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.

Hit the subscribe button and tell your friends …


Performance before Competence

I found this was an interesting principle of game-play. It relates to notions of tinkering with technology broadly, and having waning interest in being ‘trained’ to use anything. It might also point to how keen teachers are to obtain ‘badges’ from commercial companies. We simply feel that performance comes before competence, and actually need ways to show we are performing.

It further touches on why a device such as the iPad appears to be adopted with less fuss than a laptop or why virtual worlds and games are not as widely tinkered with by teachers. Competency is subjective and socially negotiated. Teachers are far more likely to feel like they are ‘blog-competent’ before being ‘game-competent’ – and that influences our efforts towards how we see our own performance, and that of others. This is turn affects the ‘sets’ we form in digital-space – and means much of the things we believe influence formation and use of “PLN” is far too simplistic.

In relation to schooling, Cazden (1981) suggests this principle is just the reverse of most schools: competence before performance.

Being deemed competent precedes the ability to perform – or at least that is how education used to work.

For example, learning to drive a car requires the driver to be competent before taking to the public road, where as taking to the road in a virtual racing car requires no formal instruction or training.

However, it also means that someone might grasp some of the fundamentals of driving using Mario Cart, or perhaps that they might actually believe that if they crash a real car, it will simply be put back on the road with no harm done to themselves or the car in Gran Turismo.

It might also mean many teachers have only ever experienced computers in almost the opposite way to their students.

Some believe we can perform almost anything without someone else first deciding we’re competent – and why we actually preference being a “downtime learner”. For others it is just a completely unfathomable idea.


Cazden, C. (1981). “Performance before Competence: Assistance to Child Discourse in the Zone of Proximal Development,” Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition 3.1 (pp 5-8).

Do you have the keys to tomorrow?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Lin Pernille Photography

I recently wrote about how I believe most of the innovation in education is being developed in individual’s downtime moments. This post is about why social-keys being used by Downtime Learners can lock a non-networked manager or organisation out of the future in under 140 characters. Ask a movie producer what a Tweet can do, not just for your movie, but for the entire future of an industry.

We see people using downtime so productively for personal development and connecting in public spaces, we hardly consider it a disruption. We don’t really think about it. So, imagine if a city street had 2000 phone boxes and a line of 10 people at each. Imagine no one on the phone every hung up and the line never moved. Technology has not only enabled this to be possible, it creates a society which virtual people walk among the non-virtual. We cannot tell who is human and who is cyborg, what they are doing or what they want because cyborgs use coded-keys.

My theory is that much of the convenient debate around classroom learning and distance education assumes people work at home in largely the same way the do on campus. It doesn’t fully consider other alternatives.

I didn’t understand this until I started playing online games. Now it makes so much sense that  I use it all the time, If I was smarter, I’d write a book about being a life-coach and tell people how to do the same. Except it wouldn’t work, though I might sell a lot of books.

What I didn’t talk about in my original post was the power and importance of key generation and exchange.

This are really important aspects, usually also ignored and one of my pet hates about professional ‘fly-in and fly-out’ developer. They don’t get the idea of keys or downtime – or if they do, this isn’t their business. I’m not saying what they do or say isn’t good or useful, just that it’s up-time learning, and so completely different.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by El Bibliomata

The significance of keys to Downtime Learner Theory

The key to getting in to college is to get a standardised key (the score) from a key-giver (the teacher). This is the game of education. The key to getting a job is to have further key, from another teacher using a score.

Society likes keys. It uses them to symbolise and create order, They are physically and metaphorically used select who enters society and who can’t – and at what level. Early books had keys so that only the right people learned to read them. Personal Diaries had keys. Even today, vast amounts of information is under lock and key – from walled University systems, to journal databases and even the private ‘communities’ we see training teachers in technology. As a society we are public and private keys obsessive in regard to to both information and knowledge networks. We love our keys, and like to assume only a small group of people can make them, and choose who will be issued with them to play the game. Think of the corporate firewall. You log in, you don’t have permissions, you only see what you need to see, based on they keys you hold already. Downtime learning is life-hacking, and we see how much organisations like (or tolerate) this though their actions.

Connectivism uses highly encrypted keys to function as a digital-theory. This too is not understood very well by outside observers. Both knowledge and information that is created, processed and re-issued in these networks is always in some way incomplete and coded. Each time data is placed online, be that a Tweet or a blog post, the creator carefully codes the message. Unlike a catchy inane headline like “7 ways to make you rich” or “10 people who are the best teachers on the web” – coded keys that pass between tight networks don’t need to ‘advertise’ or resort to ‘link-baiting’. The public text is only part of the cipher. You cannot know what it actually means, just by reading it. So, why people tell other people to get on Twitter is beyond me. It’s not as simple as hitting the follow button.

