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Hacking #iste2015: Subversive teaching and video games

game believes book cover

Back in the day, during my high school and college journalism period, every advisor I ever had always said the same thing.

“Never bury the lead.”

Greg Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, during an #iste2015 Playground session:

“Think of the havoc you can wreak in your classroom, good havoc, with a really good iPad game.”

I love that. During his 30 minutes, Toppo shared a preso he called To the Moon and Back in Five Minutes: Technology as a Subversive Force. And while he did talk about video games, his main point was that technology can be a way for educators to have a huge impact on learning. 

Toppo asked us to think about Moore’s Law, the idea that computers continue to get faster while costing less. If applied to the automobile, he suggested, using a 1970 car as the starting point, a current car would cost nine dollars, be as large as a match head, be able to travel across the country on a half cup of gas, and make it to the moon and back in five minutes.’

Yet education continues to be satisfied with a culture that seems stuck in the past. As educators, we can use video games and gaming theory to subvert that culture. Some teachers and administrators are afraid of games and technology because they see control of the process slipping from their fingers.

His example?

The Photomath app makes teacher both harder and easier. The app uses the cell phone camera to view any math problem. It then solves the problem for the user and provides the steps. It shows the work.

So is that good or bad? It is very subversive – taking the role of teacher by showing the answer and the steps needed to solve the problem. In a traditional classroom with the teacher in charge of all learning, this sort of tool is a threat. “What is the role of the teacher?” But if we see Photomath as a way for kids to think more about process and problem solving then teachers can spend more time helping students understand the steps, showing uses for formulas, and discussing the why of math. Higher level thinking becomes the focus rather than simply memorizing formulas.

Toppo did share some games. If you’ve read the book, the list is familiar. But he did say his current favorite game is Monument Valley.

Get a sense of the book and Greg’s ideas by viewing an earlier conversation.


Just before Greg spoke, Matt Farber of Gamify Your Classroom fame spent his 30 minutes sharing characteristics of a good game. He talked about chocolate covered broccoli to describe many ed-related games. They look delicious on the outside but really aren’t that tasty once you get past the outer shell. 

I hate broccoli so Matt’s analogy . . . pretty spot on.

The important parts of a good game?

  • goal – may not be winning
  • rules – working within constraints
  • Space – “magic circle” where play happens, a field, chess board, the classroom
  • core mechanics – repeated actions that happen in a game. “actions of play”
  • components – avatars, dice, etc
  • interconnected systems – means understanding a system

Find Matt’s preso here. It’s got some interesting things to say about how and why games can be engaging for learners. Find out more of what Matt does here and here.

Matt also suggested a few games that I need to look at more closely:

A great 60 minutes, filled with helpful ideas and thoughtful conversation.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Jesse McNulty #

    Reblogged this on Blended Learning 1.0 and commented:
    On Monday, I had a wonderful discussion at #coffeeEDU hosted by @remind, @versal, and the wonderful Alice Keeler about gamification and personalized learning opportunities in our classrooms! This article is a great extension to that conversation! I challenge all educators to continue to think outside of their comfort zones about what is truly possible, and how we can personally educate each single student and cater class to their interests, passions, and personal learning goals!

    July 1, 2015

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