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Changing the Game of Student Engagement

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Joli Barker, a third-grade educator at Slaughter Elementary in McKinney, TX, where she uses technology and gaming to engage and excite students. The article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by TCEA. To join or for more information, visit

“There just isn’t enough time to integrate technology and adequately cover the curriculum.”

“What will happen next year when they go to a new classroom and realize school is work and not all ‘fun and games?’ You’re setting them up for disappointment.”

“Playing games all day just isn’t good teaching.”

Sentiments like these echo in the hallways and classrooms, offices, and teachers’ lounges across the nation. Technology can be an important tool that helps teachers teach and students learn. But are we utilizing it to its fullest potential?

Why, with all the devices and technology available in classrooms, are we still struggling to reach our collective goal of surpassing standards and creating independent, critical thinkers? Perhaps we are looking for the answers in the wrong places. In examining student use of technology outside the classroom, a strong possibility emerges: Gaming.

In a world of gamers, it is important to at least consider the magical, spellbinding effect of a video game on a child. Ask any kid why he or she likes to play a game, and his first answer is very rarely about the graphics or special effects. It is the challenge, the complexity of the storyline or missions, and the rewards and “level ups” that draw him in and keep him engaged in the game for countless hours.

Even more interesting is that, according to research, children will play video games for several hours, yet fail as much as 80% of the time at those games, all the while continuing to persevere with an almost irrational determination.

This phenomenon begs the question “If kids can muster this depth of determination in their life outside the classroom, how can we harness it in school?” How would our educational effectiveness change if the students in our classrooms approached the material and activities with the same level of tenacity and relentless abandon that they do a video game? I decided to find out.

I transformed my classroom into a living video game. I looked at the curriculum and wrote storylines that would challenge students to solve STEM-related scenarios. QR and augmented reality codes were used to facilitate independence in transitioning from one activity to another and to deliver “cheat codes,” or strategies, to help students solve the “boss level problem.”

In this innovative environment, students are active players in their own educational game. Each player creates an avatar that can be upgraded as students unlock features by mastering skills and levels. Students utilize Web 2.0 tools to demonstrate learning and can earn digital badges, which are displayed on each student’s own Wikispace page.

Students work collaboratively and interdependently to explore content curiously, deepen their understanding through imaginative activities, create new content by adapting to new situations and scenarios, and passionately express their learning in a boardroom-style debriefing experience. It is through these specific approaches to learning that students learn through struggle and do-overs, and bond in assisting each other to higher levels of learning.

Our 2012 classroom game, “XBROX360: the iConnect Project,” was thus named because we focused not only on how we connected with and across our curriculum, but more importantly, how we connected to each other and our world.

Through the overarching iConnect concept, we connected with authors and discussed the joy of the writing process, the deeper meanings and effects of good literature, and explored a variety of genres and writing styles.

We also connected with classes across the world in a literary fair that brought an engagement in reading and understanding text that also taught an appreciation for new cultures and ideas.

Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum selected this project as one of 16 innovative projects that represented the United States in Prague, Czech Republic, at the end of November 2012 at the Global Forum.

In 2013, the sequel game, "The Fearless Classroom: The Game Changers," had my students embarking on a journey of collaboration by creating global digital learning games that can be used to enhance learning for others around the world. This resulted in “The Heart Code Project,” which also was recognized by Microsoft Partners in Learning in their Global Forum 2014 in Spain. Students coded games with social concerns as the focus. The games provided solutions and resources to solve these problems.

The results of these innovative approaches to learning have far surpassed expectations. Student scores showed a 63% improvement overall in reading fluency, 48% improvement overall in reading comprehension, and 68% overall improvement in math, particularly in problem solving. Students are willing to fail and try again with this approach and are being more successful overall.

As teachers, it is our purpose and our obligation to fail, disappoint, and make mistakes. We must fail to stop learning, fail to become complacent, fail to be satisfied with our work. Our world changes at a rate faster than we ever thought possible, yet so many teachers continue to “do what worked last year” simply because it worked last year. We should always think “New moment, new student, new opportunity to grow.”

Teachers are held to expectations that can, at times, seem overwhelming and unfair. But if we hold ourselves accountable to the much higher standards our children deserve, then there really is nothing to prevent us from inspiring greatness and recognizing that moment to fan the flame of learning.

Our focus is often distracted by AYP, NCLB and state standards, but if we are teaching with passion, if we teach from our souls, those distractions will become non-issues. It really is as simple as that.

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