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A TechCHAT Exploring Educational Gaming With Kuato Studios' Director of Learning

David Miller, Director of Learning at Kuato Studios, started teaching English in 1985. During the 30 years teaching, he has gotten various accolades, including Guardian/Pearson UK Teacher of the Year, Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and National Teaching Fellow of the UK Teaching Awards. Miller has also judged "The Teaching Awards" and "Jamie's Dream Teacher" with Jamie Oliver for the BBC, and has consulted for BBC Learning. During his time with Kuato, he’s worked on a variety of projects to help teach students coding, reading, creative writing and more through playing games via app. He recently discussed developing these learning games, as well as using games to support education inside and outside of the classroom, with Education World. 



Hakitzu Elite is a interesting take on the code-learning game genre. What inspired Hakitzu Elite, and how has it performed with users? Have any teachers taken it into the classroom? 

Learning to code has been a powerful narrative on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of years. President Obama has declared a strong interest in bringing coding into the classroom, and in the UK, the old computing curriculum has been overhauled with ICT being replaced with Computer Science, with programming skills situated at the heart of the new curriculum.


Despite making headway, there is still a long way to go before students are adequately equipped with the digital skills that will give them access to a whole new jobs market. In the words of, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computing jobs, but potentially only 400K graduates equipped to fill them. Digital skills truly have become an economic imperative.


This is the context in which Hakitzu was created. At Kuato Studios, we set out to address the coding question in a unique way. Our aim was to create a game as an introduction to JavaScript, but a game that players would recognize as a computer game, and not a series of worthy but dull tasks. Hakitzu has [awesome] robots, atmospheric arenas, and some very cool UI. Players move from Boot Camp to Hacker via a series of well-designed levels and problems; each introducing (or giving practice in) algorithmic thinking, programming or computational thinking. At every stage, the code is revealed to the player, such that they see their algorithms in action - giant robots knocking lumps out of each other! As with traditional literacy, the more vivid the stimulus around the learning, the more likely is the child to engage in the experience. Seeing the results of their code in an animated game is a powerful motivator. For teachers, a well-designed digital environment for learning gives them a rich stimulus for conversation - which for us is an equally important part of the process of learning.


In developing the game, valuable input was gained from students and teachers in a number of US and UK schools, including the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, New Milford High School in New Jersey, Burlington High School in Massachusetts, and Thomas Tallis School in London. We have seen Hakitzu adopted in elementary, middle and high schools, in code camps, and in after-school clubs. Because Hakitzu doesn't shield the players from the Javascript, teachers and mentors love that students quickly gain confidence with the textual elements of code. And for students, one young player summed it up: “Hakitzu hits the sweet spot between learning and fun.” 



Dino Tales and Safari Tales were just released in North America. What is your biggest goal for these games in terms of educational impact?


Discovering the joy and value of reading is, or should be, an integral aspect of childhood. While printed books are still the most accessible option for the majority of children, digital books offer new ways to encourage positive reading habits from an early age. In creating Dino Tales and Safari Tales, Kuato set out to design games that would bring a new and engaging experience of reading. The storybooks in both games allow children to alter the descriptive captions that accompany the pictures. Children are encouraged to make their own language choices by playing with the adjectives, adverbs and verbs. In this way, we are encouraging young readers to see language as something playful, something they can create and change. This is an incredibly fertile way to engage children in language; to foster the joy and value of reading. There are still too many children on both sides of the Atlantic who grow up without having this early interest in language stimulated and encouraged. We hope our Tales series will offer children alternative digital routes to make reading a fun and rewarding part of everyday life.



Dino Tales and Safari Tales are very unique in terms of gameplay. What inspired the combination of action and educational trivia questions within the larger context of creating a digital storybook based on the user’s actions in the game? Is there a specific reward ratio for fun to education that was considered when designing them? 


