David Warlick Ryann Warlick Martin Warlick
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What if Curriculum was an Adventure?

Rules, in game play, are traditionally static — printed on the lid of the box. Is this so in real life? How many innovations are rule-changers?

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a conversation that was arranged by ISTE, exploring some of the potentially pivotal emerging issues in the ed tech and broader education domains. I was asked to go first, as I would not be able to stay long — and was consequently put on the spot, to think quickly, and clearly articulate ideas to some really smart people. So I blubbered something about a niche for some new and compellingly relevant digital and networked learning platform that will so effectively, efficiently, and elegantly facilitate all of the education philosophies that we are all so urgently trying to describe that it will change education as we know it.

Peggy Sheehy, being Peggy Sheehy (and rightly so) intercepted my fumbled explanation, campaigning for games as an integral part of that platform. I understood where she was going, said so, and she acknowledged it — because we’ve had the conversation before.  But there is a frustrating problem with Peggy’s mission.  Most people still see games as play and learning as work — and although many of us have become convinced of the learning potentials of video games  and begun to promote their use, the game is still what happens after the teaching.

Periodically, I’m asked to do a presentation called “Video Games as Learning Engines,” which is an introduction to video games (mostly for non-gamers) and an attempt to show how games are actually a form of pedagogy.  Yet, I suspect that what most attendees are actually looking for directories of flash-based educational games designed to help students master their multiplication facts or identify parts of speech. Those games are certainly out there, but they do not interest me.

One of the lingering mysteries that continues to intrigue me, in the waning years of my very long career, is what makes it a game — or more to the point, what makes it fun? ..and can we unfold the elements in such a way that they become handlebars in that learning platform I was trying to describe, from which we can hang more engaging learning experiences for our students.

I guess that a learning platform, integrated with games and play would be characterized by
More Less
  •  Surprise Predictability
  •  Rules that change, can be changed and are inability Static and constraining
  •  Focus on accomplishing personal goals Focus on achieving institutional goals
  •  Frequent, meaningful and empowering rewards Scheduled, symbolic rewards

For instance, one interesting quality of the games our children play is that they do not require you to learn the rules before you play the game. Learning about roles and rules is part of the playing, and they are often a surprise that has to be earned.  They’re a secret. In solving a puzzle or simply exploring, the player finds a magic coin, potion, or relic.  As a result of the find, she is endowed with new powers of flight, invisibility, or speed. The powers are a surprise and they change the rules.

Ewan McIntosh recently described a very simple but explicit illustration of this, concerning a school he is working with in Sydney, Australia.  There is a fairly nondescript and unreferenced book in a classroom that when moved, releases a switch that turns on a light.  Students find it by exploring the environment.  They explore because they expect to find secrets.  It’s an example of what McIntosh calls Secret Spaces, one of Seven Spaces of Technology in School Environments (watch the video).

So what if this learning platform held hidden information switches, such that when a student references a particular document in his work, he is suddenly endowed with new powers, an opportunity to visit previously blocked resource or tool, or an invitation to formally explore a topic of personal interest, or awarded points or admin rights to further configure his profile page with options and colors that were not available before.

What if curriculum was an adventure, and learning was the reward?


  • http://www.themonkeyzone.com Dallas Bluth

    Hidden treasures, new abilities, and powering up are all essentials features of engaging video game environments and very much answer your central question: “What makes it a game — or more to the point, what makes it fun?” But there is an important difference when it comes to educational games: in the case of students, new abilities and powering up should be experienced and recognized as belonging first-hand to the learner, rather than to a character they are manipulating. Success through a video game character is tied and limited to its fictional environment, while in the case of the student, owning that success and new ability becomes a part of their real life achievement and ego-building, which, in my opinion, feels more rewarding and engaging. So a truly effective educational design would then be one that recognizes the live person and helps them see they are winning real power ups that stay on long after the video games has been turned off.

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  • Nacole H.

    This is great! A great Idea! Reminds me of how I felt about my 1st years of college!

  • http://uncomfortableadventures.blogspot.com Clix

    I’ve heard this (sort of) suggestion before, and my biggest concern is that in all cases I can think of, games are opt-in. Education, on the other hand, is mandatory. I think that’s a big part of why people see learning as work.

  • http://largerama.creativeblogs.net Nick (@largerama)

    How really really interesting and thought provoking. Having recently returned to a childhood passion of interactive fiction via Quest and http://www.textadventures.co.uk/ this certainly did strike chords with me.

  • http://blog.idave.us/ David Warlick

    @Clix, You make a good point, and I haven’t really thought about that distinction. But one of the things that interests me about understanding the elements of game and play is that we may (and I suspect we will and have) come to understand how much of traditional schooling is actually a game. Highly successful students often succeed because they’ve learned how to “game” the system. In fact, these students often resist more open-ended expeditionary learning because it’s a different game. The rules have changed.

