Notes on a failed lesson

DIY Board Game by San Jose Library, CC BY-SA 2.0
DIY Board Game by San Jose Library, CC BY-SA 2.0


At the very start of this session I used the idea of simple games to get to know my Higher Computing class and clearly define the importance of rules, structure and boundaries when problem solving. They had the option to play War, Shove Ha’penny or Penny Football and learn how to win (or at least how to avoid defeat). My class were well motivated by the opportunity to spend around 80 minutes exploring, in some cases, these >new< games! The intended outcome, relating to computer programming, seemed to be an easy step for them and I noted that the students, having spent the time playing those games, were able (in the main) to use them as a reference during the remainder of the unit. So far, so good.

In the next unit I returned to the games analogy when tackling the Fetch, Execute cycle (which relates to the internal workings of a computer processor). Instead of having the Higher Computing class play simple games which relate to the need for boundaries I gave the class the boundaries and rules involved and set them the task of coming up with their own paper-based game to reinforce the intricacies of the Fetch, Execute cycle. I asked the students to create rather than consume and hoped that the freedom I gave them to come up with their own ideas (in groups) would result in some interesting interpretations. It did, but not as I’d hoped.

I made a few big mistakes:

Firstly, the subject matter may have been a bad choice for this kind of task. Higher Computing exams tend to require regurgitation of the Fetch, Execute cycle steps – there is no scope for scenario-based problem solving here – so it’s all a bit too abstract really I suppose. In the past I’ve employed other kinaesthetic methods for teaching this – usually involving bouncy balls or whiteboard pens being passed around the class and ending up being aimed at a target (a clean metal bin is perfect for this and gives reassuring auditory feedback). Each student had a role to play in the transfer of data from one part of the room to another. A major drawback was (I felt) that they were consuming another game and perhaps not engaging with the subject matter as deeply as they could – hence the change this year.

Secondly, I hadn’t asked the class to create a paper-based game for me before. I hadn’t modelled it either. Really daft when you think about it actually and I’ve already identified a few opportunities to introduce paper-based game creation during the programming unit for next session.

The resulting game ideas (no group finished their game in the allotted 80 minutes, although they were all keen to continue creation for the rest of the week!) all had one thing in common. None of them related to the Fetch, Execute cycle at all! The students had concentrated on the game mechanisms before thinking about how they were going to reinforce the subject matter. After “letting go” and listening to (and attempting to guide them a little in)  their discussions I knew about 40 minutes in that they were going about it the wrong way however I held on to the hope that they would suddenly “get it” and produce the goods. You already know that this didn’t happen and I ended up looking at a deck of cards, monopoly board and snakes and ladders board. No group had any inkling how they were going to create a structure for their game.

The intended outcomes of the lesson were to be able to correctly sequence the Fetch, Execute read and write cycles and use the correct terminology when doing so. However by diverting the focus from the content to the means of delivery I undoubtedly failed the class that Monday morning.

So I spent the next two hours of non-contact time creating my own example game (which, in retrospect I should have done anyway!) that mimicked the process of the Fetch, Execute cycle and forced the players to use the terms and sequences to make progress. I tested the finished game out with some of the students later in the week and, although it had a few flaws, I feel they learned about the subject matter. This was what I really wanted from the class in the first place, but I also wanted them to engage more deeply by creating their own resources. I wanted them to create rather than consume. Next time I’ll remember that if I want students to change, they need help and mentoring to do so.

Reflection on use of Safari Photo Africa as stimulus for P7 writing

Over the last few weeks I’ve been using Safari Photo Africa with a P7 class to inspire their writing. As I see them once a week we have been creating podcast material since August but the interest was definitely beginning to wane. I decided that first-hand experience of an African safari would inspire them to create a script for their final task: a short section for a whole class radio show.

I gave them the option of imaginative response, factual writing or poetry. I also allowed learners to write notes while watching others play the game. In later weeks I let some of the class move on to the machines to type up their scripts or begin to record their podcast as I noted some of the class were disengaging with the task, rather than being inspired by it. Here’s a section of my notes which were jotted into my iPod straight after the class left in week 2.

