Education, Games and TIES

Education, Games and TIES


Last week I had the unexpected pleasure of keynoting the TIES conference in Minneapolis. The invitation came at the last minute when their scheduled keynote (the incomparable Jane McGonigal) fell ill. Luckily, the organizers reached me in time so I could make it to Minnesota, and because I had done a recently featured TEDx talk on kids and games earlier this year, I had some ready material to work with and remix. If you want to see my keynote slides, they are available here.

TIES brings together over 3000 k-12 educators for days of hands-on creative and inspiration discussion around new teaching techniques and technologies. As I waited for the giant main hall to fill up with attendees, I couldn’t help but notice three interesting things about the teachers in the room:

  1. They sat down from the front to the back of the hall. This is generally the opposite pattern of most types of audiences who are generally reluctant to sit up front.
  2. They were young: if there was a crisis of young people going into elementary education, the crowd at TIES certainly didn’t show it – and the astonishing number of iPads and macs in the room made it feel all the younger.
  3. They were as engaged in the topic of Gamification (perhaps more so) than just about any audience I’ve spoken to in the past year. My perception of this was reinforced both by the sheer volume of questions I received (live and on twitter), and meaningful conversations I had during that day and in the ensuing week.

(small aside: I also learned that the evergreen educational game Oregon Trail was originated at TIES. How cool is that?)

Lost in much of the broken rhetoric about who’s responsible for the general failure of American
education is the fact that so many of our teachers genuinely care about the outcomes in their classrooms. Despite efforts to paint them as tenure-addled burn outs, many of the most inspirational stories in our culture today come from brilliant, driven and out of the box teachers.

If you had a chance to come to GSummit in NYC – or if you are a regular reader of this blog – you’ve probably already heard the story of Ananth Pai. Mr. Pai transformed a failing third grade class using off the shelf games on the Nintendo DS and PCs, with money largely from his and his wife’s own pocket. After being blown away by his passion and drive both online and after accepting my invitation to speak at GSummit, I had the extreme pleasure of finally getting to see his class in person toward the end of the day. All I can say from that short visit is “wow”.

We arrived unannounced during the kids’ free time – when they can literally do anything in the class they want. With 2 exceptions, every kid in class was playing an educational game – of their own choosing and volition. Most were playing with and against their peers, clustered into 4 groups around the room . They were animated, collaborating, taunting, cajoling, helping, challenging and generally having fun learning with and from each other. It was awesome to see.

Mr. Pai’s case study might be easy for academics to dismiss and ridicule (as many at a so-called symposium earlier this year thought worthwhile to do). It may be similarly straightforward for entire school districts to ignore and for “anti-screen” folks to deride as another technological crutch. But when you start unpacking his example, you come to realize that it’s the combination of focused and attentive teaching coupled with a modality (social gaming) that kids really love that is producing extraordinary results. It’s really amazing what a few thousand dollars and a thoughtful teacher can accomplish.

Now, after having come face to face with the motivated, engaged and engaging professionals on the front line of teaching innovation – I can only say that I am extremely hopeful for the future of our nation and its children. Through the combination of great teaching, powerful Gamification and entrepreneurial effort, our next generations have a chance at previously unimaginable greatness. While some of our edupanic is certainly justified, much of it may be based on fear of the unknown. Put another way, we may not yet have accepted the shocking differences between our generations – both as a result and in search of, game experiences.

I believe this suggests we need to spend our time changing adults, rather than kids.

Want to support Mr. Pai and the thousands of other teachers that want to teach with Gamification? We’ll be increasing our focus on the subject here on the Gamification blog and at GSummit 2012 in San Francisco. How would you most like to get involved?


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  1. 30 years ago I was using Apple IIe computers in my class and had children using LOGO and a Pick-A-Path story designing program. I had some amazing success with students who had previously been failing. Looking back, it was not the gamification that made the difference it was the fact that I really wanted my students to do well. I have seen awesome computer teaching tools in classes where the teacher doesn’t care, with little success. I have seen classes with innovative caring teachers, and no technology at all, having great success.
    You say ‘Through the combination of great teaching, powerful Gamification and entrepreneurial effort, our next generations have a chance at previously unimaginable greatness’.
    We definitely need the great teaching, I just not sure that we want to put too much emphasis on Gamification.