Teachers learning to play video games is becoming big news within education circles. Teachers have heard for decades that technology is about to transform their classrooms. “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools,” said Thomas Edison in the early days of motion pictures. “Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.” Expectations like these only grew more intense with the dawn of the digital age, the promise of networked devices and the imperative to turn out students prepared for a confusing and fast-changing world.
Yet despite all the evangelism and the undeniable influence of the internet, tablets, smartphones and computers, for every new cycle of ed-tech hype our schools have remained essentially the same. The world is changing fast, but where’s this education revolution we keep hearing about? Teachers learning to play video games could be the game changer.
A small Wisconsin school district called Sun Prairie is demonstrating that the dawning of a brave new classroom will emerge from the ground up. Its small team of tech integrators are among a growing number who are letting teachers and students lead the charge, using a grassroots approach to innovating. If the classroom is entering a new age, it’s not because of a recently unveiled device or a grand national strategy. It’s because of the gradual cultivation of understanding and enthusiasm — among educators and students alike — for the possibilities offered by new tools.
Sun Prairie’s district offices occupy a converted paint factory in a post-agricultural suburb of Madison. The colorful, startup-suggestive digs of the tech department fill up the entire second floor, built in 2011 to keep up with the roughly 8,000-student district’s exceptional growth, among the fastest in the state.
From here Anne Larson, the digital learning manager, and Nate Grundahl, the technology integrator, tend to a variety of initiatives spread among Sun Prairie’s 14 schools. These include a Chromebook-for-every-student program in grades 5 through 12, a set of classes designed around self-guided learning, library computer labs replaced by media centers with green screens or makerspaces with 3D printers, a new Learning Management System, and a rollout of educational games in partnership with a local software studio. In each case the focus is not on the technology as much as on how it all fits in with a pedagogical goal. This is giving a new meaning to tech support.
Stand in a classroom abuzz with students collaborating with one another over their screens and across the room, or talk with teachers reporting 100 percent completion rates on games-based assignments and describing traditional homework as a passing fad, and it’s tempting to think that the influence of tech may finally be shaping classrooms in the ways that technology has promised for years.
“Teachers are slowly starting to think about their instruction differently,” says Larson. “I wouldn’t say that’s because of technology, but for some teachers that’s the starting point.” For example, teachers learning to play video games not in the minds of many people a few years ago.
The ed-tech industry itself is definitely growing. K-12 schools in the U.S. spent some $4.7 billion on information technologies in 2015, and the market grows at close to 2 percent a year. According to EdNet Insight, 46 percent of school districts were on track for increased spending on hardware in 2016, with 38 percent increasing their budgets for teacher training. Basically every student in the country has access to a computer in school. All this despite rolling budget cuts at the state level.
But the real educational benefits of ed-tech’s growth remain fuzzy.
Students who used a computer to take the 2014–2015 Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers standardized state exams fared worse than those who took the test with a pencil and paper, for example. And a 2015 assessment by the Organization on Educational Co-operation and Development concluded that “no noticeable improvement” had come from the implementation of information technology in schools. While these examples by no means represent the total picture, a skepticism about ‘disrupting’ the classroom lingers. “Some teachers shut the door when Nate and I come in the building,” Larson says.
A bit of cynicism about educational technology might be warranted. “The history of this movement, or whatever you want to call it, is one of over promising, and expensive gadgets, and things just falling apart,” says
Greg Toppos, former teacher and author of The Game Believes in You, about the potential of digital play in education. He considers the over promising, top-down implementations and hype as detrimental to the real potential of new educational technologies. “You get to a certain point, the expectations are so high, and then you can’t fill them, and everybody gets disgusted and jaded and cynical. Teachers are smart, they get what works and what doesn’t, and I think there’s a bit of room for them to think differently, too.”
Focusing on the potential of a shiny new iPad or smart board doesn’t advance the conversation about how educators must adjust to realize that potential. So it makes sense that technology integration is finding success when it shifts attention away from tech and toward the educational outcomes most agree are worth aiming for.
The term ‘future ready’ is one of countless buzzwords on the tips of educators’ lips across the country. Students are considered future ready when they are adept in critical thinking, complex problem-solving and collaboration, are inculcated with a sense of agency, self-awareness and self-control, have the ability to form meaningful relationships and are able to care for themselves and others.
