Teachers encourage use of games as a teaching tool

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Crouching between bookshelves, two pairs of young teens navigated a maze of numbered white index cards laid out on the floor, adding and subtracting to reach a target number and trying to pick up neon pink “wizard” cards along the way.

Elsewhere at Springdale Junior-Senior High School, students drew on whiteboards, flicked spinner wheels and shouted clues, testing games that teachers had started developing the previous afternoon.

As part of a five-day professional development workshop called TeacherQuest Pittsburgh, 18 teachers from Allegheny County learned game design skills, exploring the connections between games and good learning. 

Funded by a $125,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, the workshop is being facilitated by the New York-based Institute of Play, an organization founded in 2007 that promotes a game-like approach to learning, and hosted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. 

Each morning, workshop participants began by playing a modified version of musical chairs. After being introduced to game design concepts and vocabulary, teachers designed their own games, starting with a learning goal, then brainstorming and prototyping.

Institute of Play lead game designer Daniel O’‍Keefe said there’‍s a misconception that games used in the classroom need to be played on a screen or iPad. Using analog design tools — paper and blocks, rather than technology — provides teachers with flexibility, allowing them to switch gears rapidly if necessary, he said.

Teachers put their skills to the test on Thursday, with rising eighth- and ninth-graders at Springdale trying out eight newly designed games in small groups.

Index cards and bodies were the most popular materials of the day.

One game aimed to build summarizing and geography skills, asking players to read clues about locations and communicate them to each other. Another required students to persuade their peers to join them in an action. 

After each game, students were asked to rank the difficulty level, clarity of rules and indicate how fun they found it. 

Alicia Matthews, 14, a rising ninth-grader, said she enjoyed the persuasive skills game she played, noting that she could see it being used in a public speaking class or as a language arts activity, as a tool for improving written arguments. She suggested that the game be tweaked by limiting time and adding cards. 

The challenge for teachers was not only to design a fun game, but connect it to broader learning objectives. 

“I don’‍t want students to see it as ‘‍oh, we’‍re just playing a game,’‍ ” Lisa Machado, a teacher at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Bethel Park, said on Thursday, before she had started designing her game. “I want them to transfer that to some work that they’‍re doing.”

Ken DiDonato, a science teacher at Hampton Middle School, said his game was designed to get students to use clues to make conclusions, a skill that is useful in a laboratory setting. 

Wearing blue headbands with a slot for an index card, participants took turns guessing the noun on their head by asking questions based on prompts listing sensory qualities, such as taste, state of matter or physical properties. The category was “at the beach,” and one girl guessed the word “seaweed” by asking other players about its smell and size, among other things. 

Following suggestions from the students, certain descriptors, like the color green for seaweed, were set aside as off-limits to make the game more difficult.

Zachary Wilhelm, 14, a rising ninth-grader, said teachers were smart to test out their products on students, whose changes he thought would enhance the game. 

On Friday, the last day of the workshop, teachers made tweaks to their games based on student feedback and invited family members and friends for another round of testing. The work did not end there, though, as teachers will continue to collaborate throughout the year in an online forum, where they will receive design challenges and be encouraged to share updates.

This is the Institute of Play’‍s second time in the county. Last summer, the organization facilitated a two-week workshop called MobileQuest CoLab, where teachers learned game design skills, then ran a weeklong summer camp at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Shula Ehrlich, a lead game designer at the Institute of Play, said this year’‍s session aimed to encourage teachers to create engaging learning environments through games.

Stephanie McFeeters: smcfeeters@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter: @mcfeeters.

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