Powering the Global Education Conversation: About EdCircuit

How One Educator is Designing Classes Around Games

Jonathan Cassie is head of the senior school at Sewickley Academy, just outside Pittsburgh. He has taught history, English, Latin, and game design at schools in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. 

Throughout his 20-year career in independent schools, he has been a student and practitioner of innovation and change in education.

He earned an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from UCLA, has five level-100 toons in World of Warcraft (as of this writing), contributed to the first Game of Thrones roleplaying game, and has written two books on topics related to building meaningful roleplaying cultures and experiences for players. Cassie's ASCD book Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students covers:

  • What happens to student learning when it is gamified.
  • Why you might want to gamify instruction for your students.
  • The process for gamifying both your classroom and your lessons.

Join the conversation about gamification at his website.

Rod Berger: All right, Jon, you've set yourself up for success here. When I looked at your social profile, you've got pictures of you sneaking and smiling and looking like a fun guy (laugh).

Jon Cassie: Yes.(laugh)

RB: I love it that you've got some personality, and you were talking off air about education, your initial interest in game design and, game-based learning. The impact that games can have in educational settings.

JC: Yeah. I've been a gamer since I was in kindergarten, right? All I ever wanted for Christmas were board games. I played Yars' Revenge and Pac-Man back in the ‘70s. So I've always been a gamer, and I've always loved, board games and video games because, I think they're a great way for a young person to meet other people (particularly if you're not athletic.) Sports are games too, right? I talk about that in the book - I've always been a gamer.

After completing my dissertation in 2011, I started to think about the connection between games and learning. I hadn't made a big connection before that point. I began thinking about designing a class like a big video game that might help students who weren't terribly motivated. Developing for the kids in the class who viewed a teacher in control, as a bit of like a "straight jacket," - these were older kids.

I said well, look, I play World of Warcraft. It's a complicated video game. Why not see if I could design a class that worked like that? And so I did. Some people liked it, and some didn't but that's what got the inspiration going. You think about games, and you think about gamification, and you reflect on how gimmicky it can seem. And so I tried to think about, what if it isn't gimmicky? What if it could do something meaningful to help teachers be more effective in their classrooms, plus help students learn more efficiently?

RB: What did you learn in that process, Jon? When you were looking at it and starting to deconstruct it, what were you learning? I would imagine there were some assumptions that you made as a natural starting point that you had to pivot along the way.

JC: I started from the presumption that games had a way of working. There's the famous quote that something like 15 billion hours of work has been performed in World of Warcraft since the game came out in 2004.

Just look at how people act with something like Pokémon Go? What causes the player to act the way that they do when they play the game. That to me was the heart of what game of that instruction might do or might provide. How do you harness that deep motivation to get students to learn something that they might otherwise not be interested in, at all?

It started from the presumption that games had a way of motivation could translate into learning. In my research and my reflections, there was so much more that games did and could do to help teachers, and learners, that it was sort of like, "I think I'm in this box," But I'm actually in this box, and it's probably even bigger than that. People ask me, "Well, I'm glad your book sells but what else what else can I read?" Well, if you want my approach, there isn't all that much. It's a lot more about how do you bring a particular kind of game into a classroom.

RB: That's interesting, you're not just talking about a specific game, you're talking about the ways in which to level up. It's almost like bringing a new student into a classroom.

JC: Correct. It's more about taking notions of sociality and community, self-empowerment, self-reflection and flow, and channeling them through a particular engine because every game is essentially an engine of some kind. Put that through the engine with a learning goal in mind. I mean, the goal of the game is to win. The goal of the gamified lesson is to win by learning something.

You can take a game that has a cooperative mechanic, a game like, Pandemic, which is very popular, very famous in board gaming circles. You don't play Pandemic; you pull out of it the "Pandemic engine" which collaborates to solving problems. You put the players, the students all on one team and maybe you put other students on another team, or maybe you as the teacher create a challenge that these different teams have to try to solve in whatever way you think is most appropriate. I write about this particular example in the book, maybe you as the teacher set yourself up as the opposition.

RB: Sometimes you're seen that as that anyway. (laugh)

If you would like to listen to the interview click play or continue reading below.

JC: Correct, correct. (laugh). You put yourself as the opposition to a variety of student teams and set up a learning objective that would be appropriate. In the case of the book I suggested, each team writes an exam for a unit of content. The teacher writes an exam, and the teacher and the student then have to take tests at the same time under time conditions that favor the students. If the teacher makes a mistake on the exam, it's like penalty time.

If the students make a mistake, the same thing applies. If the students end up completing that exam in a timeframe faster than the teacher, with accuracy, they get some benefit that they can use down the road. They get a chip that they could turn in on the next exam that says, "I don't have to answer that question." Or they get a chip that says, "I know you don't answer these types of questions, but this time you have to."

You want to make it playful; you want to make it fun, you want not to put students against each other when it's more about luck than about skill. I talk a lot in the book about Games of Agon – skill; and Games of Alea – chance.

If you put a student's grade under the same kind of rules that apply to Yahtzee, they're not going to be very happy. But if they have to demonstrate something, demonstrate mastery of something in a way that a particular game asks them to, that's going to be great for some kids. Not for everyone. But then I'm not proposing that you take every classroom in America and make it a video game.

RB: Let's expand the discussion a little bit, Jon. We look at the quality of games and how they went from games applied in the classroom (not originally meant for that purpose), to a stigma as formal ways of babysitting and play time. We now see rigorous games that have been put out there specifically for education.

