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Sixth graders ditch traditional lessons to create video game businesses

BY April Brown  July 9, 2014 at 11:04 AM EDT

Watch students at the PlayMaker school in Santa Monica, California, engage with games using varying degrees of technology. Video shot and edited by Mike Fritz.

It took seven people to create the “Golden Medallion” spy adventure video game and its advertising campaign. They did their own coding, conducted a beta test, created a website, a commercial and an instagram feed, and came up with incentives to get people to play. What’s more, not one of the seven had even finished sixth grade.

“The hardest part was everyone asked me what to do,” said project manager Rachel Odebunmi, 11, a sixth grader at the Playmaker School in Santa Monica, California. “I started making these checklists for everyone and I just gave it to them so they wouldn’t have to ask me.”

In addition to her duties as project manager, Odebunmi also took on the job of advertising manager for their company called Project Imagine and pitched in when help was needed in the art department. The “employees” of Project Imagine were competing against five other companies in their class, each one working to make a video game better than all the others.

Students designed and developed games as part of their curriculum at PlayMaker school in Santa Monica, California.

“It was kind of like running a business, like a mini-business because you are competing with all these other mini-businesses and trying to get your game really popular,” said Luisa Cichowski, 12, of Project Imagine. “It kind of shows what goes into this whole collaboration teamwork of running a business.”

Collaboration, teamwork and experiential learning happens every day at the Playmaker School, which is made up of the sixth graders who attend the private New Roads School. The Playmaker concept is based on using games and authentic experiences as engagement tools, and creating hands-on lessons that urge children to explore what they’re interested in within the boundaries of a given topic.

“It’s not handing out a bunch of devices and saying ‘OK, press start. Play. You’re learning something. Take a test.’”
“We gave kids a chance to actually say ‘I want to be a part of this group, this game company but I want to be a part of it in a manner in which I feel confident and strong and that I can bring something to the table,’” said co-teacher Tedd Wakeman. “So the kids that were really interested in the programming side become programmers in these game companies. Kids that are really interested in writing and have a passion for writing wrote narratives for these game companies.”

Computers are not necessary for all the game-centered lessons. The students participated in a role-playing game designed to explore the culture of Mesopotamia. They became merchants, builders and civic organizers. In another activity designed to look at the physics of flight, students used Styrofoam pieces to build airplanes with various wing and tail configurations.

The concept for this school centered around game play was devised by Lucien Vattel while he was teaching at the University of Southern California and looking at how the brain reacts to different forms of interactivity.

“It’s not handing out a bunch of devices and saying ‘OK, press start. Play. You’re learning something. Take a test,’” Vattel said.  “It’s a relationship between the technology, the teacher and student where teacher becomes [the] facilitator of a process of building curiosity, building learning and creating an authentic context.”

In order to further their experience as an authentic video game design business, the students did their own beta testing experiment with other students from New Roads.

“We’re really into authentic feedback, not having the teacher be the one person whose voice counts,” said co-teacher A.J. Webster. “Seventh and 8th graders gave feedback. That feedback went to the 6th graders who then read it [and] they rated the feedback for its effectiveness.

“They desire meaningful feedback so they would go, ‘well they said our game was great but they didn’t say why.’ So they developed on their own this idea: ‘we want details, we want real critical thought.’”

Some have come to learn that they also appreciate being able to make choices on how they can best participate and learn in these projects.

“I feel like choice helps me mature in school … because I feel like having the choice of what you can do really helps you, like, figure out what you really want to do,” said Isaac Prevatt, 12.

Other students like Luisa Cichowski appreciate what they are learning about themselves.

“I learned that I’m interested in different things,” she said. “I never thought I would want to do computer design or anything like that. Well now I’m interested in that.”

Nolan Windham, 11, seems to appreciate how these experiences will help his future.

“We’re thinking about how when we take in information, how to process it and how to create information, and how to create media, how to create different things. That’s what you are doing in your adult life.”

Read how one teacher used games to inspire her high school students. That’s in our new Teachers’ Lounge blog.

Find out more about what the teachers consider rigorous work, how they measure learning and what the purpose of school is according to the students from our colleagues at KQED/MindShift.

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.