A New Teacher and the League of Extraordinary Game Masters

Craig Swanson taught sixth-grade science, but he thought of himself as more of a game master. As he liked to describe it, he got paid to blow things up, design games, set up fun experiment, and watch kids learn. He prided himself on not being your ordinary teacher.

Boredom

When Craig went to middle school years before, he hated school. Science was his least favorite class because a bully kicked his chair and back almost every day while the teacher droned on at the front of the class, displaying what seemed like an eternal series of text-filled PowerPoint slides. Everything was focused on getting ready for the next quiz or test. As Craig described it, there was no wonder and no room for curiosity.

Love & Hate

Craig loved science. He just hated science class. He received his first chemistry set for Christmas at age ten and proceeded to beg for every possible science kit, educational game or gadget for all subsequent birthday and holiday. The contrast between what he experienced in middle school science class and what he loved about science at home set the path for his future. While sitting in the back of a middle school science class, trying his best to stay awake, Craig made the decision that he would grow up to be a completely different type of science teacher. He was going to be fun, engaging, wacky, even a little weird. He dreamt of growing his hair out to look like one of those old Einstein photos where it looks like he just stuck his finger in a light socket.

The Birth of a Game Master

Fast forward ten years and Craig was a recent college graduate and a first-year middle school science teacher with mad scientists flair. Every day he made it a personal mission to tap into the curiosity of his students, to invite them into the wonders of the natural world and the joys of game-based, quest-based, experiential and curiosity-driven learning. Students arrived in class with some sort of challenge or clue on the board. The necessary materials were set out, often with props and decorations tied to the theme for the day. Every day in this class culminated with some sort of interesting science experiment, quest or game followed by a group debriefing about what they experienced and learned from it.

Engaged

Craig’s class could not be more different than what he experienced as a kid. Nobody sat in his class bored. In fact, students hardly ever even sat in desks. They were on the floor, outdoors, or gathered in a huddle around some sort of puzzle or experiment. They were thinking, moving, collaborating, laughing, problem-solving, experiment, and theorizing.

A Typical Day

This was not just some special event. It was a normal day in his classroom. He approached each day with the energy, passion, and attention to detail that you might expect of a wedding planner. Each detail mattered. Every student mattered. Each game, experiment or simulation was design was carefully prepared, and you could see the pride and playful smirk on Craig’s face as he watched students walk into class and get drawn into the activities for the day. Some days it was a single class challenge. At other times, the challenge or experiment extended over days or even a week.

The Gift

One morning Craig arrived early to get his class set up for a new challenge. He turned on the classroom lights and saw a large red box sitting on the floor in the middle of the room with a message next to it. “Are you ready for a challenge, Mr. Swanson? Read the riddle on the back and let the games begin!” The box had three padlocks on it.

Craig grinned in delight. His students shifted from game players to game makers. For the next forty-five minutes, Craig struggled from riddle to riddle, taking him outside, back into the classroom, then outside again. Each riddle led to the next, and each challenge tied into this wonderfully creative story. In the story, Craig was an undercover spy disguised as a middle school science teacher, and he only had an hour to solve the riddles and save the planet.

He figured out the final clue and removed the last lock from the box, saved the world and a raised his arms in victory. He opened it to find a box full of thank you letters from his students. Each one, of course, required to a cipher to decode. Looking at the clock, he had 30 minutes before the first class started that day, so he set the box aside for some evening fun and finished preparations for the day.

Gratitude

As students arrived one-by-one, they each entered the room with a look of clever pride, excited to see the teacher’s reaction. Craig pretended like it was just an ordinary day, but once everybody was there, he gathered them in a circle on the floor. He told them the story of his morning adventure, the strange box that he found in the room and the series of clever riddles that clearly took a deep knowledge of science to create. After thanking them for providing him with such a wonderful gift, he shifted the conversation back to the students.

Making Game Makers

Craig loved do debrief learning experiences with the students and this situation was no different. He asked them about the process of designing the game. He asked about what worked well and what was challenging for them. He asked about how they collaborated in the design. Then he invited them to consider what they learned through the process of designing such a “learning experience.”

