Category Archives: Interesting for Educators

Dedicated Teachers, their top-5 complaints, and fantastic POGIL

As some of you know, I started on a new educational software project in September. I’ve identified high school and college science education as the area to work on and I’m interviewing teachers, students, and later probably parents, on what problems they encounter as they study science.  Many folks seem curious about what I find out, and especially the folks I’ve interviewed. I’m very grateful for the time folks have given me in the interviews and this letter is my attempt to give back a little.  So here’s what I’ve found out: teachers are incredibly dedicated, my top-5 list of problems teachers encounter, and a fantastic method of teaching called POGIL.

Impressed by Public Schools

So far I have interviewed 13 science teachers and 3 students and I’ve been very impressed with how teaching has changed since I was a kid. Most teachers seem to be moving away from lectures and doing more hands-on or project work. One teacher says “more lectures = less learning.” 10 years ago most people were skeptical of using games in school but now most teachers are for it.  They talk about games for specific skills like balancing chemistry equations or help on areas of math that a student might be missing.  Teachers in lower-income schools talk a lot about outside influences such as kids who can’t concentrate only to find out they didn’t eat anything last night or even haven’t been home for 3 days due to violence there.  But most of all I have been incredibly impressed by the amount of dedication of all the teachers I have talked to.  They work so hard for their students, caring so much even when the kids are closed to help, trying to get inside each student and contribute to their journey.  At the same time they have to struggle against formidable odds that I will go into next.  Talking to all you teachers has been truly inspiring.

Problems Teachers Identify

Here are the top five problems I’ve heard in reverse order, i.e. the last is the whopper.  These are all from the teacher’s perspective. I’ll talk about student’s thoughts later when I have heard from more of them.

(5) Teachers would welcome game-like exercises on each topic for their students to learn via play.

(4) Teachers think students have trouble seeing how all the pieces fit together in one course and across courses. E.g. students are taken aback when their physics course starts using a lot of math.

(3) It’s difficult to keep everybody working in sync. Everybody has a different natural pace. Each student needs help in different areas but I don’t have time to provide it.

(2) Teachers want deeper learning.  Less is more, but standardized test and pacing guides keep that from happening.

..and the top problem…

(1) “I just want my students to care.”  There is too much apathy among students.

Both (1) and (2) seem related to me—a result of our school system’s focus on improving performance through standardized testing.  As an engineer I’m a firm believer in testing to assure quality.  But I’ve been convinced it’s being applied incorrectly.  Although everybody wants deeper learning, the mandated curriculum doesn’t allow enough time to do that.  I asked two students how they prioritize between getting high scores on the tests vs. understanding the concepts deeply and they both prioritized scores over understanding.  I imagine when designing a state curriculum, everybody wants to add their favorite topics but it’s harder to prioritize topics away to provide time for more depth.  And when a student is forced to go quickly, never pausing when something catches their interest, always pushing forward when students still have an unsteady grasp, a student tends toward uncertainty, discomfort, and aversion to the topic.

It makes me think about W.E. Demming, which one parent pointed me to.  “Many in Japan credit Deming as the inspiration for…the Japanese post-war economic miracle…” (wikipedia) Demming writes about how to build better companies but his advice seems equally applicable to school systems:

  • Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
  • Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.
  • [Avoid] Placing blame on workforces who are only responsible for 15% of mistakes where the system designed by management is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences.



To end on a high note, one of the teachers I talked to turned me on to POGIL.  It’s an inquiry based method of teaching science and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  As far as I can tell, it’s main components are an efficient variation on learning through discovery, and deepening understanding through discussion and conflict.

Here is a TEDx talk on POGIL. The first minute of the video shows the audience experiencing it which I love—the speaker starts by using POGIL itself rather than a lecture about it.  The exciting stuff starts at 3:00 minutes in.

Here is an introduction to POGIL with more depth, and here are some example POGIL activities in computer science, chemistry, and others to see what it really looks like.