Audio cable connected to smartboard, sound much better. Took class through giraffe level. Less appropriate as took long time to find creatures so class disengaged. More wanted to do silly things and show off which at one point required game to be restarted. Teacher in class to see resource being used impressed by potential. Tighter planning required to keep class engaged. Some good extended responses to questions: whats a hyrax? (An antelope); where do vultures nest? (In rock crevices) – new learning for many pupils (and me!). End of lesson feedback: class agreed elephants level was better as more happened. Would have been good to have class in groups to play game while others worked on recordings.

After reflecting on the second week I decided to spend a lot more time with the game before the final session with the P7 class. By this point two-thirds of the class had played the game and more than half had made significant progress with their writing. I wanted to take on board their feedback about enjoying the game more when things happened (I’ll admit, finding your way down off a mountainside is a good challenge (the giraffe level, week 2), but in an hour-long lesson where pupils were taking turns it just didn’t suit) and to provide the class with an action-packed finale! I played through the game for another six assignments and found two excellent scenarios to place the class in: a helicopter safari where the character didn’t have to move, just take photographs (quickly – which made it very challenging and a great team level), and a night-time lion hunt where the photographer could be as easily eaten by a lurking crocodile as pounced on by a lion.

The helicopter assignment was very successful as there was a lot of action, audio instructions and animals to take photographs of. I also changed the structure of the lesson so those who had already written their stories or poems could make progress with typing up their scripts then begin to record the last part of their podcast. This worked really well as it allowed me to help those who were struggling with storage space for their recordings while entrusting two game experts to guide those who hadn’t played the game before.

I had also made sure to work through a few extra levels and save games at exciting points. This allowed me to change the game quickly to a night safari during the second half of the period. The night safari follows a lion hunt and is a much more challenging assignment. The remaining pupils had to restart the level quite often as they got too close to the pride or one of the crocodiles lurking in the dark depths of the river.

Over the three weeks there were many successes – I noted a high degree of co-operation between peers and a levelling of the playing field with regard to general knowledge as well as game-playing technique. One pupil who regularly struggled with podcasting skills became one of the game experts and patiently explained the controls to his classmates to allow them to make the most of their time as the photographer. Another pupil shared her surprisingly detailed knowledge of the animals appearing on the screen. Surprising that is until she told me that she had been to Kenya on holiday with her family and had gone on a real safari. She regularly commented on the accuracy of the game in its portrayal of the environment and the actions of the animals roaming them. Two weeks on from using the game, the podcasts are nearing completion and sounding fantastic! The variety of writing has surprised: poems, stories, news reports, even a few raps!

There were a few technical hitches too. I had originally planned to have two pupils play the game at one time (inspired by Dawn Hallybone’s posts on using a similar game on Nintendo Wii) by setting up an iPod Touch as a wireless mouse controller for the pupil controlling the camera. The other pupil was to use the laptop to move the photographer around the environment. As I explained in my last post on Safari Photo Africa, I managed to set this up successfully at home but due to interference in the classroom the virtual wireless network regularly dropped out so the iPod could not be used. If I used the game again in future I would make sure I had a wireless mouse / Gyromouse rather then the convoluted virtual networking setup.

Safari Photo Africa, although released in 2006, kept a demanding P7 class enthralled in the main and certainly inspired their writing (which I’ll share in a future post along with some podcast snippets if I can). An added bonus to using the game was that as well as allowing situated cognition and development of themed writing each photo the pupils took within the game was saved to the laptop hard disk, meaning that good shots can be printed for wall displays, added to pupil work in future or added to blog posts (like this one!). In fact I intend to use them to create African-themed Christmas cards and calendars in the final session with the class before the holidays.

Getting ready for a safari

Tomorrow I take my laptop, preloaded with Safari Photo Africa – Wild Earth, to the Junior school to immerse the class in a scenario closely linked to the work they are doing with their primary teacher. I only have an hour with them, so want to make sure everything is set up to work as quickly as possible.

Originally I had wanted to make use of a Nintendo Wii with Wild Earth African Safari but this was not possible (or affordable) as a proof of concept in the timeframe available, so I found an old copy of Safari Photo Africa – Wild Earth for PC and installed it on my laptop.
It looks brilliant when displayed on the data projector and allows the players to take part in a virtual animal photograph safari – taking shots for magazine articles. The photos taken in the games are automatically saved to the user’s My Pictures directory on the PC, meaning that they can be used in other applications at a later date. I think this is also possible in the Nintendo Wii version of the game but imagine it’s a little trickier to get the images onto a PC.