Downtime learners quickly learn to code their efforts for all sorts of reasons. Over time, their network(s) become socially-saturated and impossible to read without sufficient keys. This makes the U-Boat problem the Allies had seem rather primitive. But as we’ve seen in nations using online networks in times of conflict, can have life and death outcomes. This saturation process (which can be initiated by an organsation) effectively starves it as the cycle progresses. This has dramatic implications for organisations as no initiative to ‘social-media-ify’ teachers will be sustainable without really thinking hard about leakage and coding. Public declarations are only ever a partial communiqué, and never intend to use the codes that those outside it might prefer.

Welcome to cybercuture, maybe we don’t want to fit in, maybe we do.

One problem ed-tech salesmen face is that in 90% of the time they spend in front of teachers, they don’t exchange satisfactory numbers of encoded keys to fully explain themselves. Have you sat in a presentation? Did you get all the key’s you needed to unpack each slide? Of course not, that’s the game. This is why so much of PD around technology is ineffective. it’s still lecture/tutorial thinking.

People simply want a glass of water – and instead are given the severed head of a giraffe.

Finally I want to take a pot shot at the word ‘community’. A network doesn’t need someone else to make a community. It needs to teach everyone in the room how to be a community and then find other communities. Cattle-Pen communities only suit the Cattlemen. It’s another word for loyalty programme.

Just because you join, doesn’t mean you will get to exchange all they keys you’d like to. Most of the time, the owners of the community prompt key exchanges between their flock, but use high levels of encryption between the elite to ensure that they remain alpha-leaders. This creates tremendous bias and reshaping of what people actually get to talk about, do or become. Downtime learners with key’s don’t need to join these, and in most cases are not interested. On the flip side, Cattle-Communities make no in-roads into other communities, simply because they have a flag to wave. No one cares if you’re a Google Certified Teacher. As a parent, I just hope you’re a good teacher – as a colleague, I hope you can help my network solve problems.

So why bother with online networks at all? – Because this is where the keys to innovation lie and these keys are essential to decoding information and knowledge between humans.  The velocity of this inside networks is impressive. Imagine if you had something to say, and it took three years for it to be said – and only a handful of people read it and only a small proportion of those responded in another publication years later.

My mission (if I have one) is to try and create experiences where teachers remain human experts they always were and exchange the right keys with increasing relevance and velocity to their community. This starts with one key between two people.

There are ways to do this, especially with games, but I don’t much feel like explaining it right now. What matters is to think about whether or not downtime and keys matter to your future. Do you actually need them or want them between tomorrow and the day you plan to retire? Would we in fact be where we are without it, and be thankful that to get to this point, teachers have become fiercely  independent life-hackers. Without resistance, we might well be worse off.

The Downtime Learner theory

I’ve followed Steve Wheeler’s recent commentary on Twitter and personal learning networks and thought I’d extend on the discussion, as I see these things a little differently. Have blog, will theorise.

One of my pet theories is that digital learning for in-service teachers is best served on the run, in short bursts anywhere you can access it. This is my ‘downtime-learning’ theory that’s based on the ideas of Mr Downes around Connectivism.

The resilience of systems, the lack of funding for in-service professional development, and perhaps a certain optimism that ‘they’ll do it themselves for free’ has to my mind created an enviable monster under the bed for education – almost inadvertently.

It is undeniably true and reported by scholars that top down technology initiatives fail time and time again to prepare teachers adequately, which in turn fails to alter their dominant belief and attitude towards everyday pedagogical approaches. Furthermore, professional development in a formal sense tends to treat adults as they do children – locking them in rooms with computers.

Part One – The Downtimer theory

The solution, for reflective-teacher-learners is to explore and consider the role of technology from their seat on the bus or train (not the car – you’ll crash). We dip into learning in the park, waiting for a friend or ordering a coffee fix.

This I’m calling my ‘downtime-learning’ theory.

My hypothesis is that digital-mastery among teachers occurs sporadically in networks, powered more by gamer theory than any single educational theory. Furthermore mobile learning is more satisfying and generative than either the home or the workplace – and there is almost no design imperatives to create similar environments. We learn more when we are not at desk so to speak.

The importance of this for teacher educators is their systems and institutions will remain ineffective in comparison, unable to shake a legacy method and unwilling to declare failure.

In addition, smart-teachers build personal capacity and activate it inside networks and tempted to leave any organisation that tries to tame their ambition or access. The option of working entirely ‘online’ isn’t a delusion it’s the most significant threat to stability of essential ‘ground based’ places of learning. After all, most kids don’t have any other option – we still need local communities and strong social connections to people.

Part Two – Scale is impossible if you build walls.

To broaden my argument, stand in a public space or take public transport as an observer. You’ll see all sort of people doing all manner of tapping digital objects – as we shake out information and experiences. The physical keyboard and mouse inside 4 walls is a DEAD belief. We can learn anywhere if we have people worth learning from. We just need someone to lead us until we can lead ourselves – which is the ultimate instructional designer’s goal – and the empirical basis of good game design. Downtimer theory is about sustainable and stable learning centred around the person, regardless of where they work or where they study. By 2020, Australia will represent less than 2% of the world internet access – and yet currently has one of the highest mobile phone ownership rates. Why will be be bottom very soon? I think this picture is a big clue. This isn’t how we see the world? We are learning in downtime, they are learning because it creates massive up-time.

sustainabilty flows from the mobile form factor

Zoom in on individuals with mobile phones. What are they doing? – the are cheating our societies downtime, finding something to occupy their restless subconscious – experiential learners on a course of their own design. We still go to and from work, but we’re learning in the middle.

