Teaching for Relevancy and Curiosity

~ Vince Day, Program Director for Computer Science and Interactive Technologies

Three years ago, which in the world of gaming might as well be a lifetime, I had the opportunity to offer a Game Design class to a group of SCH Academy Upper School students.  While my classroom teaching experience up until that time had been limited teaching teachers, I was more than ready for the chance to connect and collaborate with students. At the time my gaming prowess was bound by a childhood immersed in Atari, Nintendo, and Sega Genesis, along with a freshman year of college solaced in NHL 97 on the Genesis console.  Although an argument could be made that I should have been more dedicated to course work, the hours I spent gaming were the most engaging and focused time for me during that transitional year.
To prepare for the student Game Design class, I had to let go of the memory of hours upon hours of intense, joyous concentration in front of a screen—time spent outsmarting digital opponents and farfetched worlds of imaginary conquest.  If the truth be told, I had taken on the responsibility for teaching the class for that very reason—the desire to understand exactly what components of gaming had gripped my imagination for so many years, and to be able to create it, albeit very simply, myself.
I began to spend a great deal of time researching gaming in education—evaluating game design tools, listening to podcasts, and connecting with other educators.  I soon realized that there was little in the way of engaging curriculum that would satisfy course requirements that I had put into place while also appealing to high school students who were most likely more interested in gaming than coursework...sound familiar?
Given my background in technology, I explored a variety of online resources including Game Star Mechanic, Game Maker, and Game Salad as complete guides throughout the first semester of the course. I was, ready to engage students in the process of understanding the very basics of gaming design, thinking they would be as excited as I was.  I was in for a surprise; the students were more interested in their earned grades. My students were largely focused on using online tutorials in order to do this. What had happened to my naïve enthusiasm? What pieces had I been missing?
In my zealous approach to the class, what I had failed to remember is that the kids in front of me had been raised in an environment dominated by technology, unlike my own adolescence.  They were using messaging services to communicate, social media to interact, websites and mobile technology for online shopping, fantasy sports, gaming, and so much more.  Online resources and tutorials offered valuable supplemental teaching tools to them in ways that brought almost instant feedback to their design efforts. Being in the classroom with them, I came to realize that they were far more focused on the end goal, completing the assignment to get a good grade, than I had ever considered.  I had not done enough preparatory work to foster the key elements of an engaging learning experience—collaboration, creativity, feedback, and reflection.
I, too, was the learner in that course, raising vital questions for myself as a teacher.  How do we create learning environments that foster creative and critical thinking skills?  How do we encourage students to move beyond grades and to cultivate inquiry skills beyond problem solving to problem finding, idea generation, and divergent thinking?  How do we cultivate deep thinkers, not just good standardized test takers?
This year I have the chance to teach Web Design to all ninth grade SCH Academy students.  I know that I did a better job of preparing the kids for the course work, helping them to build their knowledge of collaborative behaviors and sharing my knowledge with them.  As a result, I shifted from a mindset focused on being the expert, standing in front of the room telling students how to develop websites, to a more student focused role combining discussion, collaboration, and technology to build the skills required to create websites that students care about.
The greatest pleasure I have had this year has been watching students that I may have prejudged as quiet or disruptive become team members and classroom mentors.  Beyond question, the most rewarding moment of the year thus far was a comment from a parent who said, “You have shown him that he is not a traditional learner. That is invaluable.”  I was taken aback and very moved.  I now better understand that teachers can make a difference in a student’s life by guiding them and subsequently allowing them to learn in unfamiliar situations, as long as the setting suits their individual learning style.
I often reflect on my experience as a student.  Was I a mediocre student or was I disengaged?  While it was most likely a combination of low academic standards and detachment, I understand that it was not my job to be an idle learner or to be engaged in a class where the instructor or teacher did not attempt to develop my aptitude for creativity or interests as a student.  On the contrary, it is clear to me that schools have an opportunity to enrich student-learning experiences that encourage enthusiasm, enact relevancy, and heighten curiosity.
Read more on Vince's blog: http://vincentday.org/
Twitter - @VincentDay