Shula: Mission Lab is a design studio within Quest to Learn. It's comprised of game designers and curriculum designers and we work with teachers at Quest to Learn to help them develop their curriculum and to design games that are played in the classroom.
Shula: Part of what we do is to identify pieces of content that students tend to have trouble learning or picking up and when those areas come up, we work as a team to brainstorm ways that we can design a game that will help kids to better understand and really learn and remember these content areas.
Arana: Mission Lab is something as a structure within a school that does not exist in any other school that I know of. The support that it gives teachers, I think especially at a public school, makes it extremely unique. It's just a place where teachers can really be creative and are really encouraged to be creative with our curriculum and also a space of collaboration.
Eliza: It is an amazing experience because you not only have three heads working together but you have three heads that bring such wonderful different knowledge and skills to the table that you end up with products that wouldn't have ever appeared if it was just three teachers working together or three curriculum designers or three game designers.
Ameer: The teacher obviously comes with the content expertise in terms of what is mandated to be taught and then through, you know, group meetings and discussions with the curriculum developers and game designers, start to flesh out possible ideas and directions to go to teach the content.
Daniel: The space that we offer is just like physically a necessary place for teachers to go to that’s not like a faculty room. It's a place where they can go and think, not just go and chill, and we are there to help them think.
Claudio: In terms of knowing what the teacher wants to teach, I have some ideas in my mind already, but then the teacher comes up with something else which is very close to that. So I say, "Well, actually, I was thinking the same," so when I see that connection happening, we are almost on the same wavelength, then I say, "Oh, we should at least try to prototype this idea and see what happens."
Shula: When the collaboration works, it's more successful in the classroom because the teacher feels ownership over it.
Eliza: We see kids excited, they're jumping out of their seats, they’re yelling. They're talking about triangles and Pythagorean Theorem and you can just see the energy in the classroom. I call it controlled chaos, it is a lot of noise but very specific noise geared towards learning goals. So it's this amazing time in a classroom where you know learning’s going on at the same time that the students are having fun.
Student: We're not just playing the games for no reason. We have a goal in mind, so our goal for the day may be to learn certain Spanish words. So we played Clue once, but it was a Spanish Clue and the object was to learn how to say different Spanish foods. So by playing the game we were able to pick up the language and speak it by the end of the class.
Ameer: At first you're like, "Oh man, the second these kids hear game, their minds change and they start to get a little excited, they talk, they don't listen as much."And that's true, and from a kid's perspective, every time they have experienced games, it's been in a more lax environment where they're supposed to have fun and not worrying about rules or anything else. So as a teacher, it's your job to present the game in such a way that, yeah, we're having fun, we're learning, but at the same time, although you're enjoying this game, you’re still in a classroom and the ultimate goal is not only to have fun but to learn what we’re trying to teach you.
Shula: One of the things that gives games so much power in teaching kids is that games really encourage you to just keep trying. This seems like a perfect fit with when you're teaching kids, to teach them in a safe environment and encourage them to just try without fearing failure.
Eliza: Oftentimes the teachers bring up ideas that we never thought of, and so it changes the direction of where we’re going in a particular brainstorm or with a play test of a game. The teacher's feedback may then shift the redesign of that game.
Claudio: One block, you need to touch that with one of your units so it's touching, then you can attack and you can use that.
Daniel: Mission Lab and our meeting times are prompts for teacher learning and teacher reflecting on their next steps when they're long term planning. It's very easy to get caught in the day to day as a teacher and planning for the next day, or maybe the next week, or maybe two weeks down the road, but we try to force the long term vision. And while it can be a pain sometimes too, teachers do appreciate it in the long run.
Arana: There's sort of a trajectory to understanding the nature of the collaboration and so teachers who have been here since the beginning are very protective of their relationship with the curriculum team. Curriculum meeting times are kind of like times that are never touched unless they really have to be and teachers protect that more than anybody else does.
Claudio: Games can be considered almost like a second language, a universal language for the world, because those are experiences that a lot of people go through and they connect to, maybe in similar ways. And so there is already some kind of connection there, so if something is working here, I don't see why something like this wouldn't work in other places.
That space is Mission Lab, a learning design studio within the school. From the very beginning, Mission Lab was considered a critical design aspect of Quest to Learn — a design lab in the school where game designers and learning designers from Institute of Play could work daily with teachers to research, collaborate, and design game-based and game-like learning experiences for students.
Birth of a Mindset
Though its key output has been the games and game-like curriculum used with students, Mission Lab was created not just as a curriculum support lab, but as a microcosm of what we want the whole school to be — a space for people to explore, tinker, take risks, play, make things, and work together to solve real problems.
After a few years of Institute of Play designers working with Quest to Learn teachers at Mission Lab, an interesting thing started to happen. Teachers began designing learning games for their classrooms without any support from Institute of Play. They were getting feedback from each other and involving students in every part of the design process.
They were mentoring one another, collaborating in new ways, and problem solving together. Roles became more fluid as teachers became curriculum and game designers. And Mission Lab became a more open space, staffed not just by designers from Institute of Play, but by other teachers and administrators from Quest to Learn.
In too many places, teachers are soiled from each other, with little opportunity to collaborate and problem solve together. Mission Lab helps to break down these barriers and create time and space for teachers to work together.
How to Collaborate
Want to create a space in your school for teachers to play, design, and collaborate? To help you get started, here are eight rules of thumb that we've found useful to guide our collaboration:
1. Cultivate Trust
Be open and honest. Visit each other's classrooms. Observe the dynamics of teacher to students, student to student, and teacher to teacher.
2. Don't Be Married to Ideas
Follow the four Fs: fail fast, fail frequently. When working together, encourage all collaborators to generate as many ideas as possible early on. This creates a culture of iteration. Really push each other to think about different ways that a learning goal can be executed.
3. Apply the KISS Principle
KISS stands for "Keep It Simple, Stupid."No matter what you’re creating together (a game, project, or lesson plan), the more complex the rules or the structure, the more questions students will have, and the less time students will be engaged in the actual learning.
4. Playtest Often
It's never too early to put your game or project in front of someone else for feedback. Even a very rough idea can be play tested. You never know how something will work until you try it!
5. Know When to Scale Back
Keep the product of your collaboration focused. Realize when the game or lesson is attempting to do too much.
6. Involve Students from the Beginning
Students are your target audience. They should be involved in every step of the design process, because they have invaluable feedback to give.
7. Use What's Around You
You know what schools have a ton of? Paper. And markers. And math manipulatives. As you think about possible game or lesson components, keep in mind what materials are easily accessible. Bringing too much in from the outside can be a hassle and is often unnecessary.
8. Build on Strengths and Interests
Actively try to discover what all collaborators like and what they're good at. Be attuned to moments of excitement and disengagement. Use each other's passions to help sculpt the game or project.
Teachers as Learning Designers
As Mission Lab becomes a space of collaboration between everyone in our school, one thing is becoming clear to us: teachers can design games, even without the help of a game designer. They can support one another. But first, they must begin to see themselves as designers. By giving teachers a space to work together as designers, you're giving them a space to develop, test, reflect, and iterate on their work — a space to grow. When teachers go through a design process and emerge on the other side with a designer identity, they have a greater degree of agency in blurring the line between teacher and student, and in supporting each other as they rethink what learning can be in the 21st century.
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