People on their mobile devices do a surprisingly small number of things repeatedly.

They check their text messages, email, Twitter, Facebook, they follow network-links and investigate people they see as interesting. They do this hundreds of times a day. Input, find, process, respond – question and confirm. IPFR – QR is a kind of ugly acronym, so I think ‘downtimer‘ or ‘downtime-learner’ is better – and far better than digital-native or immigrant.

Actually deciding on what to do is much harder than following a prompt. Twitter generates thousands of personal prompts a day for each person. We’ve learned that trying to decide isn’t effective. The freedom of interpretation (I have this 5 freedoms theory too).

Education is all about following prompts where as networks are all about following people and ideas.

Social media has created a vivid, diverse and unpredictable experience – that feels increadibly satisfying. The constant pinging of our networks, its the time-clock as we look for clues and ideas from other people to make sense of problems, challenges and dilemmas.

Twitter is a mastery dash-board. You don’t need to be gifted know it’s works on connections, however it’s ability to create smart-sets of mentors and influencers allows us to performance measure ourselves verses everyone. It’s a flow of qualitative data to make sense of, rather than a transmission tool, providing information to make false dichotomous decisions. It takes a long time to work that out – and makes the idea of telling people about Twitter almost impossible. Each use case is personal.

Twitter is one example of numerous exploits for the game of education itself.

Rather than being stuck inside a perpetual feedback loop (the annual predicability of content, test scores, performance appraisals) it allows teachers to break out and and not wallow in problems. Rather that wait for an idea or problem to be processed by someone else, astute teachers use it to short-circuit the hurdle – instantly.

Do you find it annoying if your question takes a few hours not seconds to get a response? How does that compare to traditional learning? – Lag lag lag … you question is likely to be classified – off task or irrelevant to the lesson … that doesn’t happen on Twitter, Facebook or Games.

So when I think about my theory and look broadly at how we set about in-service professional development, or how distance education sees distance learning, I have to wonder why we designing for the long-course. It clearly has major problems that won’t be solved by buying HD webcasts over standard def webcasts, or embedding YouTube into an LMS.

I’m sticking to my ‘downtime-learning’ theory for now. To be an effective learner in a world with unprecedented access to people and information means being obsessed with learning everything and prepared to take action before you have learned everything you might want to know. This belief makes Twitter very useful. However it’s abstract for most teachers. My downtimer theory calls for teacher educators to start playing games with teachers … not training them if we want to win hearts and minds.

I’m going to prove this by working up a Games Based Learning Course for in-service teachers, leaving it as a theory isn’t much fun.

Infographic: The tangential learning principle

These are two infographics I’m using in a presentation in a few days to Principals. The first represents the disruptive element (social) that has appeared in socially-connected learning. It’s the part which often is potentially a crack in the wall and may lead to tangential learning, or a crack that fuels intellectual and network lock-down as we struggle to answer questions based in fear, uncertainty and denial.

My presentation is not about that conflict, but to attempt to illustrate why students will spend as much time in online games and virtual spaces as the will in the K12 classroom, during the school career. The choice is pretty simple; either we choose to allow social-interplay into classrooms, and develop curricula founded on solid experiential learning principles, or isolate students from the potentially cataclysmic web.

Informally, our children are already exploring and trying to make sense of the world outside the window. At the same time, politicians are gearing up for further high stakes testing, standardised learning, back to basics (3Rs) and filtering – not just school (but everyone’s content).

Our children, in their school career will experience 10,000 hours of this, learning about a set of rules and future predictions that are not true anymore and ignore the tangential experiences afforded by web, game and mobile. The infographic below describes (as best it can) how I see the theories of Connectivism (Downes & Siemens) playing out in my childrens use of technology – daily.

I’ve invited my 9 year old along to demonstrate how this infographic relates to his use of MMOs – which I think is a model which can be applied equally to how I want him to learn at school (and out of it).

I have been at pains not to use edu–techno-babble, jargon, or to name specific technologies — as this further complicates the message.

What I am trying to demonstrate in the session is the way in which ‘social’ impacts school (like it or not) and to help those attending try to make sense of what they (and you) see as core, important and worthwhile – so that they can begin to formulate their own view and local community manifesto.

This infographic is very much the way I see the design of learning, though the principles and strategies embedded are far more complex.

It is how I learn, how I see my children learning – and how I am trying when possible to help other teachers develop their own classrooms in professional development.

If you have time, I’d welcome your feedback – to see if this infographic can be applied to your own learning – Does it work for your interests, even though yours may be tangential to mine?