Terms that describe a well-rounded person, past or present, are lifted from the standards in the National Education Technology Plan for Future Ready Learning. First released by the U.S. Office of Educational Technology in 1996 and revised last year, the NETP acts as a road map to guide districts in applying technology to reach for higher-level goals than just getting a certain number of devices online. Sun Prairie adheres to NETP standards, as well as those advanced by the International Society for Technology in Education. Wisconsin’s own state technology standards haven’t been revised since 1998 — they’re a fun read.
Sun Prairie and other districts use standards like these to get their teachers and administrators on the same page about where their classrooms should be headed.
“We have to be honest with ourselves that we haven’t found the return of investment we all aspire to, and take that on as a challenge,” says Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at ISTE. “But the challenge won’t be won at the 30,000-foot level. It will be won by small, incremental gains … that then will start to, in a mosaic-like fashion, build toward that shift.”
The marching orders for tech integrators is to find and engage the teachers who are eager to address a shortcoming in their instruction.
Integrators will walk them through the tools — not always technological — they can try while staying true to standards and curriculum. The teachers’ job is to give it a shot. It’s a no-pressure, no-failure approach that starts slowly, and, if all goes well, snowballs.
“We go out and assess teachers, but then the other part of our job is to do research to find new tools or to answer questions for teachers,” Grundahl says. “So we do our own research and we brainstorm, ask ‘how could they do this,’ or ‘what’s the most efficient way,’ and sometimes our answer doesn’t include technology.”
This involves meeting with teachers and students regularly, keeping up lines of communication and allowing for error as well as sharing successes. Grundahl pens a weekly “sights on sites” email to teachers, sharing examples of new initiatives from inside and outside the district.
As recently as a decade ago, tech integrators like Sun Prairie’s were rare. As computers and internet connectivity grew from newfangled gadgetry to standard equipment, the role of the technology department has grown, too. In addition to setting up and maintaining networks of devices, the tech staff now helps fulfill the promise that shipped with them. They’re responsible for connecting a large and growing set of possible tools with educators’ ideas of what’s possible.
“It used to be we had to push teachers to use technology,” says Sun Prairie’s Technology Director, Mike Mades. “I remember the time around here when I began to realize I just had to get out of the way, because teachers were taking it and going with it. That was really a shift.”
At Patrick Marsh Middle School, third period draws to a close in the combined 6th grade science classes of Mary Headington and Chad Johll. Headington asks the students if they’re ready for their physics work to be over. “NO!” comes the unified cry.
They’ve spent the entire 45 minute period playing a game called Backyard Engineer, developed by Filament Games,half an hour away in Madison. The game has students launching water balloons over a fence with a catapult, a simple premise that manages to fold in physics concepts like mechanical advantage and inertia.
“They don’t realize they’re learning when they’re playing those games,” says Mades.
Game-based learning marks one of the most promising tech initiatives Sun Prairie is pursuing. The school system has a contract with Filament that involves using the software and giving feedback on products in development, to help square them with standards and curriculum. The school has an unlimited set of licenses, meaning they can sign on students and load up new machines indefinitely. Teaming up with the integrators, teachers pick games based on how appropriate they are for the grade, curriculum, and connection to standards.
Headington’s classroom offers an illustration of how a technology can foster changes in the way a classroom operates. For one thing, these games are surprisingly social. The kids each work on their own laptops, but instead of a class full of screen-lit, solitary faces, the room buzzes with activity as students triumphantly announce their scores and jump up to help others who are stuck. As one student turns his screen away in frustration, another notices and steps in to show him where he’s making a mistake. The first student’s posture visibly shifts from the familiar slump of mid-assignment frustration to one of eagerness to get back in it.
“They learn a lot about science, but in the end they probably learn a lot more about working in a group,” says Johll.
Each student has an account, which logs their performance move by move, question by question, into a teacher’s online dashboard. This means a personal basis for assessing performance in the process of learning. Known as formative assessment, the idea is that student progress can be gauged and corrected in the midst of learning, rather than on the grades earned at the very end. In addition to the benefits of an interactive, play-based mode of learning, it affords kids a critical capacity for making mistakes. By adding some room for messiness to the process of learning, fear of a wrong answer becomes less of an obstacle.
