TOPICS > Education

California school integrates play with learning

July 9, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
At first glance, it might seem like the students who attend the private K-12 New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, are simply playing video and computer games all day. But these students are actually taking part in a new experiment in educational innovation. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on one school’s approach to keep students engaged all day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When it comes to school, keeping students engaged is a challenge virtually all teachers face at one time or another. Using technology as a tool is one of the new ways of doing it.

But one school in California is taking game play to an entirely different level.

The NewsHour’s April Brown has our latest report for American Graduate. It’s a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

APRIL BROWN: It’s not often you hear kids talk about school like this.

STUDENT: I really like school now. Like, I’m actually psyched to come.

STUDENT: It just makes me feel good.

STUDENT: I wake up every morning and I’m just like, yes.

APRIL BROWN: These students have been taking part in a new experiment in educational innovation known as the PlayMaker School. PlayMaker is, thus far, only for sixth graders who attend the private K-12 New Roads school in Santa Monica, California. You won’t find desks, seating charts or even a normal grading system in their classroom.

Lessons often end up looking like this one, which, believe it or not, is an introduction to physics.

Nolan Windham and his classmates are playing a video game called Aero, wearing homemade wings which use repurposed controllers from a Nintendo Wii.

NOLAN WINDHAM, Student: It teaches you the basics about how birds move their wings to get lift. It teaches you in another stage about gravity, weight. It teaches you about drag. It teaches you about momentum. It teaches you about everything that has to do with flight.

APRIL BROWN: Aero is one of the games designed by the Los Angeles nonprofit GameDesk, which created the PlayMaker concept.

Lucien Vattel is the company’s founder and CEO. He says GameDesk’s mission is to keep kids curious and engaged, igniting passions that make students want to learn, rather than being forced to do so.

LUCIEN VATTEL, GameDesk: A lot of the work we do here focuses on creating an authentic experience, something that creates intrinsic motivation.

APRIL BROWN: GameDesk launched PlayMaker in the fall of 2012 with large investments from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T, among others.

With an idea that many may consider radical, they partnered with a private school willing to share resources and take on the risk of classes designed like a video game.

LUCIEN VATTEL: A game designer’s role is to constantly scaffold those challenges over time, so that a person will always want to play, always want to engage. And I said, what if we replace game designer with teacher or school?

APRIL BROWN: The PlayMaker School has been a work in progress since 2008, when the idea behind it was hatched here at the University of Southern California as part of a project in the school’s engineering department.

At the time, Lucien Vattel was looking at how play could enhance learning at USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center, a lab that was started with a grant from the National Science Foundation, which, for the record, is also a NewsHour funder.

Cyrus Shahabi is the center’s director and a professor in the school’s computer science and electrical engineering departments. He quickly realized the power of what was beginning to take shape.

CYRUS SHAHABI, University of Southern California: When you teach math, basically, 90 percent of the kids just memorize stuff, right? They don’t try to understand the reasoning behind it. But if you have something like a game, where these things are grasped naturally, right? Nobody is telling you, but you realize, oh, if I do this, that’s going to happen. That’s why I need to do it this way.

APRIL BROWN: Since then, the PlayMaker model has been evolving, with some of the games being piloted in several Los Angeles public schools and later taking over the sixth grade at New Roads.

GameDesk has also been developing a variety of games, with varying levels of technology. They address everything from physical geography and the driving forces behind tectonic plates to emotional learning, with tools to cope with stressful situations.

TEDD WAKEMAN, PlayMaker School: We have to think about, what is the reason that they come to school everyday?

APRIL BROWN: The job of actually putting these ideas into practice in the classroom falls to educators Tedd Wakeman and A.J. Webster. Both have taught in more traditional schools, but they were drawn to the PlayMaker approach because they grew disillusioned with how students were forced to learn.

TEDD WAKEMAN: When we talk about the area of the trapezoid or when King Tut died or the third stage of the frog cycle, might these things be important to a small sliver of the population? Sure. But data in the 21st century, I can look on my phone in 20 seconds and get the answer to pretty much anything that I want. So shouldn’t we be teaching broader skill sets, encouraging curiosity and creative thinking?

APRIL BROWN: Creative thinking becomes apparent when the sixth graders are tasked with designing, coding and promoting their own video games.

They essentially form mini-companies that are judged by market forces, mainly seventh and eighth graders at New Roads, who provide feedback as to why they like the games.

STUDENT: This is a good game, though.

APRIL BROWN: Or constructive criticism about what’s wrong and needs fixing.

Nolan Windham was his team’s project manager. He believes the skills he’s learned from the experience will be useful, especially if he goes into engineering, a field he’s leaning towards at the moment.

NOLAN WINDHAM: The purpose of all school is to get kids to know — have knowledge, be able to think, have facts about things, so then they can use it in their careers. That’s the whole point of school. This is just doing it in a better way.

APRIL BROWN: At first glance, it might seem like PlayMaker students play video games and work on computers all day. But even though technology plays a big part, the program also relies on many low-tech or no-tech lessons, like this one on life in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.

Students take on roles in the ancient civilization, playing parts of kings and commoners, scribes and slave owners. They are forced to settle everything from legal disputes.

STUDENT: The sailor shall give the owner of the boat another boat as compensation.

APRIL BROWN: To the best ways to gather and maintain food supplies.

A.J. WEBSTER, PlayMaker School: When you read what businesspeople are looking for or college professors are looking for, by and large, they are looking for things like collaboration, the ability to communicate, the ability to think critically. Those are some of the top ones that come up again and again.

So, taking that as a starting point, we said, OK, these kids have to be able to collaborate and communicate with each other.

APRIL BROWN: Lucien Vattel admits these playful ideas may be a hard sell for districts with tight budgets or few technology resources. But a potentially larger issue will be converting those who believe education should continue in a more traditional fashion.

Co-teacher Tedd Wakeman says a PlayMaker classroom requires constant flexibility from teachers and students, and that even some kids have a hard time committing to a concept that doesn’t focus on homework and tests.

TEDD WAKEMAN: It’s amazing to watch how many of them actually kind of freak out and say, I just don’t know what to do with this freedom. I just want you to tell me what to do. Just give me some worksheets. Just give me a test.

APRIL BROWN: Rather than with tests and quizzes, Wakeman and Webster say they assess what kids are learning with constant observations and discussions during and after activities. They also have students create projects to demonstrate their knowledge and say they are tracking how well the program works overall.

Still, the PlayMaker model is relatively new and untested. And whether it can be implemented on a large scale remains an open question.

Vattel says each PlayMaker would need to be different, depending on a school’s resources, culture and the needs of its students and teachers.

LUCIEN VATTEL: PlayMaker Detroit would be very different than PlayMaker Austin, very different than PlayMaker New York or PlayMaker Dallas. And so the idea is that we want to grow this model and then see how it naturally expands in these different communities.

APRIL BROWN: And, if nothing else, they have figured out how to make kids like Isaac Prevatt look forward to school.

ISAAC PREVATT, Student: At my old school, I dreaded it every single day. I really just didn’t like it. You know, I would fake stomach aches. I have not faked any sicknesses this year.

APRIL BROWN: GameDesk is now working to get PlayMaker into a public charter high school in Austin, Texas, this fall.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, we have more on the student-run gaming businesses and the neuroscience link between play and learning.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.