When you complete an assignment your photos are inserted into a magazine article = instant reward!


The main advantage of a Nintendo Wii over a laptop is that the wireless wii controller supports exploration of the game by groups of learners sat in front of the SmartBoard. I’ve read posts by Dawn Hallybone and Nicky Newbury who maximise the interactivity of the class by pairing up learners and having one pupil move and the other take the photographs. The laptop could allow this but would mean a lot of moving around and swapping places, so I wanted to try and find the best way to interact with the game wirelessly. There is a GyroMouse in my classroom but no sign of drivers or installation CDs and I wanted to be able to use the keyboard wirelessly as well. Then I remembered reading about using an iPod Touch as a wireless mouse and found Logitech TouchMouse, an app which not only allows users to control the mouse pointer on the PC using the portable device but also access its keyboard. I installed it and after a little bit of fiddling with Windows 7’s firewall settings (you need to allow it to access the Private networks, not Public – go through Control Panel for this) I got it to work!

The only issue with using the iPod Touch as a wireless controller is that it needs a wifi connection that is shared with the laptop to communicate. This is a real issue in school where there are no wireless routers and a very tight rein on network security. When I was Mobile Learning Leader for Inverurie Academy I investigated using the school’s MacBook White to set up ad-hoc wifi networks to allow iPods to access the Internet. There was little success with the Internet-access part, but the iPods were all able to communicate with each other. If only there was a way to do this in Windows 7 I thought – and luckily enough, there is!

After a little Google searching I found Virtual Router – a freeware program which allows your laptop to be set up as a wifi hotspot with the intention of sharing its Internet connection with other devices. Set up is incredibly simple – you give your ad-hoc network a name and a password and it uses WPA2 encryption to ensure no rogue devices interfere with the laptop!

“at this moment i am typing part of my blog using the ipod touch wireless keyboard – i have turned off all connection to the INTERNET and only had to restart the logitech touchuse wireless server!”

It seems to work best if you access the iPod app before starting the Logitech TouchMouse wireless server. If you don’t you may find that the devices don’t connect.

Unfortunately although the keyboard presses do get sent to the laptop, using the keyboard for games control seems impossible. Neither Logitech nor HippoRemote Lite allowed me to control the game character so I may need to allow one child to use the laptop. This may mean one learner is looking at the laptop screen instead of the SmartBoard but if I can position the laptop in a suitable place it may be a minor issue.

I ran through the first assignment on my own and it took about 40 minutes – too long for the lesson tomorrow but if I can set up saved games to allow the class to jump in at appropriate points (meeting the elephant herd for the first time, giraffes grazing, the swimming crocodiles around the elderly elephants) I feel that the class will be able to generate excellent material for their podcasts.

If you have been using computer games to augment your teaching and learning I highly recommend you visit the Consolarium site. This service, offered by Education Scotland (new name for LT Scotland) aims to explore and share how the appropriate use of computer games can have a positive impact on teaching and learning. It has received international praise and attention, and for good reason.

Threshold adventurers, my reflections on #SLF11

On Wednesday this week I attended my first Scottish Learning Festival at the SECC in Glasgow.

The first seminar was entitled Literacy Through Technology. HT of Dalmarnock Primary Nancy Clunie explained how the school first used blogs, wikis, then a dedicated website to engage the entire school in an international exchange through the Comenius programme offered by the British Council. I was particularly interested in attending this seminar as blogging has not yet been embedded in my current school and I was keen find out as much as I could about proven benefits to learning and potential technical issues to aid future whole school dialogue. Nancy showed how her school used eTwinning to improve pupil literacy in their email and blog exchanges with students in other schools in the European Union. Nancy explained that her pupils were struck by how few spelling errors were in posts made by Polish students. They decided that they should be extra careful with their own communications because of this, but Nancy did point out that although their electronic literacy improved it did not translate to their written work! Other projects and events mentioned included a multi-lingual book club and a Eurovision Song Contest-esque competition to choose a logo for their See The Sea project but Nancy was most proud of the direct communication between her pupils and those from other schools using Flashmeeting software.

