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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.