When Steve Isaacs’ eighth graders enter his game design and development class at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, N.J., they sit down at their respective computers and log in to a game called Classcraft. The game features a fantasy world where students each have avatars. They get “gold” for completing assignments, and the in-game currency can purchase new outfits or supplies for their avatars. The game world has a map, spotted with “quests” that students have to complete to move around and explore. These quests might be called “assignments” in a more traditional classroom. But Isaacs doesn’t run a traditional classroom — and not just because his students spend most of their time in a fantasy world.
Isaacs prioritizes student voice in the classroom. He creates opportunities for kids to explore their interests and discover new ones. And he makes space for students to work through content at their own pace. Yes, he teaches an elective class, so one might argue he has more freedom to do these things. But he maintains that teachers of all subject areas can build more student agency into their lesson plans.
“There are tremendous opportunities,” Isaacs said. “It takes teachers more thought and creativity to do this, but it’s what really brings kids in and makes learning more authentic.”
Using instructional games has becoming increasingly popular. Nearly 60 percent of teachers reported using games in their classrooms in 2016, according to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey, up from 23 percent in 2010. These games vary widely in style and impact on student learning, and there are critics who say some teachers rely too much on games to entice students to do their work. But Isaacs, named the 2016 Outstanding Teacher by the International Society for Technology in Education or ISTE, has fully embraced the game world in his classroom.
Isaacs spends very little time lecturing. Sometimes group lessons are necessary to introduce new topics or assignments, but generally students can walk in and get to work wherever they left off the day before. Isaacs spends class periods walking around and working with individual students as they need his support.
My latest in-depth article for The Hechinger Report is about a gamified data-tracking app that the Fresno Unified School District developed to engage students in monitoring their own educational statistics, including attendance and GPA. But the app, called Strides, is ancillary to the classroom. Isaacs brings gamification to the center. Classcraft gives him a way to gamify his entire curriculum, and it is designed as a behavior management tool, too. Isaacs takes away points from students who don’t stay on task. That doesn’t affect their overall grade in his course, but students feel the impact in the game and it makes a difference.
Shawn Young, co-founder of Classcraft, was a teacher in Quebec who incorporated game mechanics into his classroom as a way to foster collaboration among students. He turned his classroom into a role-playing game, which ultimately became the basis for Classcraft. Kids play the game in teams. Their performances affect their friends. And helping their friends increases their own scores.
“We’re explicitly giving kids points for helping each other out,” Young said. “Even if you’re not the best-performing student or the most hard-working, you’re going to progress through the game by helping out your teammates.”
Isaacs finds the game ends up engaging a wide range of kids. Some are motivated by the points and the chance to level up, others like the prospect of new gear for their avatars and still others get excited about completing “quests” and unlocking a new section of the fantasy world. Students who don’t play role-playing games outside of school may find the platform challenging in a different way — or perhaps less interesting — but Isaacs said there are always students for whom a given instructional strategy doesn’t quite engage.
“In a more traditional class,” Isaacs said, “you might lose a bigger group of students who aren’t grabbed by the traditional approach.”
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