After a morning negotiating the stands I was really looking forward to Tim Laver’s (@laverminded) seminar on how he has used Little Big Planet 2 as a teaching aid in his History classes. Tim began using PS3 and LBP2 after a pupil suggested he take a look at the game. He was hooked on the potential of its application in History. Although most of the levels have been created by Tim, he took time to explain that it was not educationally viable to have each pupil creating a level with the rest of the class passively watching and waiting their turn (after using the PS3 and Little Big Planet with classes in the past I can completely understand this point!!). Tim realised that the process of designing the levels were more challenging and engaging for the pupils and required a deep understanding of the topic and how these facts or concepts could be presented as a game so he created a series of worksheets to focus pupils on thinking carefully about their proposed learning outcomes. The pupils were later involved in selecting three of the level designs for creation through peer evaluation and these levels were created by Tim – who admitted this was a time consuming process – but he then showed us these games in action to highlight the high quality of level design shown by the pupils and the high impact presentation possible within Little Big Planet 2. Tim is adding video walkthroughs of these games to the littlebighistory channel on YouTube and plans to continue adding to this extremely creative resource.

I feel I scored with my choice of keynote. Sir John Jones was captivating as he explained to a packed house why he thinks The Future Is Not What It Was. How positive language can have such a beneficial effect on a child and how it can be used effectively in shaping responsible behaviour and how negative language, delivered off-the-cuff can “shred” a child’s confidence. How inspirational, emotional, caring teachings make a difference through RINGing education (making it relevant, interesting, naughty and having a giggle).

Click here to watch his SLF11 keynote

He regularly had the audience in stitches, especially when he used images of increasingly bigger cranes to highlight the benefits of double-loop thinking rather than brute-force repetition. He asked teachers to become threshold adventurers (I prefer this label to his magic weavers alternative), to allow the positive active kids to thrive: (they) “are in your face – is that not what we want?”. We all want engaged minds, not passive viewers and through personalisation of learning, a good relationship with your pupils and by teaching a love of the subject rather than a capacity to recall facts for an exam we will ensure that “they will be smart enough”… if we are good enough.

On the train home I reflected on the messages I took from each of the seminars and from exploring the stands at SLF11:

  1. All three talks promoted collaboration, passion and going the extra mile to help pupils achieve their potential.
  2. Blogs, websites and wikis are not new technologies and pupils should be using them to make learning relevant, accessible 24/7, interesting and to develop their skills as digital citizens.
  3. Well planned use of games consoles can inspire a class as well as providing teachers with a useful revision tool (passive and interactive)
  4. YouTube or other suitable video sharing services are of great benefit to educators in engaging pupils and creating the right conditions for a flipped classroom.
The only slight negative to my experience of SLF11 was the comments from other educators that it “wasn’t as good as previous years”. I heard this a lot – in the queue for coffee, in the main foyer, on the low-level train back from the SECC, even on Twitter. I can’t comment as this was my first year and I personally got a lot of great CPD from the event – CPD which would not have been as effective if I had simply watched the videos online. I hope that SLF continues to be a real-life event and that as many educators as possible benefit from the community and collaboration that these kinds of events offer.

FIFA Thursday

It is nearly the end of term and the assessments for the year are finished. The restructured S3/4 course has been designed so that the pupils are engaged in creating their own multimedia applications – hence there have been few calls for a rest day as they have been making and playing each other’s games for the last few weeks. More on that in another blog post I think as their work this year has been pretty inspirational…

I set up an old laptop (resurrected by my Advanced Higher pupils a year ago and still working well!) as a machinima station in my class, permanently hooked into the data projector feed to record walkthroughs from the ps3. The plan is to allow pupils to explore Fifa 2010/11, collaborate in multiple player games and coach new players (including me!) in how to play well. I also wanted them to try recording matches or training to build up video guides or to edit game highlights.

