Introducing a Games Based Enquiry Model

After somewhat of a hiatus in developing a methodology for using games and game-like thinking in learning design, I hope that you’ll tune in and spread the word among like-minded colleagues about a series of posts I’m going to publish in the next few weeks and months.

This isn’t about levels, badges or using Minecraft. It’s about constructively aligning enquiry based learning with the NESA curriculum requirements – drawing on game theory and game cultures to surpass what I see as an increasingly dated PBL model (which is now 25 years old).

I’m not going to tell you enquiry is good, games are good or puppies are good – but explain how to develop a K12 KLA based learning continuum which is more dynamic and flexible because it taps into children’s own experiences of games and media.

It is drawing on my own research into video games and children and over a decade of talking about and using PBL in schools and university. I will talk a lot about Overwatch – as to me, the mechanics and dynamics of this game and culture are incredibly relevant to learning and teaching – and I’m so sick and tired of Minecraft being falsely seen as the edu-apex of what can be possible.

Why post this at all?

I’m going back to beginning – WoWinSchools, Skoolaborate and other gem’s of brilliance that seem to have been lost in the dreariness of Minecraft discussions. You don’t even have to play games – or use games, but you do need to accept that games-media is the most significant interactive phenomenon in children’s media-lives. If you don’t, then I’d suggest you read more than Tweets – as this has been a fact for well over a decade now.

The story begins …

Before reading on – go back to basics – JSB – who talks about why tapping into knowledge as a network is more powerful than any single person or technology. This ten minute video presents complex and thought provoking alternatives to schooling – and to me remains as relevant today as it did a decade ago.  Most of all, this video was made at a time where brands and products did not dominate or distort discussions about new ways of learning and teaching. To me, this one of the most important videos ever posted.

So a decade on from this talk — this series of posts is my attempt to share what I’ve been thinking, constructing and tinkering with.

What is GBE?

Firstly, this is a framework which takes in numerous theoretical elements from education, gaming, and media theory. Secondly, it’s a framework to design enquiry, measure progress and give feedback within the constraints to the Australian curriculum. For the most part, I’ve been working on this in some iteration for well over a decade so some of it might seem familiar. It’s assumes: learning is blended, the pace of learning is dictated by the student and given to them at the outset – in full.

The posts are going to set out how I go about creating a blended learning environment which is brand-agnostic and can be implemented in the primary and secondary school setting. They will establish how to use an enquiry approach, in which students solve problems through projects. I hesitate to call this PBL or GBL as both terms have been hijacked by psuedo-celebrities etc., I’m going with a new neologism – GBE – Game Based Enquiry – in so much as it attempts to draw upon the patterns of rhythms experienced in awesome games. If you don’t play games, then you will not get much of this as it really requires more than a shallow understanding of what it feels like to explore the wilderness of your own understanding while blasting bad-guys.

design thinking

This ‘design thinking’ illustration helps underpin my approach to GBE. It also connects with the work of Pam Cook in constructive alignment using Biggs’ SOLO Taxonomy.

The most important pillar of GBE is to approach learning design through ‘learning intentions’ rather than problems to solve. I’ve departed company with classic (vanilla) PBL methods in order to focus on what teachers see as their intentions at the outset, rather than starting with the end in mind and then trying to come up with an open ended question to lead students to it. What is often not talked about in PBL is the degree to which teacher-bias limits the supposedly broad scope of student voice and choice.

To me, if you know the ending in a narrative driven game, there would be less enjoyment and motivation. The important initial discovery phase of learning becomes yet another creepy-tree house created by teachers. If you like, GBE’s whole ethos is to allow open-world movement, rather than follow a set narrative – where the boundaries are set by time, resources and alignment to the reportable-curriculum.

Ready player one?

The above diagram is lesson one. Imagine learning as a horizontal plane that moves though phases of inductive and deductive thinking. There are three phases, and unlike PBL, there are lots of interchangeable parts to work with (I’ll expand later on that) – which I tend to call EPISODES as GBE necessarily uses the narrative of school and the teacher.

