Portal in the Classroom – by Caleb Gillis

In my previous post I talked about my experience growing up in the public school system and how video games helped me get to where I am now. As an educator, I am now able to take those experiences and apply them in the classroom to enhance student learning.

During one of my teacher candidate placements (grade 6), the school administration spoke about the need for an improvement in students’ problem solving skills, as those skills had shown to be low in the last EQAO test scores. I noticed during recess and nutritional breaks that the majority of the students in the class would play games on their phones and ipads. Taking that information to account, I thought of a way to address the problem-solving issue by using the video game Portal 2. In this game players are put in the shoes of a human who is trapped in an underground laboratory and is trying to find a way to escape. Players escape by moving through chambers that are filled with puzzles that need to be solved so they can move forward. These puzzles include using tools, the environment around them, and a portal device that can open a two-way portal on certain surfaces.

If you wish to see Portal 2 in action, follow the link to this youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XeVmSEvhzQU&t=136s

During the lessons, I had students create maps of the rooms we were solving and list the steps needed to complete it. The criteria for the maps included colour, neatness (straight lines), legends, scale, and clarity of steps that are needed to take to solve the puzzle. In addition, after completing the chamber, students wrote a perspective journal entry on how they solved it and developments happening in the game’s story to further solidify the problem solving process that they just did and to practice their explanation skills. After doing this program for a little over a week, I tested the students’ ability to problem solve in EQAO styled questions, and every student showed improvement. Notably, the students that typically demonstrated poor academic work were the first to complete them. Students also showed improvement in other subject areas that required problem solving. One particular student in the classroom who before doing this program expressed little interest in participating in anything and would give ‘C’ level work, was so excited and fired up from doing this that he began showing initiative. This student wrote better entries than anyone else in the class and made puzzle chambers of his own using another program called Minecraft.

The results of the program gained the attention of the school administrator and after my placement had finished, it was presented to the other teachers in the school. The teachers have since expressed interest in using Portal 2 in their classroom. This has been a dream come true for me, to see success with something that 20 or even 10 years ago, would not have even been considered in schools. If you have an interest in using Portal in your classroom, I highly suggest you explore the game first to see if it will fit for your lessons and your students. If you need ideas for lessons, I will provide a link to a site that contains lessons made by teachers who used Portal as well as information on how to access the program.