Local educators meet students’ needs with game-based learning and innovative classroom strategies

Class is in session and kids are bouncing, standing, wiggling and rocking. It’s a typical scene in Lucas Carey’s fourth-grade classroom – but what might seem wrong about this picture is actually what’s right with it.

Despite a little movement, his students are engaged and attentive in today’s math lesson: raising their hands with questions, volunteering to solve equations and practicing division problems. By introducing yoga balls, inflatable sit-discs, a standing desk and wiggle stools into his homeroom at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Carey has found that students are more at ease and ready to learn.

“They’re 9- and 10-year-old kids; everybody’s got the wiggles,” he says. “What I’m doing in this classroom is thinking back to when I was a kid. What was required of me, what did I struggle with, and what can we do to help kids with that? For me, I needed something to do with my hands and feet during the day.”

Hadley Andersen stands at a desk in Lucas Carey's fourth-grade classroom at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant. Carey's classroom features alternative seating options, including yoga balls, a standing desk, and wiggle stools.

With the alternative seating, “they’re exerting energy but they’re not focusing on it, they’re focused on what I’m saying,” he says.

It’s just one way forward-thinking teachers are changing the face of education to better meet students’ needs. Carey also uses manipulatives, games and collaborative learning activities – often, small groups of students working together to solve problems – to keep kids engaged and improve learning. All are trends backed by emerging research and scores of anecdotal evidence from educators seeing the results firsthand.

“My philosophy is based on what I believe would be most beneficial for the students, but also what's been known as becoming more and more best practice,” Carey explains. “And with that, you have to be able to adapt as a teacher, because what is going to work for one kid isn't necessarily going to work for all of them.”

More schools seem to be embracing these strategies, Carey believes, though it’s a slow evolution.

Lucas Carey, a fourth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, teaches a math lesson. His classroom features alternative seating options, including yoga balls, a standing desk, and wiggle stools.

“I think there's an idea of where we want education to go, but it’s going to be more or less of finding the right way to get there,” he says. “I have 17 students in my classroom, so some of the things I do in my room I can do because it’s so small. In a room with 30-plus kids, maybe my methods just wouldn’t work.”

I’ve always believed that if the game is good and incorporates the math, then the math will come because they’ll want to play the game.

At Mt. Pleasant High School, prepping for a big exam is a boisterous experience for students in Jamie Young’s algebra classes. When his usual style of unit review became tedious for students, he delved into elements of Dungeons and Dragons – a fantasy role-playing game – to create his own math review activity.

“It was the same problems that we always used, but after each level there was a boss – a challenge or extra-credit problem – and if they were able to complete the boss, they would get a piece of candy and be able to go on to the next level,” he says. “It adds just enough competition but not too much. It gets silly and kind of nuts, but they enjoy it, and it’s better than just doing a worksheet.”

Five years later, Young has poured hours into developing three review games that he says have significantly increased student engagement. Though the avid-gamer stumbled into it naturally, what he’s doing is known as game-based learning – and it’s another trend making waves in classrooms across the country.

“I’ve always believed that if the game is good and incorporates the math, then the math will come because they’ll want to play the game,” he says.

While his math classes still include plenty of lecture and note-taking, occasional gaming has the ability to reach kids in a unique way. Young’s students – even those resistant to the idea at first – find themselves looking forward to unit reviews just as much as he does.

“Those days really are my favorite. It lets me do what I enjoy and share that with the kids,” he adds. “If I’m trying to teach a young or starting teacher something, it’s just don't be afraid to put yourself in your work because that's what the kids are going to respond to.”

Francis Roma sits on a yoga ball in Lucas Carey's fourth grade classroom at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant.

With games, learning changes from the passive receipt of information to the active pursuit of that information, says Jonathan Truitt, Ph.D., a professor of history at Central Michigan University and chair of the university's Center for Learning through Games and Simulations.

“That fear of doing poorly for the grade shifts into a desire to win the game,” he says. “That process is significant.”

Research is in the early stages, but data so far shows game-based learning can be especially helpful for students with learning disabilities.

“I’ve run escape rooms for first-, second- and third-grade classes in Midland and I’ve seen students who otherwise didn’t engage in the material really come out of their shell because it was a different approach,” he says.

Zack Simon gives a thumbs up during class while his teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Lucas Carey, works with one of his classmates.

Another educational trend is pushback against the idea that “there should be a specific answer to all problems.”

“In life, we fail a lot, and that’s OK,” Truitt says. “We actually learn more when we fail than when we succeed. Game-based learning puts you in a situation where you can try the skills repeatedly until you succeed. Those successive failures stack until you get to that success.”

While some innovative learning techniques meet students where they are, a strategy like game-based learning is more about pushing beyond the comfort zone in a way that will have a big impact.

“There are a lot of students who want lecture or ‘traditional education,’” Truitt adds. “Game-based learning encourages them to be pushed beyond where they’re comfortable educationally and to take risks, but it creates a safe environment to do that in.”

Young appreciates that his district supports game-based learning and says he’s glad to see other teachers express interest in it, too. Still, he knows gaming may not work for everyone.

“I don’t see it as the answer, I see it more as my answer,” Young says. “There are other teachers who have different interests that they could bring into a situation like this.”

Ultimately, it’s a matter of educators being granted the time and opportunity to try new things. Carey, too, has found success in incorporating his own philosophies and passion – and he’s grateful for administrators who give him that flexibility.

Lucas Carey, a fourth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, works with one of his students, Brandon McGuirk.

“I’m a little bit more lax on certain things – for instance, sitting perfectly still for 25 minutes. If I ever knew a version of me that said to do that, I’d be shocked,” he laughs. “I think personalizing the classroom is very, very important. We have these kids for 35 hours a week and we get to know them on a personal level. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year getting to know each kid, because that’s how I’m going to know what works for them and what doesn’t.”

As he sees it, learning is a student’s job and it’s one they should love.

“My biggest thing, as I told all the parents at the beginning of the year, is I hope your kids enjoy school. I really do. We’re gonna work and there will be times where they're going to be upset with that, but if your kid wakes up in the morning and doesn't want to come to school, then in my opinion I haven't done my job,” he says. “It’s a work environment, so how do you make that environment the most pleasant? Because that’s when productivity increases.”