you to Bianca and Lee for staging PLSM and challenging me. Thank you to@townesy77 for being my mockingjay (Katniss). Thank you to Google Australia for sponsoring my event (special mention to Sally for giving me another Oprah moment) and Chris for opening my eyes (and my students) to the wonders of open source software. Thank you to Jeannette for getting her students to visit the arcade. Thank you to all the participants in the Game On event.

Most especially, thank you to my IST students for delivering! There wouldn’t have been a Game On event if there were no games at all.

Now for some pics:


Game On arcade – come and play 🙂




one of the banners. can you see the letters in Gallifreyan? hmm, maybe not – but it certainly attracted the Whovians!


playing and giving feedback


so many feedback sheets! yay!

GBL n00b

Jedi badges

Games-based learning (GBL) n00b – that’s me!!!

I’m proud to say that I am a n00b because it actually means I’m trying it out. There’s only so much theory one can take because in such matters, the best way to learn is to dive right in.

My year 9 Information Systems and Technology (IST) topic is Digital Media. I know most students typically engage in digital media everyday in some shape or form. I also know that given the chance to create digital media, most students enjoy it. From past experiences, I also know that students don’t often give much thought to purposeful design as they enjoy creating more.

Game-plan (my bigG)

In junior Technology subjects (like IST), we use a very simple Design Cycle of: Design, Produce, Evaluate.  I tried to fit the course outcomes according to this design cycle, matching it with the Jedi ranks so students can level up from initiates to Padawan (Design), Knight (Produce) and Master (Evaluate).  I think it fits rather well such that as learning deepens, students do level up.

Text-based digital media is the simplest so I made it a compulsory start so students experience what is expected to level up. After this, they are free to choose any of the other digital media types (audio, image, animation, video). They are all keen to move on as I said they can create machinimas (how lucky am I to have a class of gamers to be a GBL-n00b in?).


Edmodo is my friend! It has given me a platform to assign work (and annotate/give feedback online – woohoo), award badges and insight into class dynamics. I love that the class is using Edmodo like facebook (they said so themselves), seemingly oblivious to the fact that I’m there. So far, nothing inappropriate has been posted.

I created these student accounts using randomly generated Jedi names and their first names as Surnames. I prefer this than them renaming their usual Edmodo accounts. I wonder if Edmodo will get cross with me….oopsie.


Students were not levelling up quick enough to sustain initial motivation generated by the idea of badges. XP points to the rescue thanks to Classdojo (how lucky am I that student logins came out on the eve of introducing it to my class?).

Looking at the positive and negative behaviours as a class was a good way to communicate my expectations, not just about behaviour per se but the quality of the work they turn in. That is, if they are showing creativity and good thinking in their submitted work, they gain +XP. A few days in, they are indicating some thinking about their own behaviours by suggesting certain actions merit +XP, including exceeding expectations (one of the positive behaviours). I think here is an example of extrinsic motivation seeping into intrinsic mode. Classdojo has made much easier to track – and publish – XP.

But are they learning? Am I teaching?

Submitted work and work in class would certainly suggest so. There is still an incredible urge to create and bypass design and theory so I remind them regularly – these are essential to levelling up.  Students are challenged by each other and by me.  Feedback is constant. I am not teaching in a traditional style yet I feel more attuned to my students – their interests, abilities and understanding of the topic.

Look at their notebooks and there is nothing. By the time we’re done, they would have created Digital Media rather than read or write about it. Is that teaching? Is that learning?

I’m not going to lie – they do disengage sometimes and I bring them back. At first I seriously doubted my approach. But then, how sure are we really that kids are 100% engaged, 100% of the time. Is that even a realistic expectation?

I’m a GBL-n00b and proud of it. This is just the beginning.

Full Disclosure

I am not their real teacher – I’m filling in for four weeks. I took a punt designing a GBL unit with students I’ve never met. It is evolving as I get to know them more and as they come to trust me and my “unusual” approach.  The work students are doing is not graded and likely will never show up in their reports. And yet, they do the work….with enthusiasm….and increasingly better quality.

I am happy….and tired.

Can programming help students appreciate Maths more?

I love it when things start to converge in my mind. This post will attempt to encapsulate this convergence; attempt being the operative word. As Jack Dorsey said, simplifying the complex is not easy. Try I must to help me document my thinking.

I blogged about Maths not = calculating in reference to Wolfram’s initiative and mentioned it in comments on relevant posts of other bloggers and to anyone who cared to listen. I recently attended webinar with @ColinTGraham on Teaching Maths Effectively which led me to Project Euler. I signed up to this project and had a go using Microsoft SmallBasic, a free and easy to learn/teach programming language. I read @garystager’s post on  Charlie Rose‘s interview with Jack Dorsey, Chairman and one of the three co-founders of Twitter; I watched the interview as well. I think perhaps that only developers can really appreciate Stager’s (and Dorsey’s) view on elegant code (I happen to as I was in Software Development for years before going into teaching).

One of the challenges of maths teachers is making maths relevant. Also, Wolfram mentioned that students often do not see, much less appreciate, the beauty of maths – especially when drowned in the number-crunching (read calculation) jungle.

Anyway, I’m coming to a conclusion that there is definitely room and reason for integrating programming in school and not necessarily as a separate subject/course. In my previous high school, I did suggest this as an extension activity for a very smart girl and in fact, introduced her to SmallBasic. My suggestion to use some Maths lesson time was rejected for various reasons including there’s no one really able to support this idea and struggled to justify the suggestion. Fast forward to now and the previous paragraph is justification enough.