Think about a decent multiplayer game – players choose from a set of options, and each option shifts the experience of the overall game, depending on what players select. For example: In Overwatch, Junk Rat is best played when the opposing team plays three tanks with low mobility. He’s less effective against high mobility team compositions. The better players select heros based on composition, not their looks, characterisation etc., For teachers, choosing the right enquiry composition is essential – to avoid the boredom of sticking to the BIE method and dictatorial language conventions – Seriously, kids soon become bored with ‘need to knows’ as much as they hate being Power pointed and given a test.

So where PBL starts with a driving question, GBE starts with discovery and initial insight experienced as a challenge or narrative-scenario. We still want to cast students as the hero who is about to undertake an adventure … but we don’t want to give them some teacher question based on a TUBRIC or contrived question. In my experience, teachers spend way too long trying to craft a great driving question – and ultimately 50% of kids switch off as soon as they see it – as it isn’t interesting – and from that point, the intention is not to learn, but to get through learning.

So in the next post I’m going to deal with how a GBE framework creates ‘learning intentions’ in more detail.

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Using the Disney Method in teaching

So the Disney method? Well it’s quite simple. Disney thought that in order to engage the natural thinking styles of a group of people (we all think differently) the it’s important to understand both their communication and relational skills. Without doing this, whatever is being introduced will be un-matched to the group and fail to influence. If you’ve ever watched a powerpoint and fell asleep, this is the opposite of Disney’s theory of engaging audiences. It’s a parallel thinking technique.

Disney saw people in four ways. This also connects with Kieren Egan’s theories of imaginative education which is why I like it for games. The Spectator, The Dreamer, Realist and Critic provide a model of thinking styles that is relevant to children’s approach to transformational play (something that Bron Stuckey) talks about so well. Classroom games are experiences, not necessarily digital objects, so the importance here is to offer experiences around a game object or game-like scenario that match or influence the thinking style of the students.

The SPECTATOR looks at how this is viewed from the outside. You look at facts and evidence, rather than opinion. They use data to argue facts.

The DREAMER is critical to developing new ideas and goals – to widen the areas of thought. These don’t have to be achievable or even real. To the dreamer, anything is possible. They are not constrained by reality or judgement or criticism. In students, this helps develop agency.

The REALIST is necessary as a means of transferring those ideas in concrete expression – defines actions to be taken. This means taking what is being communicating and un-packing it using cognitive knowledge and skills. What can be done in reality, and what is best left to the imagination. The problem with realists is that if they don’t learn to balance what CAN be done with what is imagined, hypothesised and unreal, is that they become lock-stepped by narrow thinking. In other words, even the most realistic and pragmatic, need to act as if anything is possible more often.

The CRITIC is necessary as a filter and as a stimulus to refinement – evaluates pay-offs and draw backs. This isn’t the hater, the non-participator or the saboteur who often uses rhetorical fallacies to assert their opinion. In Disney’s model, the are learning how to make arguments and predictions based on evidence presented and experience. They learn strategies for ‘what if’ problems occur or ‘how can’ we make this better.

So when we ask a question to direct children’s learning: there is a need to ensure that we communicate the problem and under pinning ideas and concepts such that they match or influence the thinking styles of children.

This is a common method used in German Engineering for example, but little known these days. It was a method used by Disney to create ideas and evaluate them towards a workable solution. It was used at the height of Disney’s studio system.


  • Allows students to discuss an issue from 4 different methods (Spectators view, Dreamers View, Realisers view and Critics view).
  • Spectators view – look at problem analysis from the outside. It uses facts and data to make arguments  not opinions. For example. If trying to understand why countries go to war, children would look at data and facts external actual war. How many countries are at war, what was the longest war, the shortest. Which war has the most post-war problems or benefits (how can we tell). Looking at the problem from this perfective allows problem analysis.
  • Dreamers view – They ask what is the ideal, dream view of this solution if we made it. What is that we wish to happen. What is the extreme boundaries of our ambition. This is divergent thinking.
  • Realists view – Their job is to use convergent thinking. To look at the ideas presented, consider them mindfully with the spectators view and start to organise them such that they roughly appear as: done before, reasonably do-able now, could be done in the near future. They are not judging the dreamers, just helping to organise them. They would come up with a PLAN and they will have agreed and set CRITERIA. This helps students sift ideas and identify the most significant elements in the ideas. The PLAN is a set of steps to implement the IDEAS.
  • The Critics: Are looking at the risks and dangers, who would oppose the plan, what could be done to the plan to improve it. On what evidence should the plan be refined, rejected or implemented.