    If we can re-rule the education system so that the elements are perhaps more real-world in nature than the old education system, then our student may become more successful learners, and if it’s fun, then great.

    How many people consider at least some part of their work as fun.

    Maybe the best answer to that is, “the lucky ones.”

    Thanks for continuing the conversation!

  • http://wowinschool.pbworks.com Peggy Sheehy

    My Dear Friend David!

    First off, on a personal note, when hindsight allows me to review our discussion the other night, how grateful I am for your kind and generous spirit in stating things like “Peggy intercepted…” rather than – “Peggy rudely interrupted…” I fear that my passion oft overrides my manners and I so admire the fact that you were able to come away with such a positive response and thoughtful contribution in this post! (I – am a work in progress….)

    Now on to the wonderful questions you posted. “What is it that makes games–fun?” Allow me to reference an excerpt from ‘Digital Game-Based Learning” (McGraw-Hill, 2001) by Marc Prensky In his inimitable fashion, Marc strikes right at the heart of the issue when he lists 12 elements that make games “…potentially the most engaging pastime in the history of mankind.(Prensky,Chapter 5)”

    Here are Prensky’s 12:

    1. Games are a form of fun. That gives us enjoyment and pleasure.
    2. Games are form of play. That gives us intense and passionate involvement.
    3. Games have rules. That gives us structure.
    4. Games have goals. That gives us motivation.
    5. Games are interactive. That gives us doing.
    6. Games are adaptive. That gives us flow.
    7. Games have outcomes and feedback. That gives us learning.
    8. Games have win states. That gives us ego gratification.
    9. Games have conflict/competition/challenge/opposition. That gives us
    10. Games have problem solving. That sparks our creativity.
    11. Games have interaction. That gives us social groups.
    12. Games have representation and story. That gives us emotion. (Prensky,Ch.5)

    In ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,” (Gee,James.2001) Gee, outlines all of the accepted learning principles, and explains how they are manifested in a well designed video game.

    I highly recommend both of these books that have served as my foundation as well as another of Gee’s books: “Good Video Games + Good Learning (Gee, 2007).

    For me, the bottom line is that once spurred by the evidence from these pioneers, I have had the extraordinary opportunity to actually work with students and video games and the learning outcomes are remarkable. Fueled by the painstaking work from another great North Carolina Educator, Lucas Gillispie, I lead 22 6th -9th grade students in the WoW in School:A Hero’s Journey project every day for two hours after school. These kids have myriad options as to how they might invest their after school hours- but they choose to participate in an English Language Arts course that utilizes World of Warcraft as an arena for literacy development. The curriculum is available at http://wowinschool.pbworks.com/w/page/5268731/FrontPage for free(CC Licensed) and it is our hope that more schools will take the plunge-or at least test the waters! My students are reading Tolkien, they are writing constantly, they are thinking critically, the are learning grammar, sentence structure, literary devices, math concepts, etc. etc. etc. bu most importantly – they are immersed in the “hidden curriculum”- building self esteem, teamwork and leadership skills, empathy, cooperation, cultural awareness…and –dare I say—they are having fun. I often step away from the group and take in the scene in our library; the shining eyes,the extreme concentration, the camaraderie and the hard play and I wonder why. Why is this only happening after school? What about the other 6 hours these kids are with us?

    OK – Soap box tucked back into the corner. Again, thanks David for all that you do for kids.

    Now if someone would just invent an app to help me with these darn citations—


  • Andrew Peterson

    Great article and conversation. Perhaps after the coffee sets in I can contribute….

  • Kelle

    Have you read the Edutopia blog post “A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool”? It’s at http://tinyurl.com/5ta75qx and is one of my favorites.

    Also, if your “Video Games as Learning Engines” presentation is available anywhere online, please let me know. I do freelance work for an educational video gaming company, and they’re always looking to find or exchange research on education video gaming and its impact.

  • http://www.markyshathejournalist.com Markysha

    This was an excellent article. When kids are learning, they really do need something that will excite and intrigue their imagination.

  • http://unlearningtech.blogspot.com/ Chris Goodson

    Great discussion. I have to look at this from multiple perspectives since I’ve been a gamer from the time I got my Atari 2600, a teacher, and a tech facilitator. I’m always trying to figure out why even mediocre video games can grab student attention while teachers have a hard time. One reason is complacency. Blizzard spends a lot of time and research figuring out how to make World of Warcraft addictive. They design and adapt their game to grab and hold players’ attention. Teachers do a lot of things a certain way because that is the way things have always been done. I’ve also had teachers argue with me that it is not their job to make learning fun or even interesting. It makes you think.