The students were excited to tell their stories. It turns out that this design took them almost two weeks of researching, planning, meeting, and experimenting. They tested the riddles on one another, gathered feedback, and revised. They even reached out to a couple of professional game designers to get input on their project. Craig listened with astonishment. He knew they were an engaged and curiosity group, but had no idea that they were capable of such work.

The League

He wondered what would happen if he invited the students to more consistently join in the design of the games, experiments, and adventures in the class. He shared this musing with the class, and a group of more than half of the students volunteered to join what they decided to call The League of Extraordinary Game Masters. Each day after school, this group met to plan and map out games and experiments for the rest of the class. They learned to align the experiences with mandated standards. They learned how to embed assessments, various ways to check for student understanding of key ideas. They learned about how to design rich learning experiences that engaged and also truly helped students learn. Along the way, they also learned about science while discovering important lessons about how to learn.

Craig loved surprising students with daily challenges, immersive games, and engaging experiments. Yet, it didn’t take long for him to see the incredible power of inviting students to be designers of their own experiences. As the semester continued, a growing number of students volunteered to join The League of Extraordinaryry Game Masters. By the end of the year, the students designed and managed almost every game and experiment, and student learning was as strong as ever.

Do Self-Directed Learners Use Mentors, Guides & Coaches?

For those not familiar with self-directed learning, they sometimes have a stereotype about what it means to be a self-directed learner. One of them includes this vision of the solitary and independent learner who does things her way. She only depends upon herself, not relying upon teachers or others. Yet, in my study of self-directed learning, that tends to be far from true. In fact, many self-directed learners actively seek out different guides and mentors in their pursuit of new learning goals. They own the learning, but they seek out mentors and guides to accomplish their learning goals.

Self-directed learning is not solitary learning. It is not anti-teacher, anarchist, nor is it selfish. At least that is not the vision for most advocates and champions of self-directed learning. What makes it distinct is that the learner, not a teacher or other authority, takes increasing ownership for the what, why and how of learning. It stems from a conviction that teaching self-sufficiency and self-regulation is effectively done by providing contexts where one is able to practice self-regulating and being increasingly self-sufficient.

As such, growing as a self-directed learner often involves developing a deeper understanding of the value behind finding and learning from coaches, mentors, and other guides. Within the context of some of these relationships, you might find a self-directed embracing a largely teacher-directed learning experience. Consider the many examples in team sports, ballet and dance, martial arts training, vocal coaches and music teachers, and much more.

Interestingly enough, almost all of those learning contexts have rich traditions and practices associated with personalized and frequent feedback. I love watching this in action when my son is in Taekwondo class. They start sitting on the floor in a very structured manner. Where you sit matters. How you sit matters. How you dress matters. The teacher is up front and starts the class in a similar way each day. Then he takes them through a series of elements. The students largely imitate what the teacher does, yet the teacher is watching closely and giving almost all of his feedback to individuals, not the group. It is less about the class getting their act together and almost always comments specific to a person, and it is a precise correction.

Students must concentrate. They concentrate on the teacher’s instructions but also very carefully upon what they are doing. They are engaging in a deep, focused, deliberate form of practice; something well supported in the literature for optimal growth and performance. Sometimes the teacher calls one person up front to perform. Others observe and learn. The teacher is almost entirely focused on that one student, giving any necessary correction and feedback. If one needs further assistance, that person is sent to the back of the room to work with another teacher, practicing even further as the class continues. There is little to no judgment or losing face. It is just part of the process. It is an understood method of getting better, achieving the goals.

Considering such a context, it does not seem very self-directed. In fact, it is among the more teacher-directed learning context that you will see. Yet, when we look closer, it is incredibly personalized and each person is challenged to develop a growing capacity for self-correction. In fact, when I see my son practicing at home, he is making constant corrections to himself, not at the end but with each precise movement. It was only a matter of months after starting Taekwondo that he was able to think and speak with more precision about his movements than in any other domain in his life. His sense of agency is growing. His understanding of deliberate practice has drastically improved. His attention span has extended. In other words, in this very teacher-directed context, he is building critical skills for self-direction.