The Disney method was designed to be simple, and to allow teams to rapidly develop ideas and put forward workable plans for production, but also to ensure that the organisation had sufficient ‘dreams’ documented that could be revisited. This method was central to the development of much of Disney’s films, television, literature and theme parks.

I think that this method could be used towards games in the classroom. It could be applied to any topic, if presented as a problem – and even in PBL, it encourages teachers to approach the same problem in four ways using a method – it’s a way to overcome PBL fatigue where students quickly learn the seven steps and become bored with it.

Embarking on Imaginative Education

I picked up a great project on getting back from my trip. Working with Kieren Egan’s Imaginative Education (Learning In Depth). This was handy, but more importantly really exciting. I’ve been banging on about imagination for ages it seems, not least because Kieren has written some amazing things – as you do to get to the be Research Chair of Canada I guess.

So what’s new about Imaginative Education?

I think (and so do others) Imaginative Education offers a new understanding of how knowledge grows in the mind, and how our imaginations work and change during our lives. It uses different teaching methods based on these insights that offer new ways of planning and teaching. In short, I reject the bolting a clock onto a toaster mantra that is going on, and think for the most part – the vast majority of students and teachers are somewhat weary of the relentless drumming. Hey, I was totally into it once (guilt), but of late the commercial agenda has become problem, as the rhetoric fails (once again) to result in new practices – and nine times out of ten – completely excludes kids directly – as they focus on the wallet’s of high officials, rather than the needs of classroom teachers and kids. (rant ends).

Let me give an example of Imaginative Education at work to mull over.

Lets take a typical ‘outcome’ from the NSW syllabus for History – “4.1 describes and explains the nature of history, the main features of past societies and periods and their legacy”, specifically they are supposed to

    • sequence events within the specific period of time
    • use historical terms and concepts in appropriate contexts
    • identify primary and secondary sources
    • distinguish between fact and opinion
    • examine the actions, motives, values and attitudes of people from the past
    • draw conclusions about the usefulness of sources for an historian
    • identify perspectives of different individuals and groups.

So lets work this into ONE Imaginative Education frame we’re using in the project as an illustration – and I’ll just talk about importance and wonderment – which if you think of a triangle are the first two layers. It’s a taxonomy, but one in which you might employ Blooms throughout the strata if you wish – or another one if you prefer. I’d make the whole thing as a playable game – but then I’m clearly irrational about the benefits of gaming (:))

Let’s say we are looking at Australia’s war 1939-45 (which is recommended).

Find the importance of the topic

What is emotionally engaging about this topic? How can it evoke wonder? Why should it matter to us? The first step is to show the teacher’s personal emotional engagement with the topic. What is the sense of wonder does this will create for the students? The skill is to re-see the topic through the eyes of the child, to catch at what can stimulate the sense of wonder about even the most routine topics. The key is to find as aspect that creates a sense of wonderment. So what are the sources of this? Do you as a teacher wonder what it would have been like for your family during those times? Do you wonder how they lived? What they did each day? How they  got their news?

What are the sources of wonderment? Perhaps a family photo, a letter from one relative to another?
What is emotionally engaging about it? Do you want to know more about who they were, what it might have felt like for them?

