It isn’t often my whole conception of how I teach shifts, but it did yesterday. I had one of the most powerful conversations around education of my career yesterday. And the people who shifted my thinking were thirty-eight students between the ages of ten and twelve.

You may have picked up from my writing lately that the idea of gaming in education has been swirling around in my head since the Teaching and Learning with Vision conference. These two TED talks have also shaped my ideas around them.

The first thing I noted was how true the idea of ‘elementary school’ (primary for us in Australia) could easily be seen as a “place for girls”. If I had to be honest with myself, I think almost all our boys would say that, even the ones that maintain a positive attitude to school. And it pains me to say that, since I am a relatively rare male primary school teacher. My first sensation was of having let the boys down.

The second thing that struck me was the idea that gaming was the current generation of boys’ culture, and at school we either ignore it or stigmatise it. How would I feel if that were my culture being denigrated? I mean, at our school, we cater for students who like music, art, reading, writing, maths, science, technology, languages, sport.... how do we cater for those who are into gaming? We don’t even try. In fact, we actively discourage it.

So Simone and I sat the whole class down and started the conversation by showing the second of these two TED talks. Yes, much of it went over their heads, but the ensuing conversation really opened my eyes.

You may gasp at my naivety at what amazed me; please bear in mind that although I’m heavily into blogging and microblogging, in general, I don’t ‘game’.

Of our forty three students present, thirty six identified themselves as ‘gamers’. Every boy present identified himself as a gamer. From our discussion, I would say most of these students game for between one and two hours per night. Many of them do more than this. The gamers represented the entire spectrum of our class – troubled boys, engaged boys, high flying girls, quiet girls... the works. I was absolutely gobsmacked. A quick calculation in my head revealed that a fair proportion of them were spending as much time gaming as they did in school, when you take into account weekends and holidays, when they tend to game more.

Simone and I questioned them – what is it about games that makes you so engrossed in it? Why don’t you have that same passion for school? Some of the quotes were stunning in their perception:

“I want to be the best at a particular game. I can see how close I am getting to being the best”
“In school, you have targets, but you don’t see how close you are to achieving that target. In games, you know how close you are to levelling up, and that encourages you to keep going”
“In school, I feel like if I make a mistake, it’s really bad. But in a game, if I make a mistake, I can go back to the saved position and try again”
“In school, we often have to finish things by a certain time, and I stress about it. But in a game, I can take as long as I like to finish a level that’s really hard”
“In games, I feel powerful”

I wanted these conversations, ideas, and this sudden burst of optimism, to be captured and shared. So I gave the students accounts on our nascent gaming site, http://thenorthschool.com/games . I told them that rather than my usual of using their first name and last initial, I would set up their account with their online gaming name (in fact, they all knew each other online already!). The queue to sign up literally went out of the door of our classroom. And students who never contribute anything were all of a sudden writing, contributing, even creating screencasts to explain to me how to play certain games.

Where to from here? Simone and I need to make our class like a game – an ‘epic adventure’. How we do that is the next question. But clearly, whether you agree with the extent to which these kids are gaming or not, it cannot be ignored. Students can clearly articulate why they prefer gaming to school. We need to do our best to close that gap.

If you’re interested in getting something going with us on this, and you’d like some of your kids to join our gaming community, drop us a line at games@thenorthschool.com

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