Author Offers Real-world View of Bringing Games into the Classroom

If you want your game to be used in a classroom it would be handy to talk to Matthew Farber for a while.

"Gamify Your Classroom" is part handbook, part big picture assessment of innovation in the classroom.

“Gamify Your Classroom” is part handbook, part big picture assessment of innovation in the classroom.

The New Jersey middle school teacher has for years integrated digital games and other creative teaching methods and now he has written a guidebook for teachers who want to break out of the mold, as well.

Gamify Your Classroom,” is part how-to guide, part history of gaming and education and includes both practical advise of how best to do it as well as big picture looks at the state of innovation in the classroom.

Other experts have hailed the work as an important addition to the field of digital games and schools.

“Farber, as author, shares his own journey into understanding the power of games for learning. He invites readers along as he interviews experts and learns from those on the frontiers of this exciting space. Then he brings us back to the magic circle of the classroom, where games create teachable moments for engaged, inspired learners,” Suzie Boss, author of “Bringing Innovation to School,” said.

So we asked Farber a few questions from the game developer perspective and what they might get out of his experience of working on the book and with developers like BrainPop, Glass Lab and E-Line Media.

A Q&A with Matthew Farber

Gamesandlearning.org: What is the biggest thing teachers need to change or embrace to get the most out of games in the classroom?

Matthew Farber: A culture of freedom must exist for students to learn from play. Students must also feel safe to fail fast, and then try again. This builds persistence. Another point is that there is sometimes confusion about what games actually are. In the App Store there are digital flashcards next to games that offer richer, deeper experiences.

Teachers should look for games that create authentic and engaging experiences. I recommend first analyzing the core mechanics (what you do over and over in a game, like trading or guessing), then the narrative and content. In Pokémon, the mechanic is dueling. GlassLab’s Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy brilliantly took the dueling mechanic and then used it to teach claims-based argumentation.

Gamesandlearning.org: Jim Gee has cautioned against using games to make the “prison” of school less bad. Does education need to be completely overhauled for games to have a major impact?

Matthew Farber: If a teacher or school takes a systemic approach to integrate what games do well, like present information in a situated context, then no. Gee proposed to use what works in games, which may not necessarily mean always using games to teach.

A student-centered, project-based classroom that is truly multimodal in how instruction is delivered does not need a complete overhaul. If a game is used as a skill-and-drill add-on—like what we often see in today’s current high-stakes testing environment—problems could exacerbate.

Gamesandlearning.org: What is the biggest misconception game developers have about how games work in the classroom?

Matthew Farber: When a game becomes both the activity and the assessment, then the formative analytics provided by a game’s teacher dashboard become actionable—that is, a grade by the teacher. While real-time feedback is useful, it can be discouraging to a child to be graded based on play.

I use the formative assessments the same way I use an exit ticket at the end of a lesson or the quiz report from a video assigned as homework. If I see a child falling behind on a competency or skill, then I know where to differentiate and personalize. Grading play is the fastest way to stifle creative and divergent thinking.

Gamesandlearning.org: What advice would you have for game developers who want teachers using your guide to use their games in class?

Matthew Farber: My advice is to playtest with teachers and students early and often. Filament Games, GlassLab, E-Line Media, and BrainPOP are examples of developers that work with end users right from the start.

When my students playtest, they know that their feedback matters; they become highly engaged as co-designers. I now find myself using playtest questions as an assessment strategy of my teaching and the student’s learning.

At the conclusion of a lesson, I ask, “Did this feel more like work or more like play?” Or, “What was confusing or clear to understand?” You’d be surprised at the deep and honest responses!

Gamesandlearning.org: In your research, what most surprised you?

Matthew Farber: What surprised me most was how close teaching was to what game designers do. Teachers ideate based on a challenge, then prototype, test, collect feedback, and iterate. Learning is a conversation between student and teacher. Whether the instruction is project-based or game-like doesn’t really matter.

What is important is there is a culture of that promotes iteration, both for the teacher and the student. Learning from trial and error. Games, of course, are part of that conversation. They can present information in a situated, authentic space.

Gamesandlearning.org: What are the key elements of a game that helps a teacher implement it in the classroom?

Matthew Farber: I look for social mechanics, actions that promote collaborative problem solving. One of the most effective games I brought in to my classroom was Pandemic, the cooperative board game. Pandemic, which tasks players to stop global epidemics, is difficult to win. Players choose meaningful roles, each with a unique ability the other does not have. Everyone must work together to solve a common goal.

Does it matter that I use Pandemic in a social studies classroom rather than in a science class? No. What works—in this case—are the mechanics and the situated learning experience that students are placed in. They must work together and collaborate. It is then the teacher’s job to contextualize and connect the game, activity—or whatever—to other content.

Gamesandlearning.org: What would you like to see game developers do to help teachers?

Matthew Farber: One of my book’s goals was to create a common language between designers and teachers, a design grammar. Educational developers shouldn’t get caught up in Common Core Standards as the starting point to making games. A 2014 study, co-authored by Florida State University’s Valerie Shute, Matthew Ventura, and Fengfeng Ke, suggested that the authentic virtual world of Portal 2 was a better environment to learn spatial relationships than by playing brain gymnastics applications.

Developers should continue to use innovative mechanics to create meaningful, situated experiences. And the core mechanics should continue to match the game’s objectives.