By Steve Isaacs

The past seven years have marked a true transformation in my approach to teaching and learning. This was in large part a function of watching my own children and how they learn.

My daughters have been demonstrating a desire to learn outside of school based on their interests. When rainbow loom was all the rage, my daughter Leila would go right to YouTube to figure out how to make different types of bracelets with complex stitches. As I became more aware, it became apparent that this is how kids truly learn.

Take Minecraft for example. The game was introduced without a game manual or instructions. The community of players has created directions, tutorials, volumes of documentation, and a vast amount of video content to support the game. This says so much about learning, and more importantly how we learn. Talk about intrinsic motivation and creating for an authentic audience!

I teach game design and development. I was never formally taught about game design. It began with my passion for games and fascination with how they were made and what made a game good. This dates back to my childhood days with my Apple II+ computer, my 300 baud modem, and Mr. Behson, my computer programming teacher, who provided us with an opportunity to create a game as an option for our final project.

Teacher Steve Isaacs

Teacher Steve Isaacs

Choice/quest-based learning in my classroom

Fast-forward about 25 years. After years of teaching, I came to realize that I really wanted to embrace how kids learn in informal spaces and provide an environment where they could find and nurture their passion. I started out by adding “side quests,” extra credit projects for my students to complete. I was trying to add a gamified layer to my existing curricula. Soon after, I decided to move to a complete quest-based system allowing students to choose their learning path.

I had some friends using 3dGameLab and decided to give it a go. 3DGameLab is a quest-based learning management system. The teacher creates quests, such as in an RPG (role-playing game). The quests can be linear, where a student completes one quest and that opens another. Quests can be nonlinear, where completed quests open new choices in learning pathways. The system is set up so that certain quests have prerequisites to unlock them while others may not. In the spirit of gamification, teachers can award badges, achievements and other rewards, and students earn XP (experience points) instead of grades. Essentially, a teacher can either approve a quest when it is completed or return it for a student to improve upon the quest based on teacher feedback.

Reviewing student submissions provides a great opportunity to engage in the feedback loop with students. I provide feedback to further guide the process. I am continually adding new quests, but once they are established they remain as options for students for years to come. Like any good teaching, the quests are continually re-evaluated and modified or eliminated as needed. As new ideas arise, the class gets a refresher and continues to stay relevant, but reinventing the wheel continually is not necessary. All activities align to the learning goals for the course, but choice in how students get there provides a great sense of autonomy and empowerment.

Another key component to my choice-based approach is to provide my students with a variety of resources, thus putting much of the learning in their hands. I have come to realize that my expertise is in teaching and guiding students through the iterative design process inherent in making games—that is guiding students through creating a prototype of the game, testing it, analyzing it, and refining it.

The tool the students use is neither important nor something I need to teach directly. Students often come with a level of interest or expertise that will drive that learning. I support the process and learn with and from my students. I love sitting down with a student and figuring things out together. I model the learning process, and they see my excitement when it comes to tackling a new challenge. I think there is great value in having the students see me as a co-learner in the classroom while their interest drives the process.

This is how it unfolded for me, but your path may be different. Consider bringing student choice into your classroom, or consider additional ways you can embrace the power of choice and encourage passion-based learning.

Steve Isaacs’ daughter Leila demonstrates the innate motivation to learn based on interest and choice.

Steve Isaacs’ daughter Leila demonstrates the innate motivation to learn based on interest and choice.

How to get started creating a choice-based learning environment

Providing opportunities for students to choose does not require a complete course overhaul. I would suggest the following points of entry.

1. Offer choice in terms of assessment: There are many ways for students to demonstrate their learning. Is it necessary for every student to submit a poster or brochure? I don’t know about you, but evaluating 100 or more brochures would bore me to tears. Why not give options and allow students to choose how they would like to demonstrate their learning? Some options may include:

a. Create a world or interactive experience in Minecraft.

b. Design a board game or digital game.

c. Produce a poster or video.

d. Give an oral presentation.

e.Make a quiz using quizzlet or Kahoot!

f. Allow students to propose an alternate assignment that appeals to them.

2. Develop a choice-based unit of study: Some of the teachers in my building have taken this approach and created a unit of study based on the topic at hand and students choose from a variety of learning paths within the unit.

3. Co-create activities with your students: I have a number of colleagues I respect very much that often mention the fact that education is one of the only industries where we rarely ask our clients for their input. Students are sure to take ownership in an activity that they helped to develop.

I hope you found this information helpful. Please feel free to reach out to me via email at stevei2071@gmail.com.

Steve Isaacs is passionate about game-based learning and is one of the founding members of the Games4Ed Initiative as well as a co-founder of the weekly #games4ed Twitter chat. He teaches Game Design and Development at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge. Isaacs was honored as the 2016 ISTE Outstanding Teacher of the Year as well as the state lead PBS Digital Innovator for 2016-17. Isaacs’ work with EdTech companies led to the founding of #EdTechBridge, a Twitter chat and online community aimed at helping EdTech stakeholders build collaborative relationships to create better EdTech products. Through his involvement with a number of EdTech organizations, Isaacs has become a Brainpop Certified Educator, Microsoft Innovative Education Expert, Common Sense Certified EdTech Coach, and a global Minecraft Mentor. You can follow Isaacs on Twitter, @mr_isaacs, and keep up with his work through his blog, gamesandlearning1.blogspot.com.

Outside of his role as educator, Isaacs is an event producer for Minefaire, a massive Minecraft fan experience aimed at fans, educators and parents. Upcoming shows include Charlotte, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

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