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PlayMaker School: Making a Play for Educational World Domination

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Those familiar with the writing on Education Unbound can easily imaging how exciting it was to see that GameDesk, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T, has opened a game-based school in Los Angeles. GameDesk is one of the leaders in the movement to incorporate the powerful learning potential of games and technology into education, so an initiative by them to begin a formal education program is big news. The new PlayMaker School begins this fall for 60 6th graders within an already established independent middle school. The  program employs a subtly different model from other game-based schools such as Quest to Learn, focusing on the making of games rather than playing or designing only.

Here is a look at how it works and how this model might influence the future of education.

The PlayMaker Model
The fundamental concept behind the PlayMaker School is that students learn real world skills by playing and making games. One significant aspect of this, and one which aligns nicely with the country’s struggle to move from consumers of the world’s products to producers, is the idea that students will be learning to innovate, create, and produce their own products as the primary focus of their education (PlayMaker School, GameDesk). The process of understanding real problems, researching information about them, and designing and creating solutions to address them, allows students to gain a full range of academic skills that align perfectly and practically with the demands of the working world they will eventually enter. This is all the more powerful because they are learning how to do this in middle school rather than high school or college.

The fundamental components of the program are this focus on making and discovering, the use of "Adventure Maps" to guide what, how, and when students learn, Common Core-based formative assessments, an emphasis on developing practical digital skills, meaningful collaboration, and support for developing 21st Century Skills such as critical thinking and social emotional literacy.
All of this happens at PlayMaker through four fundamental learning blocks as described on the GameDesk site:

  • Learning through play: PlayMaker is a challenge-driven, playful environment in which students role play and develop knowledge of complex systems.
  • Learning through making: Hands-on building, designing, deconstructing, rebuilding and tinkering help students at PlayMaker  understand how systems work and how to apply that knowledge in real and meaningful ways.
  • Learning through discovery and inquiry: Investigation in different areas allows students to learn how to research and create their own meaning around core concepts.
  • Learning through Interest-driven design: The pursuit of individual interests is one of the defining traits of The PlayMaker School. This helps students to discover their own unique talents and how they can apply them in the real world.
    (GameDesk)

In addition to these four fundamental building blocks of the program the school employs two other innovative tactics to individualize learning and assess the impact of the program – Adventure Maps and Character Sheets.

Adventure Maps and Character Sheets
These two characteristics of PlayMaker, more than any others, place it at the forefront of what education could be in the near future. While some focus on free online content or adaptive learning technologies to produce individualized paths to learning, GameDesk has made student-centered, interest-driven, individual paths to knowledge the center of the PlayMaker School experience.

Modeled after the maps that children are already familiar with from adventure games, each student at Playmaker has the opportunity to pick their own path to learning which is represented on an actual map that presents the decision points that students will make in pursuit of learning objectives. This model not only makes students accountable for their own education, but it also breaks down the industrial education model which forces each student through an identical path, thus robbing them of individuality and stifling their creativity.

Character Sheets are also based on a gaming concept that students are already familiar with and provide a new and intuitive way for students, parents, and teachers to track learning progress and skills development. The idea is that, just like in RPGs, students’ "characters" will evolve and develop over time. Character sheets are a way do display and chronicle that advancement.  Here is a sample character sheet from Lord of the Rings online as an example for those not familiar with the concept:
[justino-lotro]
Now imagine this type of character sheet featuring student produced avatars and categories to show Common Core specific attributes (objectives) and the student’s current level of proficiency at each of them. If accurately done, this provides a very handy and accessible visual reference for student academic progress.

A Plan to Scale Up
This single 6th grade classroom is not the end for PlayMaker though. They have their sights set on educational world domination, as any good game should. The organization has received a substantial donation from AT&T to create a learning laboratory called Learning Center, which will include "a ‘classroom of the future’ where new digital tools will be developed, tested, evaluated, and aligned with academic standards; and free access to an online portal of digital learning content, as well as support for teachers to learn how to integrate it"  (Miller).

This Learning Center will be, according to GameDesk executive director Lucien Vattel,“a clearing house for all the best work in this space and we want the entire education community to contribute content to the site, from the professional developer, to the educator in Kansas, to the creative and tenacious parents and kids at home."

This intentional plan to advance the model and help spread it to other schools is the key feature that makes the PlayMaker School truly unique among institutions that are venturing into the GBL arena. The folks at GameDesk are not satisfied with making education better and more enjoyable for a few local students. They want to spread the word, resources, and expertise so that anyone interested in game-based education can help their own students learn through play.