Eighth-grader Brian Christian knew exactly what kind of video game he wanted to create. But the software was holding him back.
Although simple to use, GameMaker’s drag-and-drop interface didn’t give the New Jersey student as much control as he wanted. “I would often find that the games I programmed didn’t function the way I intended,” he said.
He decided to try coding directly with the platform’s programming language, GML, instead. So he dug in, using his 20 percent time in class to learn everything he could about the language.
Before long, his knowledge surpassed even his teacher’s — so much so that when a publisher approached programming teacher Steve Isaacs about writing a book on GML, he suggested Brian as the lead author.
“I did not have the skills to write that book,” said Isaacs, winner of ISTE’s Outstanding Teacher Award last year. “But I had a student who learned it far better than I could have. I told them I’m not the one to do it, but I’d be happy to co-author.”
The student-teacher team collaborated on the book, with Brian handling the lion’s share of writing and Isaacs playing a supporting role as editor and project manager. The result: At age 14, Brian became a published author headed toward his dream career in software development.
“I gained a lot of programming knowledge and experience from writing the book, as well as more practice in writing clearly and concisely,” he said. Although he no longer uses GameMaker, “the experience provided me with creative problem-solving skills that I use to this day.”
Seeing the ISTE Standards in action
This is what an empowered learner looks like: Self-directed, hungry, and willing to share. When students hit that sweet spot, they become unstoppable — like Mario in invincibility mode. But how do we get them there?
For Brian, the magic recipe included passion for the subject, a clear vision of what he wanted to create, an obstacle to overcome, the right technology and plenty of student-driven learning time. Learning stemmed naturally from the mix.
An empowered learner. Technology opens all sorts of possibilities for students, but it also has limits. Brian refused to accept those limits, using GameMaker’s programming language to vault over the obstacles that were holding him back. His passion for video game development propelled him to take the reins of his own learning and demonstrate his mastery not only by creating games, but also by teaching others.
A creative communicator. Writing a book and creating the accompanying demos required Brian to refine his communication skills across multiple tools and formats. “The biggest challenge was putting my ideas into words in a clear manner, since even if I fully understood what I meant, it didn’t mean everybody would,” he said. “I was mainly able to get around this by taking a lot of time to write out the more intensive parts of the book, as well as with the editing and reviewing of Mr. Isaacs and the editors at Packt Publishing.”
A knowledge constructor. Learning how to code with GML was one thing. But synthesizing, organizing and communicating all that knowledge took Brian’s learning to a whole new level. “I learned a lot more about GML than I would have without the book,” he said.
A global collaborator. Working with his teacher and publisher to co-author the book gave Brian real-world experience collaborating on a large project. As he completed the book chapters and video game demos, he used tools such as OneDrive to instantly share his drafts for feedback.
A digital citizen. Responsible digital citizens don’t just take; they also give back. For students in Isaacs’ video game development class, publishing their work is a key goal. “I feel my kids should be not only consuming and benefiting, but also giving back to that,” he said. “By sharing what they learn with the greater community, they feel like they’re part of it.” Publishing tutorials and guides allows students like Brian to make a valuable contribution to the digital community.
The chance to write and publish a book doesn’t come along every day. But today’s students have endless opportunities to exemplify the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students by exploring, learning and sharing their knowledge with the world. It all starts, Brian says, with that spark of passion.
“My advice to others looking to learn about something and share it with others would be to pick a subject that they enjoy, whether or not others around them share that interest,” he said. “It's always important to pick something that you love.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.