[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post contributed by teacher Matthew Farber. Enter our giveaway to win one of five signed copies of the new, expanded edition of his book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning — Revised Edition.]
Tabletop role-playing games—like Dungeons & Dragons—require one player to take on the role of “dungeon master.” He or she guides players through maps and mediates chance encounters with enemies. A dungeon master sees the big picture of the entire game experience. They lead players to just where they need to be.
But how can a teacher be a dungeon master? Do students navigate the maze of curriculum based on rolling die and fighting dragons? In my research, expert game-based learning teachers create playful conditions in their classrooms. In design speak, this is known as an affordance, or invitation, to an interaction. Expert game-based learning teachers lead students to learning opportunities.
When using games in your classroom, consider the role of dungeon master, or “game master.” Below are five ways to guide your students into playful learning experiences.
Bring play into all lessons
Early childhood classrooms have learning centers that invite children to engage in make-believe role-play as well as constructivist play.
In my 6th grade social studies class, students learn about the Columbian Exchange—the intentional and unintentional exchange of goods and ideas (corn, potatoes, horses, small pox) after the Age of Discovery—by visiting stations in my classroom. I take care to consider that each is playful. One station includes the cooperative board game Pandemic. Playing it models the world’s interconnectedness, one of the unit’s essential questions. Other stations include BrainPOP videos and PBS Digital Learning activities.
Similarly, in my 7th grade class, I set up stations that pertain to the American Revolution. Students build famous forts in Minecraft, design their own BrainPOP timeline game, make a Revolution-themed deck of cards for the party game HedBanz, and play a digital breakout game.
Display exemplary student projects that invite curiosity
One of my 7th grade students designed a breakout box themed around immigration issues. She repurposed a scrapbooking box to be about the barriers to U.S. citizenship.
After she turned it in, I left it out on an empty table. The hanging combination locks and printout of the first clue looked immediately inviting to all who entered my classroom. I observed a group of 6th graders working together to figure out all of the lock combinations. I quickly realized that the 7th grade student was teaching 6th graders about her immigration research—and she wasn’t even in the room!
What’s more, the 6th graders went on to make their own breakout box, this time themed around the first Greek Olympics. For more on student-made breakout boxes, click here.
Like a field trip, use games to create experiences
When you curate games for your students, consider what experiences they espouse. In the aforementioned Pandemic board game, my students experience the importance of team-building and collaboration. This helps make meaning out of abstract content.
To deepen the experience, project-based learning can follow game-based learning. In my class, students play the Mission US history games. Then they design their own simple games using the free text-adventure tools like Twine and inkleWriter.
Consider how to apply self-determination theory
One of my favorite playful experiences is 20 Percent Time, or genius hour. For one day a week (20 percent of five class periods), students design projects based on their interests and passions. This is the ultimate application of self-determination theory, in which students have control over what and how they learn.
I use Google Classroom to have students complete personalized rubrics, shifting assessment to them. Currently, my students are “geeking out in history.” They design a project based on a topic they want to learn more about—typically something not covered in our curriculum until high school (i.e., World War I, the Reagan Era). Their first step is to align their projects to middle school standards.
Develop open-ended assessments
Don’t assess how your students play; rather, assess knowledge transfer. Have students reflect on actions made during games, as well as decisions and consequences. When my students play role-playing games, they journal from the perspective of the roles they take. I also use open-ended questions using free survey tools like Google Forms.
Consider the above list when you design experiences for your students. Think of your lessons as the game’s map and the students as your players. Being a game master means that you curate content and manage the choices for your students. Only in a classroom, the choices pertain to content and skills, not wizards and alchemists.
As a game master, your role is to guide students through a series of playful experiences choices. Doing so will give students a sense of agency, or choice over how and what they learn.