  • http://www.cosmicquotes.com Life

    Great post, inspiriung and provoking. Thanks!

  • http://www.massivelyminecraft.org Dean Groom

    What if the baseline for learning used the verb imagine and not identify or list. What if the experience was based not on what is know to be true of real, but mystic, romantic, philosophical and ironic discovery. What if we got past the plato vs rousseau traditional vs progressive stale debate. What if kids can find a frame in which to learn through fun and play, such that the outputs can be measured against ISTE NETs, but kids are not taught in the way education homogonises learning?

    6 months ago, we set out to do this adventure using Minecraft. We build a managed learning community around the game and opened it to the world, out of school – though kids and parents to learn together about the power of games and play. As we end the year, we are the size of a high school – the players have attained levels of digital literacy and citizenship though the model, choosing their own pathway from the age of four. So much so, primary age kids are working at level descriptors ISTE uses for high school.

    More than this, the parents are active, supportive and in many cases challenging their kid’s school reports and work, as they can see their kids learning and being highly capable learners. In our game – is pure adventure, to the point lessons and teaching is banned. We have kids who are interacting socially in school for the first time, kids who have found confidence and creativity on their own terms.

    We never tell them what to use or how to learn. They have built their own methods inside their own shared culture. Our role is to hold the game-rules that make the game-play.

    An interesting observation of how they play. The kids use Skype a lot. They know how to add other kids, and how to get new kids to get permission from their parents. They use the game chat to talk about what they are doing in the game, they use Skye chat and voice to talk about their lives. They never bother with a webcam. To them Massively Minecraft is the place – it provides the visual interaction. They care almost nothing that the other players come from all over the world, that we have kids who in school have labels. In the game – in the adventure, you are a play-mate, a friend, someone to teach, someone to learn from.

    Our goal was to build a hybrid of game-play and instructional-design, that promoted choice. The most significant one being – you don’t have to do any of the missions at all. You can, if you like, just play. All our kids have chosen to learn, and their work is not just in the game (where the kids make everything, set the rules, and organise play) – but in the guild site, on YouTube and most recently appearing on the ABC TV show “Good Game”. You’d expect 6 year olds to be intimidated by cameras – but no, they understood the questions – and articulated to camera their learning and their game’s worth. When it aired on TV, several flicked it to YouTube (a site which is wholesale banned in school).

    Yes adventure. But at the same time – it takes a great deal of cultural understanding not to lie to kids – and by that I mean give them the impression this is a game. They are not stupid – but given the honest choice – they choose learning, but in a language that isn’t going to integrate into school, the way blogs have replaced writing books.

    Our game and system is designed to be packaged and adopted by non-game teachers and I’d argue that as education is still faced with adoption issues – that simply giving kids this game-space and allowing parents and teachers into it – as players, that kids can learn digital citizenship and more importantly understand digital mediums as a thing. We can do all that without any PD of teachers, and without having to change their day to day schooling, when resistant to new ideas. Simply having the game and allowing play in school or the home – will I guarantee you – hit all ISTEs outcomes – straight out the box.

    It takes tens of thousands of hours to see this in my view – and a lot of reading around theory – but it would be a diabolical mistake to assume games can be integrated without first understanding that language tools are low order while game designers work on the highest order – imagination. Tap into that and adventure is ever present.

    Thanks for raising the flag David, those developing imaginative learning are few, and largely unfunded and pathologically driven. We are at the same time aware that EdTech is also a market-place where games are a much harder sell than language tools. But there are several projects , like ours, that reject so much of what is being touted as the future of learning. As Peggy said to me recently – we are barely crawling around the edge of what will reach kids

    We’re working on fixing some of that.

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  • http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org Scott McLeod

    David, I wonder if an augmented reality tool like Aurasma might offer some glimpses into the sort of environment you’re discussing here:


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  • http://anthonypompliano.wordpress.com Anthony

    While learning can be a great adventure for many individuals, the video game model is extremely underdeveloped when compared to the entertainment game industry. With that being said, a few forms of curriculum adventure education exist already. These methods are also underused.

    Here is a link to a blog post I wrote about project-based learning. The collaboration aspect helps to bring the same “community” aspect that kids share when playing the same video game. This method also has the ability for the student to discover so much of what they do not know. The final similarity can be found in the presentation aspect. This aspect allows a student to get a score or feedback based on their performance. Sound like a real life video game in which you are the character? It sure does to me!

  • http://englishwithasmile.net/ Helen Kelly

    Anyone who wants to improve their fiction writing skills and learn more about how to tell a compelling story. It is specifically designed for talented high school students who need to be challenged in the area of writing.

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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