Apply Wonderment

The job of the teacher in this frame is to be present the topic as a reporter rather than a teacher/facilitator. This is important, as reporters have particular characteristics whether traditional or online. Someone who is investigating and reporting a good story to the audience. In order to get a story read, a  writer knows how important it is to present some degree of wonderment in the mind of the reader. Let’s throw this out there. The PLN is a myth. Re-badge it PRN (presonal reporting network) – a good one has wonderment as well as facts? No? We learn from good reporting.
This allows them to tap into the students’ emotional and imaginative lives, and can be used to shape your lesson or unit. Good reporters also know how to important just to hang out and build trust, know how to get access to people and documents. They’ve got to love what they’re doing; they’ve got to be serious about turning over rocks, opening doors (which is also a ideal depiction of a teacher isn’t it?). Most of all reporters are committed to telling the story, undeterred by dead ends and false leads – they keep going. Ever noticed those commenting on EdTech in social media are highly likely to have a journo history, more than a classroom one …? Now you know why you know who they are.
Finding the story

Remember, everything is potentially wonderful in the Imaginative Education frame. In order to be a good reporter, one needs to think what a reporter might write about or talks about,  in a way that is interesting, or that somehow engages the reader’s/listener’s imagination and emotions. What the “story” is on your topic; identify what is wonderful or interesting or engaging about it and how you can discuss it in a way that reflects this. Of course this is much deeper than pointing students at facts about Australia’s War. Example: The Lost Diggers of Fromelles was a great school project – because the teacher tapped into wonderment and imagination in just this way.

Finding the opposites. Good reporting is balanced. The idea is not to head to one answer, but to present a well rounded report taking in multiple possibilities. In Imaginative Education, head straight for the opposites, find the most extremes of what kids could possibly imagine on which we can construct the “story” we are going to tell. It should be possible to select the one that seems best, though you might want to note some alternatives, in case you find the first set chosen doesn’t quite carry you through the lesson or unit as well as you might have expected. The binary opposites provide the cognitive and emotional framework of your story. Remember, all good fictional stories are built on a conflict or puzzle; the only difference here is that the “story” content is the curriculum content.

For example:


During the war two of my relatives were separated. The man stayed behind in Europe, while my woman was sent to stay with a distant aunt in Melbourne until the trouble “blew over” as the he put it.


She didn’t want to leave, but she had to. After the war, he took a ship to Australia, but had to wait months and months  before he could see her, hold her or communicate at all. Eventually he was allowed to join her in Melbourne. I saw a photo of them once, they looked so happy despite all this.

Emotional Engagement

Why am I telling you this? Well because I read this story about a soldier in Iraq, and I wondered how different it was to my relatives back in late 1930s Europe. I thought perhaps with today’s modern wars, politics and communication it might have been different, but then I wonder how much has really changed?

Opps I’ve written too much – this is 1/3rd of the story. I still have to sketch out stories, significance, opposites, alternative, images and solutions – which is the imaginative enquirer … but for now, I’ll leave it – the idea of a teacher being a reporter, and from there leading students using their imagination as well as their more often used ways of knowing. Comments welcomed.

How to use Balance, Gimping, Campaign mode to improve assessment tasks easily

How about trying something from my  epic book “Living with games, dying with zombies” or something like that. This is how to use game-methods to improve something most students hate – getting marks and grades back from exercises and tests. No game needed, no tech either … a Zombie could do this.

Let’s assume most teachers issue marks to their class and we know from research marks and class-ranks are really de-motivating for most people. If there are 30 students, then it’s not hard to work out someone will get top and someone bottom. League tables are a common feature of games however, so how come publishing them are considered a bad educational idea, yet an almost expected in games. There’s something obviously missing then.

The game solution

Rather than avoid posting a class-rank on the wall, or handing out individual ones privately to avoid awkwardness, use Excel. I know Excel right, that old donkey which comes with Office. The funky people might use Google Docs or a database. Depends on your geek-power. You could use paper if you want to be old school.

The Method

You get excel to read each row and pick out the student name and their mark and comment on what EXACTLY they need to do in order to improve their grade in DIRECT relation to the grades of the students TWO rows immediately above them.

The easiest way to do this is to MAIL MERGE it. Select the student’s row and include the two names and marks of those immediately ABOVE them and two names and marks of those immediately BELOW. Now print that stuff out and hand it out.