The two PS3 consoles were set up at either end of the classroom allowing space for the class to move around freely. It also allowed those not playing to watch or use the iPods or their own PCs. Too late I realised a selection of games (including FIFA) could have been preloaded on to the iPods. A large number of the audience chose to play The Sims 3 while waiting and I observed the same kind of peer coaching between small groups as occurred with FIFA. They organised a fair length of game (3min each half) and an inclusive practice to ensure as many of their classmates got the chance to play a game within the single periods.

Two pupils brought their own controllers and supplied the FIFA game disks which allowed at least two players on each PS3. Compared to the single player Heavy Rain which I used (selectively) with my Higher class earlier in the year and Little Big Planet (which allows multiple players but is viewed by a number of pupils as too childish unless they are building their own levels) I felt that the pupils were sharing more expertise, were more deeply involved in the experience and that the audience got more out of passive participation. For example, a number of the songs in FIFA 11 interested pupils enough to complete a complex web search to find the track and look for further songs by the same artist.

Discussions about local teams were also well informed. One pupil was attempting to show me how to round the goalkeeper by using L2 and the right analogue stick – a skill I have yet to master – and he softened my failure a little by pointing out that Aberdeen players in Fifa are probably too slow to manage tricks successfully!

If there was an obvious difference between the two main games played in my class today it was that the girls in the class preferred The Sims 3 and were more vocal in their coaching. The majority of the boys played Fifa silently, even when they were on the same team! They all responded well to the challenges set by the game and I can safely tell you that even after a free period of practice I was only hitting the net 20% of the time. Pupils will be running virtual rings around me for a while yet!

[Hotel Dusk] Game evaluation & possible use in a drama context

Late one afternoon in February an excited, inspired Drama probationer arrived in my classroom. She, as well as other Aberdeenshire probationer teachers, had just received a presentation on Games-Based Learning by the Aberdeenshire GLOW team. She’d been tipped off that I was into GBL and wanted to know more about how games consoles could be used in class to inspire and motivate her pupils, as well as make the learning experience active instead of passive.

We discussed how a game could immerse pupils into scenarios based on the noir style of film making. I’ve already mentioned the sequence of events that led us to investigate Hotel Dusk, but wanted to record our thoughts on the positives and negatives of the game engine and how Hotel Dusk could be used in a drama classroom.

Hotel Dusk is an adventure game filled with puzzles in which you need to use the objects scattered around the eponymous hotel along with more than a bit of stubborn determination. Although solutions to the puzzles are usually logical, it is not always clear why some objects need to be used instead of other similar objects. The feedback is limited to phrases such as “Not going to get anywhere using this right now.” and I found myself reaching for the cheat sheet after two hours trying to solve the “electrical room problem”. Turns out I wasn’t using my DS properly, as I can use my finger and the stylus at the same time!

<< video 1 here soon >>

Unfortunately illogical or infuriating puzzles are not the only negative to the game. You cannot get out of conversations once you have started them and this can cause problems if you are running low on battery power. This happened to me a few times on the train and even if you save regularly you always start to run out of juice at the wrong moment. That said, the conversations are one of the best bits about the game – Kyle Hyde’s hard-boiled detective role has been extremely well written – or maybe that’s a disservice to the pulp genre – it’s written in an authentic way and provides excellent material for role-play in the drama classroom.

We discussed how to make best use of the game and came up with the following ideas:

  • filming sections of dialogue or action for pupils to start a scene from
  • using character profiles to create more authentic portayals
  • use save games (max 3 per cartridge) to allow pupils to choose own path through discussions / selected scene – similar idea to ergodic texts mentioned by Derek Robertson
  • filming pupils and somehow embedding them in sections of the game

We are now at the stage where a bid has been submitted to Aberdeenshire GLOW team for equipment to try this out in school, hopefully in the August-October term. Time will be given to allow groups of pupils to experience the game in greater depth but as I am 8 hours+ into my game and (I think) about half-way through there may not be enough time to allow pupils to play from start to finish. I’m now looking at ways to take flip camera footage and apply a filter to make students look like the hand-drawn characters in Hotel Dusk, any tips or suggestions would be gratefully appreciated!

Bradley and Kyle engage in open questioning

While I was looking for images to use in this blog post I found an article on using Hotel Dusk in an English context at Perth High School. It is well worth a read and contains a full walkthrough of the game in case you’re stuck! I spoke to Lisa Sorbie in April when beginning to investigate the game and her comments proved extremely useful when planning the direction of the project.

