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  • Reflections on Teaching: ‘I Draw Inspiration from What Captivates My Students’

Reflections on Teaching: ‘I Draw Inspiration from What Captivates My Students’

By Mark Smith

At AFS, my colleagues and I are constantly looking for ways to encourage students to be open to new revelations, to allow space for wonder in their daily lives and to find purpose rooted in authentic inspiration.

But how can we, as teachers, inspire our students to invest in themselves, in their learning and the world around them?

As I explored this question, I started by asking myself this: What fascinates my Middle School students? After wrestling with a variety of answers, I kept returning to this unusual source — video games.

I can easily relate to the captivating power of video games because I spent much of my childhood trying to defeat evil Bowser, rescue Princess Zelda or dominate the competition in Ken Griffey Junior’s Major League Baseball (all on my Super Nintendo). Of course, the graphics, cut-scenes and immersive nature of video games have evolved exponentially since I was playing video games in Middle School.

But what is it about video games that draws us in, keeps us coming back? How can we, as educators, capitalize on this gravitational pull that has kids willing to invest so much time and emotion in them? Were there lessons here that I could apply to my classroom?

As I began to research the history of video games and their development, I began to see the patterns. I realized that it all starts with a compelling storyline. Nintendo executives will tell you that dazzling graphics or innovative immersion will never make a game successful on their own. In fact, Nintendo will not invest in the production of a game unless it has a compelling storyline.

From there, the game must encompass naturally iterative levels of accomplishment. For example, in Zelda, you can’t get the Master Sword until you’ve proven that you have mastered the basics of combat. At the same time, the levels can’t be too challenging or too easy. At either extreme, the interest is gone and the game likely will never be played again.

Once you’ve drawn a player in and have them developing their skills, you need to recognize their progress. In the video-game industry, this is called badging. If you take a trip through our Middle School hallway on any day, you will very likely hear kids comparing their badges — What light are you? What worlds have you unlocked? Badging brings kids back, even after they have beaten The Boss. It keeps them practicing their skills, honing their craft to make sure they measure up — and so they can brag.

For me, as a Middle School history teacher, the storyline is rarely an issue. I benefit from a plethora of anecdotes, hooks and stories to draw the audience in. The real challenge lies in creating an accessible scaffold of iterative levels of learning. For example, when teaching writing, I often approach this by breaking down their writing into chunks or components: topic sentences, context, evidence and analysis. As students master a level, they can move on to the next, more complex level, until they are ready to take on The Boss by putting it all together. Then, I make it a point to celebrate their successes publicly.

Over the years, I’ve seen Gameification become increasingly popular in education. As I explore the framework more fully, I am looking forward to more overtly including game-derived aspects — “experience points” or “levels” and “bosses” — in my class to make the relationship more transparent.

Many parents and educators write off video games because they believe that they are a waste of time and they only expose our students to violence or teach them other antisocial behaviors. What this fails to recognize is that there is an underlying belief that kids do learn from video games.

So, yes, kids can learn negative behaviors from video games, but they can also learn positive lessons about problem-solving and even community membership as gaming becomes increasingly interconnected.

As a teacher, I don’t know what will inspire a given student on a given day. But I do know my teaching has been inspired by the lessons I’ve found I can apply from video games. Through this approach to skill building, I hope students not only become better writers, but also recognize the value in living a life of intellectual adventure. Ultimately, I hope I am encouraging my students to take ownership of their own quest.

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