Each student (if you’ve followed me) has their mark and a comment on EXACTLY what they need to do to beat the two in front of them. They also know who are their nearest academic peers. You have just generated a second thing, better ‘groups’ by clustering. Yes, some are at the top and some at the bottom, but nothing’s changed right? – that was going to happen anyway. Wrong.

The top group has to SUSTAIN itself and bottom group has everything to play for. But now the fun part – how to get them to play. You’ve just created GROUPS of 5 to power peer-learning based on EVIDENCE.

Now start cheating. Break the norm-rules! I won’t bore you with a speech about the types of rules games use – but cheating is a very valuable rule in game-theory. It’s called GIMPING, I’ll explain that later.

Give the bottom THIRD of kids things they can grind on to improve as a GROUP. Repeating, re-doing, coaching, whatever. Tell them they’ve got a WEEK to re-submit a different task which you PROMISE will be no easier or harder than the last.

Give the MIDDLE third kids nothing new to do at all.

Give the TOP third something more philiophical to deal with with the promise of a few more marks if they do it. This should be something more open, not easily answered etc.,

Here’s what has happened. You have 3 key working groups (top, middle, bottom (you do anyway). You also have a peer-assisted learning loop happening, you are allowing the middle kids to float between the bottom and the top (choice), the top are being extended (or sitting on their laurels which won’t last long). The bottom kids are repeating the task, now working in a group to improve together because they feel more trusted and valued.

What changed in terms of teacher practice?

Ultimately, there is nothing radically changed in what’s being taught or the assessment itself. The big change is to way it is being reported and the finality of it. For the most able academic students, there are being given a new opportunity to explore the metanarrative

These theories may be political, economic, social, literary, philosophical, or any other kind that claim to explain the material to be learned. Challenge the students to find the most powerful underlying idea or principle – and what example(s) they can find to explain it. This, for high-achieving students focuses them away for ‘getting the answer’ and finding what is emotionally engaging about  the topic.

Why is this Game Based Learning?

If you like, call this learning in ‘campaign mode’. It taunts you with getting content that is ‘locked out’. This is typical of how Modern Warfare or Battlefield get you to work harder, to get better gear. In the context of the top-kids, it’s called balancing (wikipedia simple version) which creates uncertainty, leading to the tension and excitement. Why do this? Because the way marks and tables are managed in the classroom is the equivalent to what gamer’s call GIMPING. Most players don’t mind ‘some’ gimping if the game is balanced, but it if’s always GIMPED, it just sucks. And players who want to be better hate it.


Are you a Cyborg? – Kicking off PBL ideas

More than one person at ISTE commented how hard it was to start off a PBL project – and found that crafting the essential question and providing the ‘entry event’ challenging.

Wikipedia comments “When students use technology as a tool to communicate with others, they take on an active role vs. a passive role of transmitting the information by a teacher, a book, or broadcast. The student is constantly making choices on how to obtain, display, or manipulate information. Technology makes it possible for students to think actively about the choices they make and execute. Every student has the opportunity to get involved either individually or as a group.”

This post, illustrates how to develop these two elements using an example.

We could simply ask are you a cyborg?and ask students to ‘discuss’. Chances are you’ll get a binary response low order response, and so makes a poor PBL question.

If we want to stop kids Googling the answer, then pose questions they can’t Google.

The question becomes something like “How can we create cyborgs to …” or “Can cyborgs help us …” – add you own ending here to make the question open ended, not be easily answered. It should be short, but lead to more granular questions students ask to direct their own learning.

In the age of ‘the internet’, assume students will Google the keywords.

It is a waste of time asking them to do low order response activities that they can Google. Push them into asking their own questions as researchers.

This is where the entry event to a PBL project is critical.

The entry event is the first encounter the students have with the unit of work – and immediately after, they receive sufficient project mapping, information and assessment rubrics to let them know what they ultimately have to do.

So in the entry event, you want to give them core information and ideas that they can explore, without giving explicit direction. If they need it – then they need to learn to ask for it.

If we asked ‘are you a cyborg?‘ – the immediate literal response is no, as a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature.

We might instead give them information that allows them to think about movies, television, literature and more. The first thing I encourage teachers to do is try to write a short response to the essential question themselves – and use that to create the entry event.

