Why Playful Learning Matters

Opening keynote for the GLS Playful Learning Summit at the 11th annual GLS Conference: featuringSujata Bahatt, Seann Dikkers & Kipp Glazer.

Hailed as a polyvocal keynote, the conference kicked off with three amazing leaders sharing the stage and sharing their thoughts on Playful Learning.

Seann Dikkers was first to speak. He began with an entertaining anecdote about gnats. “A few gnats are good and indicate a probable healthy ecological environments,” he said. “Too many may be a sign of an ecological disaster.”

As a child, Dr. Dikkers hated gnats so much that he started a petition for others to sign on and unify in their opposition to gnats. His point was that he did something about what disliked. He acted against gnats.

G.N.A.T.S. = Generally,National Assessment Testing Sucks

“Playful learning is at the beginning of learning, assessment is at the end of the learning. We are so interested in the endpoint, we forget about the entry point.”

Playful learning is reciprocal: “If you can play with my photo [to make memes], can I play with your photo?” This reciprocation, Dr. Dikkers shared, becomes social. It can be a waste of time. It can be impossible to measure. It can also lead to relationships and authentic engagement in the learning process. Though difficult to quantify and easily dismissed as worthless, to the choir attending this conference, the value proposition is clear and present.

Dr. Dikkers concluded with an important and easily forgotten point: playful learning is not necessarily about Digital Learning. It is about connecting, relating and our search for meaning.

“Connected learning is reciprocal & a custom fit. Playful learning is differentiated learning. Playful learning is important because it leads to life choices. It’s difficult to document why this matter but in the meantime I can testify that it does.”

If you didn’t already admire Sujata Bahatt and want to be her when you grow up, her talk would have changed that. Her work with the Incubator School is starting to hint at some of the most exciting disruptions in education that I’ve seen or heard about.

While she shared examples of student work within platforms like Minecraft and ARIS, what resonated in her message was how students at play found their way to meaningful learning.

Bhatt and the Incubator School are focused not on games but on using gaming and play to help students acquire skills and competencies that are essential to success.

BUT, Playful Learning faces 2 chasms…

Chasm #1: The Gatekeepers. As much as students love their learning at Bahtt’s middle school, they are hearing about challenges in high school and college where traditional, textbook learning is king. For Drone Parents (the 2015 version of Helicopter Parents) obsessed with their students taking the prescribed route to get into Stanford, Playful Learning looks like childs’ play. How, Bhatt wonders, might we help the Gatekeepers to understand that valuable and meaningful learning can sometimes look different than what they are used to seeing? How can we help them look upon students playing and see students learning.

Chasm #2: Newness. They are in the innovator/early adopter stage and, in large part due to Chasm #1, face hurdles to growing and scaling. This movement is celebrated and embraced within the confines of GLS11 but unless and until acceptance infiltrates the realms of the Gatekeepers, there is a risk of this being a blip on the map.

Our learners are already waiting for us in the land of play; it is on educators to meet them there and engage them in meaningful and valuable ways that lead to learning. How do we do it? Bhatt does not stake any claims to having the silver bullet answer but encourages you to tweet with #CrossTheChasm to share your ideas and solutions to the problems posed by these two chasms.

** I had to leave just after Kip Glazer started speaking to join the opening of the ARIS Summit. If you have notes to share on her talk, please do post them as a response to this!

*** Access the collaborative notes GoogleDoc here to share in the learning throughout the conference

Using video games to communicate information: Interview with Eric Church of the Woodrow Wilson Center at #GLS11

I had the chance to sit down with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Eric Church for a quick interview I broadcast on Periscope.

Eric is interested in the ways that we might utilize video games in order to engage audiences and communicate information. While tools like infographics are quite popular right now, he says the Wilson Center envisions video games entering this space in ways that are more interactive.

This strikes me as a profound rethink of the way we, as consumers, acquire information. Whether through traditional textbooks, newspaper articles, television news or even the hip new infographics, we are talking about a process of direct flow of information. Through gaming, this process could become an alternating current of information.

There is so much potential here. Imagine, for example, reading about Congressional debate over the recent free-trade agreement legislation in the New York Times. In addition to providing reporting, photographs and perhaps video, the newspaper could also provide a link to a simple 5 minute video game that objectively communicates the important facts about the debate in a way that engages readers.

You can view the interview here.

4 Valid Concerns of Digital Badge Skeptics

There are a lot of folks who are skeptical of Digital Badges. As a vocal proponent of their value, I get frequent pushback from education, industry and policy stakeholders. In most cases, their skepticism is warranted and welcome. The following are the four most frequently voiced concerns they share:

“Digital Badges are meaningless.”

I’ve had many conversations during which someone equates Digital Badges with stickers or gold stars. If that’s all they are, the thinking goes, isn’t collecting evidence and issuing a Digital Badge a lot of extra work? This is a valid concern! If a Badge is meaningless, skeptics are right to wonder: What’s the point?

Let’s say I pay a conference registration fee and receive the conference’s Digital Badge. The logo may look nice and even important on my CV but what does it really communicate about me? It doesn’t convey anything about my learning or achievement. It doesn’t provide a potential employer with insights into my skill set. It doesn’t even validate that I made it beyond the bar in the hotel lobby! The sole meaning is that I paid a registration fee and what’s the point in that? Skeptics 1, Badges 0.

