Paul Andersen: Reflecting on the Classroom Game Design at #DENSI2012

Day 2 of LiveStream-ing from Bozeman, MT at the DENSI 2012 Summer Institute begins with a keynote from Paul Andersen. For those of attending virtually, a special shout out to Steve Dembo, aka Teach42, for streaming all day from sessions in Ballroom A. Thanks, Steve!

A very special thank you to Peggy George for providing all the links to this presentation in the virtual chat. Many thanks!

He had me at “Hello, I’m Mr. Andersen and my classroom is a video game.” If you haven’t met Paul Andersen, watch this amazing TEDx Talk.

Rita’s Roundup–that would be Rita Mortensen–warmed up her Bozeman audience with line dancing, which will be filmed for posterity at some point during the Summer Institute. Guess if you’re in MT, line dancing and AM coffee is what you do. I can hear Paul Andersen, our keyote, setting up in the background, so the countdown to his classroom game design is on.

Rita’s Rappers created an interesting raps on the bus back from Yellowstone National Park yesterday (so glad to see Trace back on the scene and healthy after yesterday’s health scare), and on this note we segued to Porter and the Breakfast Club. Please note Princess Porter’s tiara. We love you, Porter, and we love the AM roundups prior to each day’s keynote speaker. After some STAR Bar memos, community service projects, and post-session meetings, we began our reflections on classroom game design.

Paul Andersen is a Teacher of the Year and is delighted to join the DENSI 2012 learning community. He lives nearby, making him a native sharing his experience. He said he enjoys the kindred spirits checking Twitter feeds and multi-tasking, making him realize he has so much in common with the DEN community. Paul says he feels so much a part of the neat DEN experience; you join into activities and move beyond just presenting. He loves interacting with teachers who are volunteering their time, thus taking professional development to a whole new level: voluntary. A Montana State University graduate with a father who is a professor there, Paul is in his element.

If you are a gamer, you can figure things out and meet challenges. You can really beat a system because you know how. He fixed Reed Timmer’s video (removed the “language”) and replaced it with thunder, and fixed a game. So, the connection to educational technology–Reed Timmer is tenacious, persistent, and passionate. He needs to be dragged from the stage because he still wants to keep showing you tornadoes. What was Reed like in a classroom? What about David and his game? Paul says we need schools without borders. How do you let David design a school where Reed can come and be passionate, but he also has to do well in a class where he doesn’t necessarily like the material. How do we do this?

Paul says he’s boots on the ground. We need to let people try new things and we don’t really do that. There’s a fear factor. In the Twitterverse, the new meme is the Khan Academy. Some videos need improving, so why don’t we. Paul’s disclaimer: I’m just a teacher. Paul went to the TED Conference (TED paid his way), but many people asked him why he was there. His response: why wouldn’t you want your best teachers at a tech conference. While he got defensive, he said that’s the mindset. His disclaimer reiterated: I’m just a teacher. But we all know there’s not such thing as “just a teacher.”

Paul has begun making videos and is gratified that students watch him. He notes that not all the Khan Academy videos are perhaps what they can be, but our job is to make them better. Paul notes that it’s not the accolades you get, but the path you take (although the accolades represent the awesome achievements). Teaching is an art. Paul said he put a computer on a table with Angry Birds on it, with a sign that said “Play.” Then he went to the office for mail, and left a webcam to video the students’ reactions.

Wonderful. Paul said there’s much to be learned from games and the connection to school. Classes should be fun, challenging, and make kids want to come to school. He believes that kids come to school to see their friends and interact, many want to learn, but sometimes school gets in the way of learning (the grades issue). He said kids need to learn it’s ok to fail. And then there’s leveling. Gaming lets you understand that whatever game you play, you can get hung up on a compelling level. Some of the memories are that compelling, and it’s scary because you can jump out of the real world and into the virtual. The education connection: kids should be able to level, and work their way through different threads.

The Paul solution: he created a game for his classes. The premise is massive ecological problems, so the hero has been sent back in time to solve the problem for the future. Paul teaches AP Biology, and he made 55 video podcasts + for the year for all the essential content. A flipped classroom? Somewhat. His students have iPads all year. But Paul said all his students do not have the Internet or options for viewing at home, so is the Flipped Classroom fair? Some students babysit, work a job. Fair is my classroom and that’s it. All the videos are loaded on the iPod, and that’s how he handles the “lecture” segment.

He does labs via a mastery system in levels: a reading, video, special challenge, and a mastery quiz. Then they move on. Paul uses Google Form to aggregate data from labs. He uses “specials” or challenges to his students via messages from his game hero, so selected students need to solve the challenge and send it to contacts, aka other students, who need to deal with mutating strains. Very very cool class that had an infections spread through two days of mutations in classes. They become, in essence, mini labs, and when you aren’t lecturing every day, you are free to do some really exciting things you always wanted to do. Paul also pits his classes against each other in some “specials” to get them to save the world.

His classroom is more quiet than you would think because his students are always engaged in doing something different. He can engage with his students because he isn’t “teaching.” Paul did note that the summer he made his videos he had no vacation, but it was worth it.

What he learned. A general classroom is like a school bus from point A to point B. He gave his students a new car and told them “you’re on your own, now drive.” Some stalled, some got there, and some crashed. He also didn’t anticipate reading levels and how that can stall students. He went to a reading specialist, and he discovered that we read the books for the students, so students have lost the art of reading. No reason to dive in and read if the teacher is doing a good job of doing it.

Another thing Paul learned is that students are not Vulcans. You need to force kids to move and socially interact with one another. It may not be productive social interaction, but eventually it will be. You need to learn what works, accept failure, and reconfigure. What were his AP results? About the same as years before. Depressing? A whole summer making videos, work all year to change your classroom, have a class set of iPads, and no different results. But his wife notes he made a huge philosophical change in your classroom, becoming a mentor. She told him to celebrate the shift, and Paul agrees she’s right.

Digging into the data, Paul said the one thing that determined what his students did — the marshmellow experiment. One marshmellow in front of a student; if you didn’t eat the marshmellow, you got a second one. You will love this video. What you learn: delayed gratification kids in the end do better in the long run. They tend to have better life learning experiences. Students need to restrain themselves sometimes (think Jeopardy–you force them to do the 2’s and 3’s–less freedom for the integrity of the endgame).


Paul learned he needed checkpoints along the way and structure the grouping differently and better to move his students in the right direction. You need to keep a certain amount of control and make students report in with you to demonstrate learning, discuss, reorient, and move on. You need to find a way to help the students who have delayed gratification issues. Noting that in China students study for 18 hours a day and families move next to the school, he states that their systems is not necessarily bad.

If you look at the infographic and then layer it with gadgets, devices, apps and all the affordances, you can see why a “normal” teacher doesn’t get it. You can start small and move away from teacher-centered classrooms to student-centered mentoring, you are moving in the right direction. For the full view infographic, click here.

Final thought: switch tracks. Think differently. It takes a while after you switch tracks to take off, but elements of that old path are dead. And you may not move forward for a while, but it is the right thing to do. You may fail, but it is still the right thing to do. Make a change.





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