Yet, this is all something that he chose. He is not forced to return to practice. He chooses to do so. He owns this. In doing so, he is achieving a set of personal goals. This is what happens with all of us as we grow as self-directed learners. We set personal goals, explore our options for learning (including more structured and teacher-centered contexts), weigh the benefits and limitations of these options, and choose that which we think will help us best reach our goals given other limitations and parameters (time, money, other resources, etc.).

We can all learn from others, sometimes peers, other times people who have traveled much further down a specific pathway. This is just as true for the self-directed learner. In fact, the empowered self-directed learner is likely to see that the options are far more extensive than we might think. They are certainly far beyond the menu of options within a given school or context, and they continue throughout our lives. As such, self-directed learners are open to a myriad of teachers, coaches, mentors and guides in their pursuit of new learning and experiences.

Let’s Start Building Airplanes with Our Students

I’m convinced. It is time to start building airplanes with our students. I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Hong Kong where I gave a keynote at the 21st Century Learning Conference, followed by a short stop in Hanoi, Vietnam. There I led an evening workshop for educators at three international schools. The topic for my keynote and workshop was self-directed learning, especially exploring the why and how of creating opportunities for students to develop the competence and confidence to be self-directed learners. While I hope that I shared something of value, I certainly came away with a story that challenged me to take my thinking and work about self-directed learning to the next level.

Technically, it wasn’t even a story about self-directed learning. As best as I could tell, it was more of a teacher-guided project-based learning experience, but the scope of the project was incredible. I was about halfway through my workshop on designing self-directed learning projects when a teacher in the back of the room mentioned something about building an airplane with his students. To tell the truth, I don’t think it stuck at the time. It was only during a short break when I spoke with this teacher, he pulled out his phone, and showed me a picture of him, his students, and the actual airplane that they built together over a 12-18 month period.

This was a first. I’ve seen some incredible projects in schools throughout the United States, but this is the first time that I’ve ever heard of a teacher building an airline with his students and then flying it. Can you imagine the impact of such an experience upon the students who worked with the teacher on this project? How many young people can say that they accomplished as monumental of a task as to building an airplane at school? This certainly puts all of those baking soda volcano science projects into perspective.

What excites me about this story is that it is the sort learning experience that changes the lives of learners. This is the kind of accomplishment that has the potential to nurture incredible confidence and a sense of agency. As we accomplish increasingly uncommon and larger tasks, we tend to develop the capacity and confidence to take on even larger projects.

Here are five reasons why I would love to see more “build an airplane” projects in schools.

Small Pieces & a Big Result

In the case of this teacher and his students, they used a kit to build the airplane. As such, you could just think of this as a massive puzzle, but building something from individual pieces is a great way to discover how individual pieces come together to make something massive. With a little guidance, there are some rich lessons for learners in such an experience. Great accomplishments, projects, and products start with a single step…a single piece.

Expanded Sense of Possibility

These stretch experiences broaden our sense of what is possible. How many times do we miss out on opportunities because we do not think they are in the realm of possibility for us? Yet, when young people are involved in accomplishing these seemingly impossible projects, they are set up to do the same thing throughout their lives.

Extended Projects

Many great accomplishments in life take more than a few days or weeks, yet most of what students work on in schools is broken into small chunks. Great accomplishments involve persisting with a project over months or years, so why not give students some experience with that in school?

Teamwork

This was a team project. No single student built the airplane, but together, with the help of their guide, they accomplished this task. Now that is the type of cooperative learning that aligns well with the nature of great cooperation and collaboration in the world beyond school.

Build It and Try It

There was no certainty that they would be successful with this project, and that is the nature of projects in the real world. Nonetheless, they set out to build it, tested it, likely had to make adjustments and gain new knowledge to troubleshoot problems, and they persisted until they got their desired outcome. This strategic experimentation is a valuable life lesson.