I’ve only done a couple of problems on Project Euler. It offers much opportunity as an assessment tool – you need to decode the problem in order to code. The process can run the full gamut of the digital Bloom’s taxonomy – from remember through to create. For example, what does multiple mean? I used to say it’s the times table of a number. But, how do you code that? Well, a number is a multiple of a given number if the remainder is zero when you divide – there are programming functions for this (language-dependent). Now, there’s a definition not often mentioned. And “below 1000” provides an opportunity to apply inequalities.

Project Euler definitely provides an avenue for computational thinking that Stager and Dorsey espouse and openly enjoy. Upon solving problems, you get access to the solution and the forum so you can compare your own code. The pursuit of elegant code is very obvious in the forum. What this means, too, is that participants are naturally differentiating the task – motivated by finding the most efficient solution – often due to deep knowledge of maths (including finding patterns) and not so much programming ability. How awesome is that??? Actually, reading some of the comments help one appreciate the depth and beauty of maths that Wolfram – and passionate maths teachers – allude to.

Programming is problem-solving. It promotes analytical and logical thinking but not at the expense of creativity as both Stager and Dorsey argue. In fact, I daresay a good programmer has to have a healthy dose of creativity. Programming provides instant feedback (read: gratification or frustration).

Though much can be learned from programming, it really is not for everyoneI…not because it’s hard necessarily but because it doesn’t appeal to all such as carpentry does not appeal to me, for example; I’m sure carpentry provides fantastic opportunities to apply mathematical concepts and more besides. I understand apprehension to even try to include it as a teaching strategy, but there is help out there. Just as there is a community of developers out there, so there is too of teachers.

Where to now?

As an IT integrator, I plan to approach the Maths and the Technology Departments (the elective programming course was dropped due to dwindling numbers). I’ll walk them through my rationale mentioned above. Then, who knows?

Do you know any other initiatives similar to or linked to the ones above?

Maths not = calculating

I came across (maths ≠ calculating) via @JeffUtecht’s post My 25%PD. Both these links are worth visiting but let me focus on the first. founded by Conrad Wolfram – yup, the Wolfram behind the site anyone who’s ever googled a maths problem/question would have visited at some stage. Conrad Wolfram’s TED talk \”Stop teaching calculating – start teaching math\” is an engaging insight into how maths education can be…and it’s a big challenge in many ways, e.g.

  1. Shift the focus on calculations/computations to real application of maths by using computers/technology to do the calculations.
  2. Change current scope-and-sequence driven by the difficulty in calculations rather than concepts. For instance, with interactive visuals  even primary/elementary students can access concepts such as calculus.
  3. The best way to teach procedural aspects of maths is to involve programming (I agree as the process of defining an algorithm deepens understanding).
  4. Make maths an elective; the rationale is that maths is embedded in other subjects and in a contextualised manner
  5. The big hurdle is exams – education is “test”ed so changing the curriculum is a challenge

This is what I have been trying to do – in a rather crude form – in the past few years. And #5 is a real dilemma. Also, any change must be systemic because I find that students, whether they like it or not, come to expect a “format” for maths lessons. While I enjoy veering away from the standard format, I know that the expectation is there to “teach calculation”.

But, where to now?

I’ve signed up to support to be in the loop and help spread the word.  I wonder if I’ll see any changes along these lines in my lifetime. I think the Australian national curriculum changes for maths embeds calculation more than ever.

Btw, I should add that the website links to plenty of interactive resources allowing teachers to follow these principles. It also seems that programming contributions are also welcome. These people are serious. Do check them out.

Maths and Design – Maths beyond numbers

Today was the first day of the AIS IT Integrator Conference 2010 and there’s heaps to blog about, for sure, but one that really touched so close to home was the session entitled Thinking Hyperbolically!I feel inept in my attempt to capture the enthusiasm of the teachers who presented or the magic of their creation.  Bear with me.

With their permission, I would like to mention the work of Melissa Silk and Jane Martin.  Serendipitously, Melissa (Design) and Jane (Maths) discovered an opportunity to marry their expertise into a collaboration towards creating a new Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10) elective course. It all started with a problem: how to teach Euclid’s Parallel Postulate. This led to hyperbolic crochet and a crochet group and eventually to a course that (and I quote)

takes an exciting and creative approach to curriculum and draws on a range of ICTs to enhance the learning of students in both Design and Mathematics. Using the expertise of both teachers, students explore areas as diverse as codes and ciphers, visual representation of data, topology and nomography.

Each mathematical construct is explored as a concept or theory and then synthesized into a design expression, giving additional insights in new and exciting ways.
ICT is utilised in the creation of form, the expression of information and the beauty of mathematics. Emerging areas of information analysis, such as data representation, give depth and beauty to mathematical knowledge, allowing for both a clarity of understanding and an appreciation of the beauty of maths.

These two teachers walked us through a showcase of some of these ideas and examples of visual representations via this Prezi (sorry, the embed would not work for me!)

I absolutely LOVEd this.  ICT was so integrated – it’s really another tool for teaching and learning.  Exploring various ways of expressing self, mathematical concepts and even colours must be quite fascinating.

I’m gushing so I have to pull back a bit and just list what I really liked:

  1. Real collaboration – harness expertise of all parties concerned
  2. the juxtaposition of Maths and Design (okay, this is a personal favourite)
  3. the experimental and evolving nature of the course starting with “what if?
  4. the possibility of allowing those who would typically be maths-averse to see the beauty of maths, e.g. as an art form.  Actually, it’s not just “see”, as these teachers are exploring other senses.
  5. From what I saw, there is no dumbing down of concepts – but really steeped into exploration and re-expression (i.e. from maths into design)

I’m not sure which I’d prefer to be: teacher or student of this course.

Can teaching maths be more like this or is the focus on rigour holding us back?

I am hoping that these ladies will share their work more widely than this conference. Blogging about it here is a step but surely much more can be done.  Any ideas welcome!