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After I deliver a lesson in my middle school social studies classes, I make notes of what worked and what did not. Aside from formative assessments and checks for understanding, I ask students for feedback on how lessons were delivered. Were the directions clear? Did it seem more like work or more like play? What would you change to make it more effective? Aside from providing invaluable data to me for future iterations, feedback affords students a chance to reflect on the process. This helps to personalize instruction, as well as to guide me when I use the plans in subsequent years.

Students Designing Their Own Learning

In 2014, I created a project connected to the American Revolution. I introduced board game design as the culminating activity. As it turned out, it was the component most in need of iteration. Many students turned in games remixing children’s games, like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. There was a heavy reliance on press-your-luck mechanics, instead of games that required skill to win. What’s more, aesthetics of the games took precedent over the content.

This year, inspired by the idea of “game jams,” I updated the project. In a game jam, designers are presented with a theme and/or challenge. Like improv theater—where actors perform on the spot based on any proposed situations—game jams give designers a limited amount of time to create a deliverable. It is, in effect, a game about a game. There is the annual Global Game Jam. In the fall of 2014, the White House hosted a game jam, and April 21–25, 2015 there is the Games for Change Festival. The idea to use it in a classroom was inspired by a Tabletop Game Jam workshop I attended last summer led by Scott Nicholson.

To get students to be game designers, I created a mini-lesson on core mechanics in game systems. Core mechanics are the repeated actions of play, like bluffing, trumping, guessing, and jumping. The class analyzed goals, rules, and feedback systems in their favorite games. To facilitate the discussion, I used materials from the Institute of Play’s Q Games & Learning Design Pack. The free PDF has an easy-to-follow explanation of game design terminology. Each student received a copy of the “Parts of a Game Template,” along with the “Playtest Reflection Template,” both from the Design Pack. Finally, students dropped a rule and then added a rule to rock-paper-scissors.

The challenge was to design a game that was fun and about the American Revolution. There was no required technology; it was entirely paper-based. Students had to reserve time to play-test another group’s design.  After collecting feedback, they iterated on the design (similar to how I collected feedback on the initial run of the project, which led to iteration).

A couple of days into the project, one student asked, “How do you expect us to make an educational game that is fun to play in just two, 45-minute class periods?”  I quickly responded, “Maybe you’re not.” Fully functioning games were not required on the rubric; rather, students were assessed on the artifacts from process (e.g., templates, prototypes). The spirit of the project became failure as a chance to iterate based on feedback. It was design thinking in practice.

One student team created a paper prototype of a game they called “Revolutionary Race.” In the mockup, several core mechanics delivered the message that war has consequences. There were limited resources (eraser caps) to manage, roles to play, and strategies to plan. The space of the game board was the American colonies. To play, you had to advance troops from the south up to Saratoga. Blue eraser caps represented the Americans, red eraser caps were the British Red Coats. Players took turns moving along the map and chose “event cards” each round. Some events were positive, most were not. Players may face setbacks related to bad weather or hunger. Other events involved conflict. When that occurred, players lined up their eraser caps and rolled dice to see who won. Losing a dice roll meant that eraser caps would be moved into the “infirmary.” Lose all erasers and the battle is lost.

The overarching theme of the project was interconnected systems and causal relationships. Games can be particularly effective at teaching systems thinking concepts—every event has consequences, sometimes intended, other times not. To that end, I ended the unit with two questions: What happened to the system of the New World when America became independent? What do you think happened to the absolute monarchy system in Europe after the American Revolution?

Lesson plans, like game prototypes, go through an iterative cycle. After a plan is written, teachers test it with students; they often adjust to student needs on the fly. The presented challenge is often to have all students meet learning standards in an engaging manner all within a class period. Education is a design science, constantly evolving. The design process—ideating, prototyping, testing, and iterating—turns the classroom into a place for participatory learning.

By Matt Farber