So if we begin with the lowest order response “a cyborg is a fictional hybrid of human and machine depicted in movies, television and literature”, we can then provide some minimal information appropriate to the subject, and expand possible avenues for experiential learning. For example, provide a back-story that they can easily relate to.

James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984) features a cyborg. In it, the central anti-hero is a manufactured, industrial futuristic robot called the T-800. It was created by machines to perform a human-like assassination with ruthless efficiency, devoid of humanistic emotion or empathy. The film is set against a post apocalyptic background where artificial intelligent agents wage war against their human inventors. This theme, exploring nature’s conflict with technology had been widely explored by writers for decades in several genres including horror (Shelly’s Frankenstien), steam-punk (Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Technology in the printing and publishing industry itself enabled the ‘paperback’ to be widely distributed, triggered from the 1950’s ‘B-Movie’ and ‘Pulp-Fiction’ paperbacks.

This might be all you give students. It is packed with thought-triggers – and even as a text, there are multiple ways to ask students to un-pack it.

In visual arts, you might set the end product to be a movie-poster. In drama you might want a performance, in english you might want to explore distopia … so whatever you include … it is there to trigger a goal-orientated reaction, but not provide ‘the answer’.

In literature, author Martin Caidin wrote the sci-fi fiction novel ‘Cyborg’ in 1978, later adapted in the television series “The six million dollar man”. A decade earlier, Caiden explored the concept of ‘bionics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ in “The God Machine”, describing his characters as having human body parts, replaced by machinery.

This is a smaller example, perhaps something to explore in Studies of Religion or biology … perhaps both.

The cyborg theme is also present in animation (Astro Boy, Battle of Planets) at this same time together with emerging consumer technology game consoles and 1980s arcade (RoboCop,1987) and micro-computer games (Cyborg, 1986 on the Commodore 64) together with seeing a cross-over in traditional ‘dice’ fantasy role-playing games (‘Space Marine’ in the role playing Warhammer 40,000, 1987) where cyborgs fought against mythical fantasy creatures such as Orcs and Trolls from earlier fictions such as Lord of the Rings.

For games based learning twists … let students find old games and explore playing them.

The cyborg was widely represented in popular culture though film, art, literature, animation, games and music where the human is often transformed as the hero or pitched against artificial humanoid representations, exploring what the technological future might become as man attempts to create machine in his own augmented image.

In history, we might look at the role technology as played in war and how it impacted society as a result. The above is a very simple paragraph which might start a class discussion.

Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and bio-mechanics are however very real area of academic research and development, along with the wider field of ‘cybernetics’ – in which machines and systems combine to produce systems. Arguably, the use of many technological advancements from heart pace-makers to sunglasses – or computers as assistive devices, would in fact make us ‘cyborgs’, participating as part of a wider cybernetic organism – such as the internet.

This might be a topic for design and technology … asking students to create some adaptive technology.

The term ‘cyborg’ figuratively describes a human with machine adaptations, or an entirely technological humanoid created in such a way that it represents a human with artificial intelligence – in either case, the representation to the audience is fictional. The differentiation lies in the context, real or imagined. We are clearly not a literary ‘cyborg’, though figurative perspective though humans do use a range of devices that allow un-natural performance, tools and systems – not least the internet.

The essential question has to be open enough that more than one ‘what if’ scenario can be explored in multiple ways. The entry event must provide sufficient ‘clues’ and stimulus about where students might go, but it does not have to be epic or exhaustive, but it has links with the ‘real world’.

For teachers only just beginning to use technology. Take any of these plain texts and turn them into hyperlinked text, or take them to your librarian and ask for help linking resources to elements of the text. The over all aim is NOT to spend time producing more information for students, but to think more critically about how you present triggers and resources for them to take a more exhilarating role as researchers.

*Note: this post is NOT a road map to PBL, but I hope answers and gives some ideas to those teachers who asked me about these two components at ISTE. Project Based Learning is not GROUP WORK either … so don’t take this a literal road map, but a sign-post.