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PLAYMAKERS is an exploration of the experiences and innovations that are leading the way for learning design in the twenty-first century. The videos in this series introduce you to a range of people working at the intersection of games and learning, from teachers who happened on the power of play through trial and error, to commercial game designers who set out to make one great game and ended up empowering millions of users to make their own.
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Incubator School
A Whole New Think

Start-up School Explores the Role of Games in School Design & Educational Innovation

Ask those behind the Los Angeles-based start-up Incubator School and they will tell you innovation in school-based professional development relies on a new way of thinking and learning. And that it can only happen by design.

The Incubator School is a new kind of public middle and high school based on the theme of entrepreneurship, which weaves games and game-based learning together to help teach entrepreneurial skills like design thinking and iteration.

Teachers also bring game-based learning into professional development to help them think entrepreneurially and with agility as they envision the kind of school they want to create. In the Incubator School’s professional development, teachers experience a series of collaborative, game-based learning modules that prepare them to empathize with their peers and students, and to build enduring instructional tools and approaches, based on the power of imaginative play.

The school opened in August 2013, and is still being built from the ground up, with an emergent curriculum approach based on teacher and student interests that fully leverages professional development collaborations with local and national groups, such as Pearson Foundation’s New Learning Institute.

We followed the first week of the Incubator School’s Summer Institute PD program and asked the Incubator School what teachers can learn from their approach. Those interested in what game developers can take away from the Incubator School can find more at gamesandlearning.org.


Institute of Play: How does your approach to game-based learning connect to or build on established teaching practices?

Incubator School: Our basic philosophy is to learn by doing. Game-based learning immediately activates that. Kids are taking on roles, and are put into situations where they make choices that have real consequences.

It also helps us break down boundaries between school and the world. Game-based learning gives kids a space to explore real-world challenges in a more sheltered and structured environment.

We also are doing a lot of game design, where the kids themselves are making games. Game design is great for differentiated instruction, because it’s about however complex the students want their game to be. When they are in a game design process, they’re pitching all the time, and going through iteration processes. They’re basically using game design to be agile.

Institute of Play: How does this program change teaching practice? What does the change look like?

Incubator School: It fundamentally changes the structure of the classroom and the mindset of the teacher. The role of the teacher becomes that of a facilitator. The classroom climate becomes a place that is fun and engaging. And pedagogical practice is much more interdisciplinary.

To create this change, you have to shift your starting point: instead of always starting from the standards and saying this is what we need to stuff into kids, you start with the question, “How can we design an experience that is encouraging students to learn what they need to learn because they want to, not because they have to?”

Institute of Play: What resources are available to help teachers implement game-based learning? Where can teachers find communities of practice that support implementation?

Incubator School: Our biggest community of practice is our team – we bounce ideas off each other, we construct together. We have a lot of gamers on our staff, so we use that deep personal expertise. Too often, schools discourage teachers from bringing their interests in, and we really encourage that here. Our philosophy is not to be rigid and in silos, but instead to open yourself up where you see interests and desires, and bring that into your school culture.

We look inside our school community for ideas a lot. We observe what the students are doing and what games they are gravitating towards. You can take students’ interests and run with them, so it’s always good to think about how you can bring those games in, or create similar kinds of experiences. We also have parents who are game developers, and other people engaged in the school community who we tap for expertise. LA is a great place for that.

We often turn to sites Educade and the MinecraftEdu community as a place for finding resources.

Institute of Play: What kind of resources are needed to implement a professional development program like this?

Incubator School:  The resource that’s needed more than anything else is freedom – the freedom to think in ways that teachers aren’t usually allowed to think. It’s about pinpointing your passion in education and what excites you as a teacher, and what you want to be doing more of. We keep trying to tell teachers to grow yourself, and through that growth, the students will grow. On some level, it’s about giving people permission to be selfish. People think of teaching as a traditional pathway – with a distinct bureaucracy – but the world is much more fluid than that, and interests can help unearth new pathways for growth.

But the challenge is that you really need people who are willing to put in the time. We all want to have personal lives and go home and get 8 hours of sleep. You need people who are hard workers, and are super dedicated to the mission of the school.

You also need support from the district. Our district is recognizing us as one of the most innovative schools in the district, and they’re really interested in the practices that we’re using. They are coming to us and asking how we’re doing these things, and bringing people to come see us. And that helps build awareness and support around our model.


About the Teaching With Games Series

Data from the 2012 Joan Ganz Cooney Center national teacher survey showed that few teachers are exposed to game-based learning in pre-service training, and that teachers usually provide their own ongoing professional learning on games and learning. This series looks at how teachers can be exposed to games through various forms of PD.  From a game-based approach to teacher education at ASU to play-based professional learning for informal learning environments at TASC, this series takes the viewer on a journey of innovative and novel approaches to teacher PD.

The series is a project of the Games and Learning Publishing Council and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The series is produced by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and the Institute of Play.

PLAYMAKERS is an exploration of the experiences and innovations that are leading the way for learning design in the twenty-first century.

This series is made possible through the generous support of the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.