How do you look at the engagement of the experience for students? How do you think it can impact even the professions and interests of students moving forward? Skills and talents usually formed outside of the school environment are now being supported in the classroom. What are some of the long-reaching or far-reaching impacts that you see gamification having in education?

JC: I think that many of them are what you outlined. How to better build a higher degree of resilience in the student. If you become accustomed to losing in games, then that's a way to get used to having setbacks in life. That's what life is about. You have a setback; you learn from it, you improve. Games are uniquely suited to helping you learn, "Okay, that strategy didn't work. That approach was the wrong approach." But there are a million potentially valid methods, not just one but also millions.

So the approach is, "I'm going to keep at this and learn how to overcome whatever challenges that are in front of me. If I see a wall, I can go over the wall, or I can go under the wall, or I can go around it maybe, I can take a hammer and bash through it Donkey Kong style." Anything that's game related to me is going to help.

When you take gamified learning out of the classroom into after school spaces, what you do is encourage students to take control of their own learning; you encourage them to take an adult's level of responsibility to what they're learning.

You know that a gamified method works just as well in grade K as it with a graduate student. Self-motivating, if the game is structured correctly, the students will ramp up to deal with the increasing difficulty. It's like Tetris. It's not Tetris, but it's like the way Tetris works. And so what does that give a student emerging into a work world that is radically different from the one that you and I grew up in? The Industrial Age is over, people. So what does the new world of work look like?

RB: And what kind of skills does that world require?

JC: Correct. Well, it requires skills I think that are developed in this kind of framework. Entrepreneurial intention. You develop flexibility, an ability to solve problems in a variety of ways, not just one-way. Willingness to take risks, an ability to speak effectively to form teams. Sustaining communities. Sustaining your commitment to whatever you're doing in the face of opposition. Just playing games develops all these things. Don't even talk about an educational framework. Simply play any game, even a bad one.

RB: (laugh) I was going to ask you that.

JC: Play Monopoly, it's a terrible game, right? And the game itself will help you develop these kinds of skills.

RB: How do you evaluate, if we're looking primarily or specifically at a game that is meant to provide educational value to a student within the context of a classroom, how do you evaluate the quality? Because we're noticing now that graphics are improving, the experience is improving, the way that they're connecting curriculum before and after the game experience is improving, so how do you evaluate?

JC: If you're doing game-based learning, what I'm looking for is, "Does the game itself have a clear instructional objective?" It's not just about play. It's about learning some objective. Okay, is that made clear? Is it something that the teachers need students to learn?

If so, does the play experience give everyone in the classroom something meaningful to do? No one should be able to pull back, everyone should be fully engaged. Sometimes these games, they give a student who doesn't want to or is not really into it an out. In Gamified instruction, you don't get an out. Because you're part of a learning objective more than you are about the game.

Sometimes these games are going to have graphics, they're going to have stories, they're going to have narratives, they're going to have pieces or equipment, that kids are going to find as a little pokey. You can't have that. These are kids who go out and buy $60 video games. The video game industry is five times the size of the film industry; you have got to engage kids at their level. Many of these games in the educational sector just can't do that.

So kids will play them for 10 minutes, but they think, "Eh, this is ultimately boring."

RB: I think people have to define, too. There's a difference between a game, a quality game that's built for education, and an app.

JC: Correct.

RB: For some reason, we don't talk about it. A lot of the adult community assumes that you're talking about the same things, but they are -

JC: Totally different.

RB: Yes, totally different.

JC: There are plenty of apps that are intriguing if you wanted to do gamified instruction. Think about something like Tiny Tower, you know Tiny Tower?

RB: I do, yes.

JC: It's super repetitive, at the end of the day, you know, you lose interest. Most of these apps are designed to get you to commit early, spend a lot of money, early, and then disengage. But what is Tiny Tower about? It's about building an ecosystem in a closed environment. So, you could take that game and ask students to create a climate wholly contained, that would be self-sufficient, and you only get a limited number of pieces with which to work.

Doesn't that solve the problem of the space elevator? Doesn't that solve the problem of how do you get a team of people to Mars on the cheap? Isn't that what SpaceX wants? It's just Tony Tower? But that's gamification.

RB: Yes.

JC: You take what Tiny Tower is about, extract from its core and then apply it in an entirely different way.

RB: So, Jon, what's the next book? I would imagine now that you've started this, and you've seen the response with your energy and enthusiasm and the hands are getting ready for the keyboard.

JC: I think the next one is how do you take these unbelievably complicated video games, like World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, Overwatch, those types of games, and use them to not only create a lesson but to create an entire course or entire curriculum? What if some schools did a fully gamified curriculum, what would a diploma from a gamified school look like?

I talk a lot in other parts of my education practice about alternative credentialing, digital badges, and things like that. So what better place than to art from a gamified perspective? Kids are into these games. If you build the lesson correctly, which you might not, but if you build it correctly, kids will be into it.

RB: And they'll learn.

JC: They'll learn because that's what it's ultimately about. I want students who are going off to work to have enough confidence in themselves, which they will see something that isn't working, recognize that it's not working and make a change. That's what games help you do, "Oh, I keep playing this card the same way and it never works, maybe I should take a different card. Maybe I should do something else."

RB: But at the end of the day you are creating engagement, and that's what we're talking about when dealing with students facing big picture challenges. We want to see them engaged.

Well, Jon, congratulations on the book. Everybody can go to ASCD to get Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, with the always fun, Jonathan Cassie.

JC: Thank you, sir.

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This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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