By Maureen McTaggart
Dawn Hallybone’s eureka moment came during a subject leaders’ meeting while listening to a presentation from her borough’s then ICT consultant, Anthony Evans, about a classroom revolution happening in Scotland.
“As soon as I heard what they were doing, I thought, wow, I’d like to get my hands on some of those Nintendo DS consoles,” she says, sitting back with what can only be described as an elated grin, reliving the moment it hit her that games and gaming consoles could be powerful tools for learning in classrooms.She’d never used a gaming console and had actually forbidden her own young children from playing digital games. But the idea of emulating her colleagues north of the border, who were bringing computer games into learning through the Consolarium project, really grabbed her.
The Scottish trial involved two groups – one using the consoles and one not – so they could compare the results. But Dawn, who teaches Year 6 pupils at Oakdale Junior School in South Woodford, wanted to start the way she meant to go on.
“We are quite inclusive here. We like everybody to have a go and I knew they would appeal to all the children we teach – even the girls. So I decided we should use the 30 Nintendo DS Lites we could bid to borrow, with all 350 children. I didn’t quite have it figured out how we would do it but I thought it would be a really nice idea, mainly for mathematics to begin with.”
'Dawn bought a console of her own – to practice on before releasing the school loan set'
Her bid was successful, and in what would later prove to be an astute move, Dawn bought a console of her own – to practice on before releasing the school loan set to pupils and teachers. She remembers the day she chose to introduce staff to the Nintendo DS program Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training as one of those "Oh, God, what have I done?" moments. Why? Because 20 minutes into an hour-long session some of her colleagues were still struggling to navigate the screen menu.
By then familiar with the consoles, she dealt easily with their questions. She says that most of the time the answer was: “I don’t know. Let's put this in and if it is a complete failure within six weeks, we look at why and move on. We can’t dismiss something out of hand because we value everything we’ve done in the past, or because it's never been done before.”
The comment is typical of Dawn, who likens herself to a "yappy yard dog". And it's easy to imagine her yelping persistently and snapping at ankles until someone says, "Go on then, do what you want and we’ll see what happens."
The timetable for the 30 machines was simple: each year had 20 minutes per class with the stipulation that they had to use them for a minimum of three times a week. Dawn can remember the immediate positivity from the children as well as the staff, which is still evident. But she says that the children were the main drivers: “They wanted it. They were learning their tables more and they wanted to be better at the game. And with staff enjoying the experience more and more, they were just slotting into lessons.”
Although the trial was successful (evidenced by improved numeracy levels) Dawn decided against immediately buying the school’s own set of consoles. She says she wanted to explore how they could extend and integrate their experience. And by quizzing her own “little network” on Twitter, she was soon overwhelmed with ideas from collaborators and discovered a plethora of free educationally suitable games software online.
When they did buy their own consoles with Brain Training and put them back in the classrooms, the first thing Dawn noticed was the increased level of ICT confidence among teachers and students. Most important, teachers were now happy to ask learners for help on anything they didn’t quite understand. They were all learners.
'We had the children talking and writing about the games they are playing at home'
To get the maximum use out of the project, a twice-weekly, lunchtime Nintendo DS drop-in club was set up and a school blog about their use created. “We had the children talking and writing about the games they are playing at home," explains Dawn. "They wrote their own games, they did reviews and they made films about using the games. It is not just about playing the games; there is a lot of writing that goes on around them.”
In addition, her pupils also learn with the aid of a Wii, a stable mate of the DS Lite that works through a TV screen. But, sometimes, she says, they won’t even have a computer on in the classroom because it’s not appropriate – she does not believe in using games for the sake of it.
“It should always be about using it where it can enhance children’s engagement," she emphasises. "If you put a game in front of the children they are going to be engaged, normally. But it's knowing how to channel that engagement and enthusiasm into their work so you can see a positive outcome. You’ve got to be able to show that."
This questioning was much in evidence in her classroom on the day we met. After three weeks working on the interactive story of Another Code R - A Journey Into Lost Memories (a Nintendo DS game) the creative tension was high among the students. While reading the story text from the screen they would pause frequently to ask questions and make suggestions about where the story might be going or could go. Waving their hands in the air, all 30 students were quietly vigorous in their attempts to contribute.
“My style of teaching and questioning is pretty much the same whether I am using a game or book," Dawn explains. "But with a game the children are a lot more focused because they are enjoying what they are doing: they are still working; they are still writing.
“My students have to do the short story task in their Sats at the end of the year and every day, throughout this project, they write for 20 minutes. They are being trained all the time but they don’t know that’s why they are given 20 minutes to finish the task.”
Once every half term Dawn meets with teachers belonging to the Redbridge games network (where they also have access to a library of Wii games) to discuss ideas and share feedback and planning. And of course all this is also shared through their blog, their Twitter personal learning networks and events like TeachMeet. And these all provide opportunities to magpie ideas.
'Writers and film makers have been stealing ideas from each other for years... why not teachers?'
Having 'stolen' a PictoChat idea from an audience member at one of the Handheld Learning conferences, which she now uses in literacy and modern foreign language classes, Dawn is speaking from experience. “Writers and film makers have been stealing ideas from each other for years, so why not teachers? I think sometimes we are a little bit ‘It’s my idea, I am going to keep it.’ By sharing you get better.”
For Dawn, who won the Special Achievement Award at Handheld Learning 09 for her trailblazing work, using games in her classroom is simply a creative extension of her teaching and a means to build on the skills the children have already got. She wants to use the very best tools for learning – whatever they are. And if the technology tools Dawn and her colleagues are turning to at Oakdale surprise anyone, she suggests they should just think about the Year 3 child, who probably can’t even write in paragraphs, yet has sat through a film at home or has patiently and persistently worked through 15 instructions of Cooking Mama (a culinary-themed mini game compilation for the Nintendo DS, Wii and iPhone) to get to the next age level.
“Children come to us with a lot of knowledge about who is the goodie and who is the baddie," she says. "They understand motives – why people act a certain way towards each other, everything that makes up a very rich story structure. These are the skills they have learned from watching television or playing games and are demonstrating daily at home, yet we are not taking them into account at school. Why is it that because it goes on at home it’s a game and not seen as skills we can transfer?”
Conditions for innovation
- Persevere, but if it does not benefit those that matter – the children – then don’t be afraid to chalk that one up to experience and start again.
- Ask questions of everyone about what is working for them, particularly the children.
- Don't try and force ideas on staff, find other ways to draw them in.
- Take time out to think.
- Consider if the idea has value in your role and school. Just because it works for someone else does not mean it will work for you.
- Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean you can’t try it.
- Enjoy yourself.
- Never give up.
Sources of inspiration
- My headteacher, Linda Snow, for giving me the opportunity to 'fly' with my ideas
- Sir Ken Robinson
Sir Ken’s book, The Element: How finding Your Passion Changes Everything, is wonderful and should be read by all in education
- Derek Robertson
Derek, who runs Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Consolarium project, is a pioneer in the use of games in learning and continues inspire teachers around the world
- Ollie Bray
Ollie, who now works with Derek Robertson, is a true visionary and his blog about games, Google Earth and education is a must read.
- Ewan Macintosh – who introduced me to Twitter.
- My Twitter community
Dawn Hallybone will be speaking at Games Based Learning 2010 (March 29-30)
"The revolution will be Tweeted", Futurelab article on Dawn Hallybone
More on Games Based Learning 201
Learn 4 Life video of Dawn Hallybone speaking at Mirandamob games event