But, Digital Badges are not inherently meaningless. They can and will serve a point when they function as a micro credential. This necessitates that they align with knowledge, skills and achievements that are valued by Badge Consumers (such as colleges and employers). To this point, those issuing Digital Badges are wise to follow the Best Practices of publishing the criteria for earning Badges as well as the evidence that is provided in order prove that the criteria has been met.

2. “Digital Badges serve as extrinsic rewards.”

This is very common critique. If someone believes that extrinsic rewards have no place in education, work and life, then this statement goes much deeper than Digital Badges and there is probably little space for productive discussion. In my experience however, the friction is usually more about extrinsic rewards that fail to align with the credential.

Restorative Justice offers a good analogy as it seeks to repair an injustice with a restorative act/punishment that fits the offense. If I get caught littering at school, I may have to apologize to my community for the damage I’ve done and do a trash pickup around the school grounds. This may be instructive to how we design extrinsic rewards for Digital Badges. Awarding a student with extra recess time when she earns her Analysis Badge would be like putting a student in public stockades as punishment for littering; it just doesn’t fit.

Imagine instead that a student who earns her Analysis Badge is offered the opportunity to use it in order to do a job shadow with someone who works as a Data Analyst. Is it an extrensic reward? Yes. Does it align with her achievement? Yes. Is offering opportunities like this to deserving students good for kids? Absolutely!

3. “How can I trust that someone’s Digital Badges are valid?”

Colleges and employers have a problem: many of the skills they seek are not represented on transcripts and difficult or impossible to verify on resumes. Digital Badges offer a potential solution. Making a bad hire is expensive on many levels for employers and micro credentials that communicate information about an applicant’s skills may help employers make better informed hiring decisions.

This sounds great for all involved. There’s a big assumption at play here however: the credential must be trusted. When someone displays her Digital Badge, will the audience be able to trust it? Badge skeptics are right to be concerned about this.

Unless and until a tool is developed that is able to validate that Digital Badges are trustworthy, these waters will remain murky. But there is one encouraging and powerful mechanism at work to support Badges: evidence. Because both the criteria required to earn a Badge and the artifact(s) that prove someone met that criteria are “baked” into the Badge, discriminating consumers can (and should!) click to view the evidence and decide for themselves whether it is valid.

4. “Most people are doing it wrong.”

While I’m not aware of any published data that supports this, I think it’s a reasonable assertion. I also think there are few people with 10,000 hours of badging experience. There are more and more people every day who are diving into this nascent space and getting muddy but expertise is still scarce. This means that as easy as it is to identify wrong practices, statements about the right way are probably dubious. I believe it’s simply too early to go there and that it is perilous to do so.

The risk factor here is that someone who is excited use Digital Badges will get discouraged and quit before they’ve had a chance to do something that might be good for their students. This is not to say that we should avoid criticism and asking hard questions because these are important. Rather, the key is to approach the critique with a growth mindset.

When I think to my first years of teaching, I cringe at what I thought was good instruction back then. My hindsight tells me that I was struggling, at best. Lucky for me and my students, nobody told me, “Wrong! Stop what you’re doing because you’re doing it wrong!” Mentors and colleagues encouraged my risk-taking and innovation and worked with me to develop into a better professional. We all start somewhere and it’s rarely at the All Star Game. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect a Digital Badge novice to be a model of Best Practices on her first attempts. It is also irresponsible to discourage her efforts before she’s had a chance to reflect and retry. When a teacher issuing Digital Badges “is doing it wrong,” we owe it to her and her students to encourage her growth and help her improve. When she is given the space and support she needs, she may go on to become one of the experts we desperately need.

Suggested activity for all vacationing teachers to take advantage of THIS upcoming Monday (and Friday)



I find a lot of my best inspiration for education when immersing myself in environments outside of education. When I’m thinking about preparing young people to be successful in the work environments of the future, I take field trips to cutting edge work spaces that are leading the way to our future. When I’m thinking about preparing young people to successfully collaborate with the innovative thought leaders of tomorrow, I go to where these minds gather today. One such place that probably exists in your own back yard isCreative Mornings.

Creative Mornings happens in 117 cities on the 2nd Friday of every month. While locations and speakers vary, there is a single theme shared around the globe at each site. This month’s theme is Revolution. Registration always goes live at 8am on that Monday (4 days prior to the event). It’s free, includes coffee and a pastry and gets you in a room from which you leave a more inspired person 2 hours later.

There are at least ten quizillion things that are awesome about being a teacher. Having a schedule that makes it impossible to attend Creative Mornings is not one of them. Depending on when in August you go back to school, this might be your last only chance of 2015.

So, do yourself a favor and pop over to their website and create a profile. Set a calendar reminder for Monday morning at 7:59am to login and register for next Friday’s Creative Mornings lecture. Go there on Friday morning feeling friendly and ready to walk up to strangers and say, “Hi.” You will meet some amazing creatives in your community and surely come up with great ideas for classroom connections.