I’m still trying to get a grasp around POGIL, all it’s parts and how they work together for learning.  I encourage all the teachers on this list to read about it—it seems like the extension of what many of you have been working towards when you describe your evolution in teaching.  Please let me know what you think of it.


Round-up of Game Making Tools from Mark Chen

If you want to build a game but you or your students are not programmer’s check out Mark Chen round-up of Game Making Tools. Mark summarizes each tool so it’s fast to get the gist of what that tool offers. E.g.:

Name CraftStudio
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, HTML5
Genres / types of games 3D games
Issues and Notes Both visual and Lua text scripting options. Building blocks. CraftStudio is relatively unique in that it allows for multiple users to manipulate the same project at the same time (like Google Docs). The fact that designers can work on the same project live, without having to worry about versioning, checking assets in and out, etc. makes this definitely one to watch, especially for group-based classroom use.


Moving Learning Games Forward

Ben Chun just told me about Moving Learning Games Forward, a paper by MIT’s Education Arcade. It’s a great article which gives both an overview of the state of learning games, and also areas to consider for people who want to make or promote educational game.

Having prototyped many games which turned out terribly boring, my favorite part of the article is where they recommend the game designer to find “those pleasures of the discipline that motivate its expert practitioners.” In other words, don’t try to add math problems onto an adventure game, instead find out what mathematicians or accountants love about their field and make a game about that.

Assessment and Learning Mechanics in Games

Very interesting talk: Video Games and the Future of Learning by Jan Plass and Bruce Homerwho from the Games for Learning Institute.

They discuss some of their research findings on what is effective in learning games, and also assessment and learning mechanics. For example, some people like to learn by exploring and don’t want to be told how to do it. Others are the opposite — they don’t want to waste time re-learning the wheel and would rather have you tell them how to do it. I’ve observed this too. I consider it an important “learning style” and one not covered by the seven learning styles such as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. I forget the fellow who came up with those.

They also coin the terms assessment and learning mechanics for game rules that might affect the way the player learns and how effective your game can assess the player’s skills. They cite an example geometry game where you calculate angles. If you ask for the angle a number, you are testing both their ability to choose and apply the geometric theorem, and also their addition. So if they get the question wrong, you are not sure where they failed. If you change the game so they just choose the theorem that applies, a wrong answer is a better indicator of misunderstanding. Someone in the audience points out, however, that you must balance your assessment mechanics with the game mechanics too–your game needs to be fun as well as a good assessment. Sometimes you have to compromise one for the other.

Transferring Skills from Video Games

from Cultural Framing of Computer/Video Games by Kurt SquireJames Squire has an interesting article on using video games in education:

Cultural Framing of Computer/View Games

He talks about research on using SimCity and Civilization in the classroom, and also brings up Education Arcade project. My take-away is that how the game is used in the classroom is as important as the game itself. Just playing the game may be somewhat educational, but real learning happens when the players discuss the game afterwards, generalize strategies learned in the game to other situations, and identify places where the game is different from reality.

Serious Game Design Patterns

I found this great list of design patterns for serious games. For example, here is an entry on what types of interaction work well to teach certain subjects.

Use modes of interaction adapted to the type of knowledge to learn.

If the project has a constrained budget or if you don’t know all the knowledge which must be inserted into the Serious Game, you can design Questions-Answers. If the pedagogical objectives contain memorizing simple and factual knowledge, you can apply Pavlovian Interactions based on repetition and time-pressure. To make abstract concepts more understandable, it could also be useful to design In Situ Interactions i.e. placing the user into detailed, narrative and emotional contexts where concepts are exemplified. If the pedagogical objectives contain a complex system to understand you can design Microworld Interactions where users will build or modify this system in order to perceive its relations and components. If the pedagogical objectives include the discovery of different points of view, you can design Social Pedagogical Interactions. If pedagogical objectives contain different types of knowledge, don’t hesitate to design Serious Varied Gameplay.