[Little Big Planet] Inverurie Academy at GBL10 (Virtually)

I just want to draw attention to a Consolarium blog post from Brian McLaren which focuses on Games Based Learning projects in Scottish schools. Little Big Planet is being used in one other Scottish secondary school (that I know about) – Grangemouth High. I recommend you watch Brian’s video (and get your CV ready) and then pop back to the Consolarium site to hear the audio from the Inverurie Academy and Grangemouth projects.

[Little Big Planet] Presentation to educators, Monday 19th April 2010

On Monday the S5/6 students and myself presented the completed level and background information on the project to a hand-picked audience consisting of Ian Hamilton, DHT at Inverurie Academy; Anita Weir, Faculty Head of Business & Information Systems at Inverurie Academy; Jennifer Clark, Faculty Head of Support For Learning at Inverurie Academy; Jill Florence, Head Librarian at Inverurie Academy; Charlie Love, Consolarium Development Officer for Learning Teacher Scotland; Anna Rossvoll, Aberdeenshire GLOW team and Sandra Allen, P1 teacher at Market Place Primary School.

My presentation is attached below but outlined the progression of the Intermediate 2 Applied Multimedia project over the last 3 years.

View more presentations from I Simpson.

The S5/6 students then explained the section of the project where they worked through a complete software development life cycle as a self-organised development team. There were no slides to illustrate their work, but their descriptions of their role were detailed and they handled the questions from the audience extremely well.

The audience then had the opportunity to try the completed level and see how the interaction between the students and their P1 link class had enabled the creation of a age-suitable, visually appealing level which achieved its aim of reinforcing the story of Goldilocks and The 3 Bears and providing a platform for displaying drawings created by the P1 class (the students included them as pictures on the walls of the house).


This presentation opened many new areas of discussion: I’m to meet with a SFL link to see how Little Big Planet and Games-Based Learning could be used to aid pupils in other areas of the school; Charlie recorded an interview as a follow up to Brian McLaren’s initial visit (Consolarium Podcast #1, December 24th 2009); Anna Rossvoll even offered pupils a job creating Games-Based literacy aids!

The final stage of the project is to visit the P1 class (on Tuesday 20th April) and then measure the difference in attainment between the students who completed this project and a control class who used the existing practical tasks and theory questions.

9 Ways to use Tap Farm as a Games-Based Learning Stimulus

This Google Document is collaborative, please feel free to add your ideas.

iTeam Progress 19/3/2010

The team have been busy this week. On Tuesday lunchtime Natasha visited Market Place Primary (with cameraman Ricky in tow) to ask the P1 pupils to draw pictures to embed into the level. Although nervous, she did an excellent job and inspired the class teacher Mrs Allen to start a group discussion on the kind of pictures that would be most suited to the theme – reinforcing literacy with the P1 class as well as allowing them to be effective contributors to the S5/6 project.

Ricky has managed to transfer most of the video from DV tape onto the computer hard drive. He has a hard juggling act – balancing video recording with video editing – but I think he is beginning to find a good balance between the two.

Scott’s design for the level was completed on time and showed he had really considered the intended audience as well as focussing on aesthetics.

Euan and Lewis worked well as a team on level and media creation and through iterative processes (link to Higher Computing there!) discussing feasibility with Scott have constructed a working, if plain looking, level with some excellent visual tricks to keep the P1s hooked.

Pupils in the P1 class drew artwork for within the game before the deadline and Natasha collected these today. Their drawings are excellent and I think the S5/6 students were impressed at how inspiring it is for pupils to get a chance to have their artwork included in a computer game. I think the main problem is now how to get as much of it into the level as possible!

As a teacher I had very little input to the class this week – something which I’ve aspired to but found quite difficult to achieve – the Little Big Planet project is, at the moment, completely focussed on active learning and in the last few weeks my S5/6 students have shown high-order problem solving skills (not just with regard to the hardware – design skills, people-management too!) as well as an increasing ability to manage time effectively. I have no doubt that the level will be finished, but I have no idea how it is going to turn out. As it should be I suppose. It’s quite exciting really…