This story leads me to wonder what would happen if students had the chance to do the equivalent of building airplanes every year or two in school. What would that do for their confidence, capcity for taking on large tasks later in life, working through complex problems and projects, working with a team to carry out something grand and inspiring, and persisting with a project over an extended period? Can you imagine a student experiencing the completion of 8-10 such projects over the course of her K-12 schooling?

If you can’t tell, I’m sold in the idea. Maybe it is time for us to start building airplanes with our students.

A Self-Directed Learning Reality Check

I’m an advocate for self-directed learning. There is no question about that. I write about it often, and affirm its benefits so much that it has led to valid critiques that I seem to bite the formal education hand that feeds me. This does not mean, however, that I disregard the limitations of self-directed learning, and there are genuine potential limitations. Here are four of the more common ones.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 1 – Opportunity

Formal credentials and degrees still open doors for people. This is true in some fields more than others. There are plenty of fields and positions where alternative pathways to demonstrating excellence are adequate for getting an interview and the job. Yet, I’ve witnessed dozens of situations where otherwise qualified people did not get an interview, an invitation to apply, or the job because they lacked the minimum degree qualifications on the job posting. Some people are willing to make exceptions but there are plenty of companies where people are just working at a pace and with such a volume that they rarely take the time to look for alternative evidence. Some companies only accept applicants with degrees from specific institutions. Fair or not, this is a reality. The degree is shorthand to some for being at least potentially qualified. It is an easy way for an initial screening. As such, there are ample situations today where not having the degree decreases your chances or sometimes restricts you from having any chance at a given job or a promotion.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 2 – Gaps

Sometimes the self-directed learning pathway leaves gaping holes in one’s education or training in a given area. A well-designed, systematic program is intended to fill most of those gaps. We can debate how well some programs do this, but certain jobs or professions call for more precision, and gaps are highly problematic. A surgeon needs to have a core set of skills and we probably don’t want surgeons who have too many gaps in those core skills. This is true in other less life-or-death jobs and fields of study as well.

Of course, self-directed learners can embrace formal study and carefully constructed learning pathways that reduce gaps in learning, but not always. This is sometimes a limitation of the self-directed learning approach. Some people can learn to play an instrument independent of a teacher, but most benefit from an expert guide.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 3 – The Network

What I call “degree drive” is a learning pathway that is often about more than just taking a series of courses, getting adequate grades, meeting graduation requirements and getting a fancy piece of paper at the end of the journey. Some, but not all, college experiences are also rich opportunities for building a network that can serve you well throughout your life. Intentional self-directed learners can certainly build powerful networks as well, but I can’t disregard the impact of being an alum from well-respected schools that offer not only a solid education but a network that can help throughout one’s life and career. Some argue that this is the true bonus of graduating from many top ranked colleges and Universities. Yes, they provide a solid educational experience, but they also give you an incredible, world-class professional network.

Self-Directed Learning Reality Check 4 – Followership

I’m quick to talk and write about developing leadership skills, but I can’t disregard the importance of learning to be a world-class follower too. Not all of us will be our own boss throughout life. Most people will hold jobs and positions where they report to others. Even when you are a CEO, you might report to a board. As such, it is important to learn to follow with excellence.

I’m not sure that being a student in school is the absolute best training ground for followership. In fact, I’m certain that it isn’t. Yet, it can be a place to learn some of the associated skills of great followers, and this can be an important journey toward great leadership. There is no question that you can learn important skills of followership through a more self-directed learning experience, but I want to at least recognize that some of the scripted or directed aspects of a schooling experience (even in more self-directed schools) can be opportunities to learn these skills.

There are many benefits to self-directed learning and I write about them often. I even go so far as to argue that nurturing self-directed learners is important for society. At the same time, for a balanced consideration, I want recognize that there can be limitations to this path, and that the degree or schooling pathway has some affordances as well.