Thursday, June 27, 2013

Basketball and Games-Based Learning: 5 Takeaways

I love sports. Hardly a day went by when I was young where I wasn't playing basketball, tennis or something else.

I just returned from ISTE 2013, hearing a great keynote from Jane McGonigal on the benefits of Games-Based-Learning. We're making progress (but still have a ways to go) in our attempt to create games that can be integrated into the classroom easily.

Sure, we can acknowledge that there will be adoption resistance by some schools and urge them to come on board. But we also need to acknowledge that we are not creating games that generate genuine, intuitive, widespread interest for teachers' use in the classroom while at the same time addressing the 21st Century skills we want to target. We are struggling to create games that link content to purpose. Until we do, we will only get early adopters and innovative teachers as consistent users of GBL.

There are characteristics of team sports that need to be better incorporated into the games we design for learning. These are the characteristics that make team sports so challenging and so rewarding for players - both in the moment and for their future.

We need to design game experiences that move beyond rewarding "right" answers with points and badges as the main goal. We need to start designing games with these five elements - present in almost any team sport, and sadly lacking from most classroom games.

If there are games out there that do all five of these (or even a few of them), please share. We need to recognize, honor, and PLAY these games!

1. Students need to create and regularly be able to adjust that creation to solve a specific problem. A basketball player is making multiple decisions every second. He is both planning and executing his creation in real time.

2. Students are simultaneously evaluating the actions of each other and making adjustments accordingly. Is someone shooting well? Get her the ball. Has the other team (player) changed there defense? I better adjust my offense.

3. The player's actions effect the entire game and all who are playing. 
When I decide to go for a steal, what happens if I miss? What will be the consequence? How will my teammates handle this?

4. The game is dynamic, constantly changing due to the actions of the other players and the outside factors. (coaches, referees ... aka: teachers)

5. Most important: There are multiple and competing goals with no right answer.  As a player within a team, there are multiple ways that we can strategize to try to win. That strategy is important and may change throughout the game. But in the quest to get a team victory, there are a hundred sub-plots going on. Should I shoot more if I feel like I can score against my defender?  What if I'm not my team's best shooter? Should I deviate from our planned offense?  What will my teammates think of me if I do this often? Is my girlfriend in the crowd... and what things could I do that might look good to her but harm my chances to have my team win?

A basketball game is multi-dimensional. We are individuals within a context of a community and those roles are sometimes confusing. If the classroom games we play are simply one-dimensional representations where there is a right answer and we want to try to find a fun way to have students arrive at that answer, we are sadly misrepresenting what the real world holds and missing out on a whole level of engagement and challenge.

Give em a basketball instead.


  1. Interesting perspective. But there are downsides to the basketball analogy. It's winner takes all. Some students would have to be losers. There are other games that we could draw from and puzzles too. Also consider running where many runners try to beat their personal best. I'm just trying to say that there are other ways to implement a game in a classroom.

    1. Thanks Michael, and you are right. There are downsides. I'm not stressing the competitive aspects in my characteristics. That's a whole other post - and one I'm not going to touch.

      I"m just going after engaging learning environments. So, for instance, I would argue that if we could run a classroom around a group puzzle scenario, we are engaging in a great topic. And, the more of the five elements we can put into that puzzle exercise the better.

      Competition need not be one of them.

      And, just to play devils advocate, why do we only tend to talk about "personal bests" with individual sports. Can you imagine if teams took on this mentality. (PS. I'm a runner too!)

  2. Derek, collaborative game-making pretty much covers those bases I’d say (damn, there are five - another sports analogy bites the dust!). In the European MAGICAL project we’re exploring this approach via a fun platform we’re developing to help kids make digital games together in a team, without involving programming skills.

    As it happens the aspects of learning we’re focusing on in MAGICAL are the very ones you mention: creativity, problem-solving, digital literacy / systems thinking, collaboration skills. We depart from your basketball analogy in two ways though: (1) letting team members contribute at any time from any place, as well as synchronously in the classroom; (2) not integrating competition, though there’d be nothing stopping a teacher organising a team-based game-making tournament (marrying intra-team collaboration with inter-team competition can be a really strong motivator ).

    To find out more, visit our website ( and check the papers in our Mendeley bibliography ( And we have a library of game-making tools to try out, too (


  3. Jeff,
    Very cool. Thanks for sharing.
    Where are you guys based? Did you know that I"m a HS Principal in Budapest. We might be neighbors.

    The possibility of synchronous and asynchronous learning possible make technology - DARE I SAY - "better than basketball"... Please delete this message after reading as my love for basketball won't allow it to be in print.

    all the best. Derek