2016 still sounds more like a made up year in the distant future than that time “a couple of years ago.” Nonetheless, a couple of years ago, Scott Wurdinger came out with a book called The Power of Project-Based Learning

There is a great deal of debate over how to define PBL. Wurdinger recounts how John Dewey had a falling out with his student William Kilpatrick when Kilpatrick (1918) said that a project could be just about anything as long as it was initiated by the student, including just sitting and listening to music (p. 14). Dewey insisted that a teacher needed to be involved to guide learning.

Kilpatrick eventually acquiesced, but we are still left with a broad definition of PBL as projects initiated by students and guided by teachers to achieve desired learning outcomes. Projects can be more or less narrowly defined to fit the subject content of a particular class or a desired final product. A math teacher might ask students to use protractors and planes to build a birdhouse, instructing students along the way to identify the various angles of the walls and their combinations. The staging of a play can be used to discuss the history of food, clothing, politics, and gender roles. Such projects bear a family resemblance in that active students engage for a prolonged period in something that is hopefully memorable, meaningful, and authentic in the contextualization of skills and knowledge. Additionally, project-based learning challenges students to deploy a variety of real-world skills like project management, teamwork, research, design, goal-completion, and on and on.

In this blog and more generally in my work with Keegan Long-Wheeler, I have talked a good bit about using games in the classroom to bolster learning. As with PBL, I think games offer memorable experiences that help to contextualize knowledge.

However, game play is in some ways closer to traditional lecture or text-based instruction than to PBL, in that game play relies on the consumption of a media produced by others. My ‘reading’ of a game, my particular experience of it, is of course grounded in my own experiences and can’t be separated from them. The active playing, especially in terms of the social elements, creates a unique or at least specific experience, but so too can reading when accompanied by a good discussion.

Instead of game based learning (or even gamification) as a parallel to project-based learning, we are working through the concept of game design as project-based learning. Rather than having students play games designed by the teacher or third party games like Civilization, Minecraft, or Reacting to the Past, what happens when students design new games?

Project-based learning and experiential learning more generally rely on feedback loops. The various schema used to describe these loops are all derivative of Dewey’s “patter on inquiry:” 1) identify a problem; 2) pose a solution; 3) test the solution against reality; 4) reflect. David Kolb adapted this model into his schema for “experiential learning:”

David Kolb's 4-part experiential learning cycleSimilar wheel-type schemas have been designed for project-based learning:

This PBL diagram from the Buck Institute for Education suggests a more proscriptive approach certainly than what William Kilpatrick would have wanted. In the modern age of narrowly defined grade-level standards in K-12 schools and integrated learning objectives in higher education curricula, it can be difficult to give up class time and control. Nonetheless, the prompts for projects, the problems being addressed, can provide direction for both the subject matter and skills that the project will develop.

Game Design as PBL

There are several models for game design, but many are variations of an iterative/looping cycle:

As with project based learning, game design starts with a problem or prompt for the students to address. In an English course this past fall, Prof. Honorée Jeffers challenged her students to design a choice-based story (game) that retold a classic children’s story. Students brainstormed alternate plot lines and endings. Then, Keegan coached them on how to build out these games in the text-based game software Twine. The students then built a minimum playable game. Play-testing and modification fed an iterative design loop until the project was finished.

After submitting their games, students reflected with Prof. Jeffers on the structures of their narratives, identifying the inflection points in their alternate plots and the choices that authors make as they write.

Prof. Jeffers’ original writing assignment was already a project-based learning approach to understanding literature. Rather than just reading and dissecting classic children’s story, students produced their own modifications as way to practice the skills they were studying.

The added dimension of game-design helped to further highlight the choices the students were making in their stories. Rather than distracting from the focal content and skills of the English class, the game-design project foregrounded that material. In addition to highlighting character choices in a reading or even creatively writing new choices, the game-design project asked them to map out these choices and figure out why they would be interesting and fun for a game player. Game-design thus reinforced the learning objectives and also introduced students to further skills like project management, multimedia asset (images, audio, & video) sourcing, and some coding.