Game-based Learning Gains Ground in Tacoma Public Schools

A Washington school district tries to tap into the dedication that students show for games and channel it into learning.

by / February 12, 2014 0
Science and math instructor Johnny Devine made a wooden puzzle to motivate students to meet standards in physics. Johnny Devine

A Washington school district is leveling up with games-based learning to engage students in the classroom.

While teachers have been using games in one-off classes, Tacoma Public Schools is slowly expanding their use throughout the district.

"Everybody knows the kid that'll stay up till 2 in the morning if you let them. They'll just play the same game trying to beat a level or get to the next level, and they'll do that nonstop," said Michael Farmer, the district's director of instructional technology. "If we can tap into that and get that kind of focus and dedication for learning, think what our students would be capable of."

Games-based learning ramps up student engagement and provides a learning environment where teachers can start a full period discussion on one complex problem, said Damond Crump, technology innovation facilitator for the district. He's leading a professional learning community for teachers this year designed to lay a foundation for teaching with games.

Each month, teachers can sign up for a three-hour class on different topics, including achievements and badges, Minecraft and board games. About 10 to 15 teachers usually show up for each class to learn about the educational value of games.

In the long term, Crump hopes the district will create a school where every lesson is taught with games, or even a school where students design games and take them to market.

But for now, he's trying to build upon the success that teachers like him have experienced in mini-term classes. Twice a year for two weeks, students throughout the district take a break from regular instruction to participate in project-based learning classes on subjects that interest them.

When he was a math teacher at Stewart Middle School, Crump and an English teacher shared 30 to 40 students all day in a class built around the Lord of the Rings Online game. Before students could play the game, they had to research the characters and write two different expository essays about them. They also taught the students key math concepts.

"The experience was absolutely amazing," Crump said. "I've never seen kids work so hard, especially at writing."

Game-based Learning in the Science and Math Institute

With district support, science and math instructor Johnny Devine has brought a small piece of game-based learning into his toughest class: Physics 101.

After seeing a flier for the professional learning community, Devine and the other physics and chemistry teachers in his school inquiry group asked Crump to meet with them during their weekly meetings. As a result, they've done a book study on gamification and received a month-long membership to a local maker space.

With the laser printer at the maker space, Devine created a wooden interlocking puzzle that included pieces for each of his physics units: motion, energy, force, waves, electricity and magnetism. Last semester, he told students about the puzzle and gave them a piece for each unit where they met the standards.

Students were so motivated to get all the pieces that they started asking him this semester if they could retake tests from last semester. While he can't change their grade, he will give them the missing pieces once they demonstrate mastery.

"They want to go backward to a grade that they can't even change in order to be able to earn all these pieces," Devine said. "And, of course, I'm going to let them do that. I want them to be able to show that they now understand the standards that were tested then."

In his two-hour Adventures and Applications class every Friday on computer science, he gives students autonomy, mastery and purpose as they choose which learning paths to take and how long they'll spend reaching their objectives.

On the wall, he displays the two paths — conceptualists and practitioners — along with different levels they can achieve along the way. Programmers start out as Digital Design Droids, then move up to Padawan Programmer, Rebel Computational Commander and Java Jedi. Hands-on learners move from Muggle Mechanic to Hardware Hufflepuff, Circuit Sorcerer and Workshop Wizard.

Once students hone specific skills in projects they complete, they can advance to the next level.

"It's awesome because every kid's working on something different at any given second of the classroom," Levine said. "All I have to provide is the resources, and they're motivated to see their name move along that pathway."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.