Children learn best through play. We believe that play, curiosity, exploration, creativity are all aspects of successful learning, and therefore don’t see learning and fun as two distinct elements in the game, but rather one and the same experience. Running around an imagined Jurassic or African landscape with a baby Stegosaurus or a baby elephant, the player is already creating their own stories, and forming the questions they want answers to. Because children love asking questions, we decided to incorporate a learning buddy called Darwin in each game - a pterosaur in Dino Tales, and a meerkat in Safari Tales: both embodiments appropriate to the game world. By invoking Darwin, children can use playful word wheels to form their questions. But these wheels are not just about accessing the games’ extensive knowledge libraries, they are as much about the child learning about word association and enriching vocabulary. When Darwin answers in his playful voice, the child reads the answer at the same time - again exposing the child to new vocabulary and unfamiliar pronunciations. We believe it is vital to engage kids by creating learning games that look, feel and sound like the games they play for fun. Both voiced and written questions play a key role in that.


In other words, the game action, the question wheels and the storybooks are ultimately all about developing language. We want the child to be so excited by the game that they share and discuss the storybooks with family and friends; that they talk about the questions they posed to Darwin (and his answers); that they are motivated to read and research further. 



How are users enjoying the games?


Normally in games, even educational games, there is little or no parental interaction – the tablet is simply used as an entertainment device with minimal parental or guardian involvement. For Kuato Studios, the ability for parents to be alerted to the completion of a play session and then to sit down and read through the storybook together is a perfect way to reconnect and discuss what the child has achieved and learned - consolidating language, and enriching a child's natural creativity. Many parent reviews refer to Dino Tales and Safari Tales as a welcome part of bed-time reading.


The games are proving popular with schools too. Michelle Baldwin, an elementary school teacher in Boulder, worked with her class to create a blog of their experience. 


“As a teacher, I loved that my students could customize their experience, including a setting for reading age,” she told us. 


When Michelle asked her pupils what they enjoyed most about Dino Tales, the children responded:


“I like that I can ask Darwin questions.”

“I love finding new eggs and new dinosaur friends!”

“I like the stories we can make with our own dinosaurs.”


Because Michelle’s school follows an inquiry-based model, she was delighted that the game opened up new questions and interests around different types of dinosaurs.


“How they are the same; how they are different; how many different kinds of dinosaurs there are - we had great discussions around these questions, and since we live in Colorado, we were able to talk about our visits to Dinosaur Ridge and Morrison, Colorado as well.”



How do you envision educators incorporating Dino Tales and Safari Tales in the classroom? 


We see significant opportunity for classroom use for schools that have access to tablets. Engagement is key to a child’s literacy development. What Dino Tales and Safari Tales offer is a new experience of reading. These are not static digital books, but rather playful reading environments. Using whatever name they have given to their animal, and based on what they did on their travels, a customizable story unfolds for the player. As one teacher put it: 


“Here, the app is transformed from a fun app where you play with animals to a literacy development tool.”



Are any of the games directly aligned to Common Core standards? 


The games align to a number of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts across Kindergarten to Grade 3. As they explore, create stories, ask questions, and communicate, the students are developing a range of skills in Speaking and Listening, Reading, Language, and Writing.


For example, in CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.1.3 the child has to write a narrative “in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events.” The storybooks in Dino Tales and Safari Tales will help to scaffold such writing, helping them to include details of what happened, use of temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure. 


Similarly, within Craft and Structure, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.4, children have to identify words and phrases in stories that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses. Having the ability to choose the adjectives, adverbs and verbs within the storybooks provides a perfect mechanic for having children think about the nuances of words and how the effect of sentence changes depending on word choice.


We are currently working on a document that will illustrate how the games might be used to touch Common Core Standards in Language Arts up to Grade 3. This will be available in the next month or so.


In the UK, Dino Tales was awarded a Special Commendation in the inaugural Digital Book Awards run by the UK Literacy Association and The Book Trust. 



Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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