Innovative learning turns gamers into designers

Shirley Boys' High School students and teacher Mike Skinner.
Teacher Mike Skinner with highly commended team members.

Game design in a social sciences class combines authentic contexts, key competencies and an innovative learning environment. Shirley Boys High School.

During an open night at Shirley Boys’ High School for prospective families, a group of Year 10 students waited for their audience. The lads fired up their devices and pulled out decks of cards and it was game on.

The students are in a social sciences class working on prototype games about road safety. Their best work was entered into the NZ Transport Agency’s Game Design Competition. Open night was a chance to test their games with the school community and get real feedback. Soon, youngsters clustered around the table, trying out a card game, and parents sat down to be talked through a digital game prototype.

“It was interesting to see the perspective of young kids who are the main audience for our game,” says student Niko.  “About 90 per cent said they would play it.”

“And we got some ideas that would help improve the game,” adds team mate Joel.

The class had researched what makes popular games work, and ran concise inquiries into road safety topics.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing the creation of all sorts of different games, seeing my classmates work on card games and board games. There were classmates outside working on a sports game,” says Ethan.

The students sought early feedback from each other through user testing.

“We would send them an email with a link to a Google Group forum and they could comment on the game there,” says Mitchell. According to the students, the unit was engaging.

“We looked at road safety facts and science and then we got into groups and came up with ideas for a game. It was fun to do it. I like a challenge – and it was a challenge,” says Cameron.

Niko again: “Most children our age are interested in games. Taking something that young people enjoy and putting it into education is a good thing. Everyone could follow their interests.”

Innovative learning environment

Head of social sciences Mike Skinner team-teaches the class of 61 Year 10 students with 2nd year history teacher John Thurston. The game design competition held appeal because:

  • It was a good test of the high school’s innovative learning environment
  • It helped students relate to others
  • It provided an engaging context for content knowledge.

Shirley Boys’ High School will move to a new campus in 2019, a result of rebuilding plans following the Canterbury Earthquakes. In the meantime, a large purpose built space has been made for teachers to trial an innovative learning environment with enough floor area for team teaching 5 classes and 10 break-out spaces to accommodate groups from 5 - 30. It includes the power plugs and connectivity needed for this BYOD class.

“With the game design project, students are sprawled out on the floor working in their groups. In my normal classroom, wouldn’t be able to have more than one group do that at a time. The others would be out in the freezing stairwell, as opposed to utilising a breakout space in this environment,” says Mike.

Students working on a physical activity game headed to the nearby PE department to borrow gear – the shared understandings among staff about teaching styles make this easy.

“It’s almost informally done. Previously it was a bigger deal to organise.”

Key competency

“The outcome I wanted, the main driver was relating to others, and how that develops through working in groups. If they make a good game out of it, that’s almost a by-product,” he says.

Mike says he added structure to the group work by assigning and explaining roles so groups did not skip over important tasks. And he provided an online forum for group feedback.

“They have to give feedback to their group members so we have a good basis next time to focus the group work. I’m a facilitator. I’m not a gamer. These guys have been teaching me about computer games.”

The social sciences class draws on content from geography, history, social studies, media studies and legal studies, with some NCEA credits available. Mike is aiming to build on the potential for social sciences to be less prescriptive and more tailored to his students and the environment around them, which includes the Avon River, the residential red zone, and the streets where road safety is experienced.