4 Things Game Designers Can Learn from Teachers

teacher-gatesThe annual Games in Education conference in Troy, New York is a rarity in that it brings together two groups of people who don’t often spend a lot of time together—classroom teachers and educational game developers. A group of about 200 of us gathered in a handful of conference rooms and discussed our work—sharing innovations, best practices, strategies, and challenges that we’ve encountered at the intersection of technology and learning.

Which begs the question: why don’t educational game designers and developers spend more time with classroom teachers? After all, it stands to reason that the two groups have a lot in common. Teachers face many of the same challenges and opportunities that game designers do: they spend their days grappling with how to make curricula digestible for kids; they struggle to engage an often skeptical audience; they are frequently faced with staggering budgetary and technological constraints; and, mostly, they long to see kids engaged and excited about what they’re doing and their ability to do it.

Working at Classroom, Inc., I am fortunate to have many former classroom teachers as colleagues, including members of the Product Development team. This means I always have at least one teacher participating deeply in the design process as we create new learning games. We also have extraordinary access to see our programs being used in classrooms, so we stay very close to the environments in which our games will be implemented. Even so, I always learn something about being a better game designer every time I go out and talk to new teachers. Here’s some of what I picked up in just two short days in Troy:

1. Keep Focused on Outcomes

Teachers are wonderful at keeping a laser-sharp focus on the end user—their students—as well as the end result they’re trying to achieve. If a lesson plan or a team project they’re implementing in the classroom doesn’t help their students grow in their understanding, teachers don’t waste precious time on it any longer then they have to.

For teachers, every day in the classroom is a focus group, forcing them to see their plan in action and adjust to meet the needs of their students. As designers, we could benefit from adopting this same sense of immediacy in our thinking, asking, is what I’m making working for kids, right now? If it isn’t, how do I make it better?

2. Remember, Every Kid is Different

One of the greatest challenges a classroom teacher faces is dealing with a diverse group of learners and trying to move them all forward together. Game designers are frequently taught to look at developmental stages when designing experiences for children (e.g., how is a five-year-old different from a 10-year-old in terms of their abilities?). But it’s equally important to remember that every 10-year-old is different from every other 10-year-old.

As game designers, we can look to teachers for strategies on how to address these kinds of discrepancies. Building intelligent supports into a game for those who may be having difficulty is the digital version of a classroom teacher pulling aside a struggling reader for some one-on-one coaching, or having a more skilled student work with a less skilled student to solve a difficult math proof. This is something we’ve worked on extensively in our latest learning game, After the Storm, which features differentiated pathways and intelligent scaffolding to help struggling readers. Asking a teacher how they work with diverse learners in their classroom is a great way to acquire new strategies we can use in our designs.

3. Hack Your Toolset

Teachers are brilliant at dealing with scarce resources and making the most of them. Most of the teachers I spoke with at Games in Education were using some sort of technology or software tool in ways that it wasn’t originally intended for. I saw teachers who used Google Docs for collaborative editing, Facebook and Twitter for storytelling, and their school email networks to engage students in discussions.

As game designers, we often find ourselves complaining about a lack of time or resources, as if those constraints are all that’s standing in the way of our success (“If only I had more money, I could add some animations that would really make this sing…”). Thinking like a teacher means starting with the resources that are available, and forcing ourselves to creatively apply them in new and flexible ways. If teachers can hack their toolset, so can we.

4. Respect the Kids

This is the lesson I take from basically every experience I have watching kids interact with games I’ve designed, and it came out loud and clear in my conversations with teachers at this conference. One striking example of this was the presentation of Paul Darvasi, a Toronto-based teacher who created a truly inspiring recreation of the mental ward from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in his 12th grade classroom in what he calls “The Ward Game.”

Facing an English class full of soon-to-graduate seniors who couldn’t care less about their last month of school, he challenged them to a complicated alternate reality game that accompanied and enriched their reading of the novel. Although it’s far too complex to summarize in this post (there’s a video that will give you a much fuller sense here) it was inspiring to see the amount of freedom this teacher gave his students to figure out the game’s intentions and dynamics, and how much they clearly grew from that experience. One striking result was that his lowest-performing students, those who had struggled all year in his class, stepped forward and were amongst the best and most successful in the group.

In game design, we need to remember that whatever we’re making, however carefully constructed, is ultimately just a tool that may—and hopefully will—be used in different ways than we intended. Some of my best days at work are school visits, when I see a teacher who’s designed a lesson that enriches and expands the content of one of our programs in an unexpected new direction, or a student taking risks and making decisions in a game that I wouldn’t have anticipated. Ultimately, part of being a designer is letting go and realizing the potential of what you’re making isn’t realized until it’s in the hands of other people who will make it richer, better, and more meaningful. Teachers do this for us every day.

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on Classroom Inc’s blog and is reposted here with permission.

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Anne Richards Anne Richards leads Classroom, Inc.’s development of learning games for the classroom, working with content experts, programmers, artists, writers, and designers to deliver innovative, engaging programs for teachers and students. She is a digital strategist, writer, producer, and game designer who has been working in children’s educational media for fifteen years. She specializes in the development of technologically innovative educational children’s products, combining rigorous integrated curricula with great user experience.