“When we used to do the old multiple choice, they’d get the test back, they’d see the number on the test, but they wouldn’t go through the test to see what they got wrong and why they got it wrong,” Headington says. “The most successful are our lowest performing kids, because they’re not afraid of failure.”
The role of the teacher is shifting here too. Headington, fluent in ed-tech lingo, speaks of making the shift from a “sage on a stage” to become a “guide at the side.”
In 2015, Headington was contacted by Filament to conduct a case study with her class. She administered a general assessment test to students in astronomy, and broke them into three groups, each with a balance of high and low performers. One group was taught their section through standard instruction. Another, solely through a game called Planet Mechanic, the third by a mixture of both.
After tabulating results, the mixed-lesson group saw a 10 percent improvement over baseline, compared to .1 percent for group one, and 6 percent for group two. This jibes with the research that shows benefits in so-called “blended learning,” that mixes online and traditional coursework.
A trio of fourth and fifth grade teachers at Northside Elementary School are in the midst of a second case study, this time with a game that teaches fractions. Their teachers’ impressions so far have been mixed. “The kids really liked it, they were motivated to play it, but I’m not sure they made the connection to how the game related to the things we were teaching in class,” says Kari Pajerski, a 4th grade teacher involved in the study. At hearing this, Grundahl begins poking at areas he’d like to explore. His questions are pointed but expressed in a practiced meter.
“You’ve got to have a skill set as an integrator,” he says. “You don’t say, ‘Here’s a tech tool,’ and then just walk away from them.”
At Prairie View Middle School, Maggie Gulvik’s 6th grade class is working with a pre-release version of a game designed to teach syntax. Filament reps say that upper elementary and middle school is the “sweet spot” for games-based education. It’s too early to tell how the quality of learning will be affected — the version being used doesn’t yet have the teacher dashboard. But the students demonstrate the same sort of collaborative and competitive energy that filled Headington’s and Johll’s classrooms. Gulvik’s feedback will help shape the final form of the game.
The Northside Elementary teachers who noticed their students’ apparent lack of connection between game and subject will be having conversations with Larson, Grundahl and Mades in coming months as they seek to work out kinks and determine whether they’ve found the right vehicle for the outcomes they’re aiming for. Successful or not, the support of the technology department and the district at large is a key ingredient. Fear of failure doesn’t just apply to students.
“I think the biggest thing is just knowing that it’s OK to try it, and that they have our back,” says middle school science teacher Joel Block. All around him, students are working at computers, freely crossing the large multipurpose space as they work together on projects they’ve largely set for themselves. They occasionally stop to speak with him when they have a question.
Block is one of four teachers overseeing the first attempt at a personalized learning “house” at Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School. He describes his role as more coach than teacher, an idea that might not sit well with some educators. But with the blessing of the tech department and school principal, Block is enabled to try things out and see what works (or doesn’t).
“Sometimes you fear that you might not be doing the things that other people think you need to be doing,” he says. ”It’s nice to have people come in and give you reassurance that what you’re doing is the right thing.”
Creating a culture where experimentation is permitted is no small feat. When Mades first came to this district 10 years ago, he says the 1,500 kids at its high school had access to fewer computers than the 500-student school he’d come from in another district. Now, his district employs more devices than the much larger Madison district nearby, and they’re continuing to expand.
“It’s got to bubble up from the teacher, from the classroom level,” says Toppos, the author. He gives the example of two pencil sharpeners in every class — the wind-it-up one that came with the building, and the much better electric one that the teacher got after seeing it in someone else’s classroom. “I want to just see teachers on a very quiet, gradual level, realize that [a new technology] is something that works. That’s the only way that this field is going to grow without imploding.”
Ultimately, the secret sauce in any ed-tech revolution is going to be encouraging teachers in the use of digital tools to reach for sensible educational goals first and foremost. Making success visible wherever it occurs creates the energy to carry things forward. Teachers and students who see something new have someone to ask about it — the network effect driven by word-of-mouth.
Or, as Mades says, “One thing I’ve learned over the years is that envy is a great motivator.”
by Doug Bierend
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