Derek Robertson
Games-based learning in Scottish schools is world class, and one key factor is Derek Robertson

At the heart of everything Derek Robertson does in his day job is a calculated attempt to engage with what he describes as a child’s own “cultural framework”.

When students strutted their stuff in the computer games ‘Dragon’s Den’ at the Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) in 2009 observers were stunned by the richness and quality. In 2010 Derek, one of the UK’s top education innovators, demonstrated how children are now producing their own games within the Curriculum for Excellence, work that is supported from the classroom right up to the cabinet secretary for education.

“I look at things with a kind of strange eye I suppose,” says the national adviser for emerging technologies and learning at Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS). "In the domain of the school the teacher has all the status, knowledge and mastery. Traditionally, children have just been visitors in that domain.

'In a game it's the children who have the mastery, status and expertise'

“But in a game it's the children who have the mastery, status and expertise. What we are trying to do is to get the school domain and the games domain to overlap.” To achieve this apparent juxtaposition Derek has worked tirelessly since 2006 to help teachers exploit the educational values of digital technologies enjoyed at home by young people, be they Nintendo DS and Wii, Sony PSP and PS3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.

Back in 2006, his pioneering work using commercial computer games in the classroom to engage learners – which he embarked on after, as a teacher, witnessing two ‘lower ability’ maths students breeze through complex problem solving on Nintendo games console – was way ahead of its time. Now it has international recognition. And Derek has just been cherry-picked to present his work at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar in December.

Intensely focused on his work, his eyes still light up when he describes his astonishment at how engaged those young boys were while rising to the challenges posed by the problems. More important was how they used independently developed strategies to succeed at the game they were working on in a non-traditional mathematics environment.

“I had seen the children's performance with the games and, when I started to use that in the classroom, how it had impacted on the performance in my class and their attitude to learning. I became really interested in the context that a commercially available game can bring to the classroom and started to try things out with the children,” explains Derek.

In those early days not everyone was convinced of the potential for games-based learning in the classroom. There was heavy scepticism but Derek’s deep understanding of pedagogy allowed him to demonstrate how the processes at the heart of computer gaming mirrored valued elements in learning, for example observing, hypothesising and testing.

The main challenge was winning the hearts and minds of teachers and ICT managers

‘Red-top’ media still stir the education pot with jibes like “Is this what we are wasting tax payers’ money on?” But LTS, the organisation responsible for the development of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, was hooked by the evidence. Then working as a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee (hence his deep appreciation of pedagogy), Derek accepted a job offer to lead LTS’ games-based learning initiatives through a new organisation, the Consolarium, the Scottish Centre for Games and Learning. The main challenge, he reflects, was winning the hearts and minds of teachers and ICT managers.

“There have been a few knocks but I find with innovation you’ve got to believe in yourself, believe in what you are doing,” he enthuses. “Now many of those initial doubters use gaming in the classroom themselves. We've actually made it a cool aspiration to be good at mental maths in Scottish classrooms. I think that's something to shout about.”

Derek is full of praise for LTS, saying that it deserves credit for taking an informed chance following the initial research into the use of  Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on Ninintendo handhelds in classrooms. This is what opened up the opportunity for him to move forward and develop the initiative. Now all 32 Scottish local authorities have embraced gaming technology and his work has helped replace the question, ‘Do games have a place in school?’ with ‘How would you like to use them?’ And other countries that have bought into this work include Ireland, Australia and Italy.

'I think teachers need to have that creative eye and be willing to take informed risks'

“I think teachers need to have that creative eye and be willing to take informed risks and if it doesn't work look at it and think why didn't it work, what will we do next?” says Derek.

He is not against gaming software specifically developed for education but personally prefers those the students play all the time and get excited about. They have a low skills threshold so do not present a barrier for teachers. And for learners “they offer challenge, demand, appeal and they have cultural status – they can also help us deliver exciting and purposeful learning”.

"They are built for the consumer market, and games companies would die if they were too difficult to get into, so they've thought that through and delivered the engagement, challenge, demand and enjoyment. These are all the words we want in our curriculum.

“And generally I am finding that – apart from where there is the odd exception where somebody doesn't want to know and I am not going to change them, and that's fine – the vast majority of teachers are prepared to use this technology. Because they can, and because the technology doesn't get in the way – it allows them to focus on good teaching and learning.”
Derek Robertson presenting at Games Based Learning 2010 (now Learning Without Frontiers) in London

A short time with Derek’s colleagues (including the ubiquitous Ollie Bray) on their stand at the Scottish Learning Festival, is enough to show you how far the work of the Consolarium has come. They show you the rich games-creation work that students and their teachers are now doing with free programs like MIT’s Scratch and Microsoft’s Kodu. And the team has provided detailed and extensive support materials, including video interviews with games industry people and LTS case studies on the classroom use of programs like Professor Layton and the Curious Village. These can be accessed by learners and teachers online through the Glow national network – whether they are at school or home.

“Technology is at the heart of everything today,” Derek concludes. “I've seen the impact on young people and I think it’s hugely important that education continues to evolve: that we don't 'do' education to children, that we take cognisance of their cultural domains and their cultural groups and that plays a part in their experience when in school.

“I think we have helped change the discourse on games-based learning. The question is no longer whether we can use games in learning but when.”

Conditions for Innovation

  • “You need to have a handle on the theoretical perspective. It doesn't need to be highfalutin, it doesn't need to be too in depth but I've got a few things that I hang things on. One of the big thing for me is the “semiotic domain” that James Paul Gee talked about – this idea of the domain of the school and the domain of the learner in the games world, and them crossing over in that space where we can do really good things.
  • “Remain grounded. It's all about the learning, it's all about the learner and the teacher and the classroom setting – always remember that. If you forget that then you are not going to take the teachers with you, and I think that you would you'd lose your credibility. You'd lose what you've got to offer people.
  • “I'd also say try to remain chilled. It may sound daft but don't be too serious. You have to be serious but be serious about your creativity and look at things through a child's eyes if you can and don't be too worried.”

Sources of Inspiration

  • Stephen Heppell, James Paul Gee, Mark Prensky, Angela MacFarlane. “When I was a lecturer at university all these people seemed distant but they are not; they're human. I've spoken to them and they live and breathe teaching and learning. They are interested in making the learning experience a more effective and happier one. All the stuff they wrote chimed with me, resonated with me and it still has done so I've become a better professional person for that.”
  • The late Tony van der Kuyl, a pioneer in ICT and learning, and former director of the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre at Edinburgh University's Faculty of Education which he founded and managed. "He undoubtedly was, and is, the biggest influence on my professional life. His mantra of always asking about impact on teaching and learning when you did something new has stayed with me."
  • “Also people out in schools. I've got some fantastic colleagues who just show tremendous practice. Margaret Cassidy and Joe Shaw in Stirling, Anna Rossvoll and her team in Aberdeenshire, Laura Compton in West Lothian and so many other local authority partners throughout Scotland who’ve done, and are doing, so many fantastic things.”

More information

The Consolarium
Hotmilkydrink (Derek’s blog)
Derek Robertson on Twitter