Interview - Derek Robertson

1st April 2011 at 01:00
When some schools were banning the Nintendo DS in the playground, this former primary teacher was using it to teach his pupils. The games- learning guru has now made Scotland a world leader in the field. Photography by Tom Finnie

What attracted you to teaching?

I had a lot of jobs after school and after leaving one, I was unemployed for three months - in 1989. I took a really long, hard look at myself. I had great memories of my teachers and was always pulled to go back to that environment, but from the other side of the desk. I wanted to develop myself as a person, and felt that teaching would allow me to do it.

Why primary rather than secondary?

I had so many interests, I felt I could bring a lot of these to the job. Primary allowed me to do all aspects rather than one subject.

ICT was your specialist area - how did that come about?

I developed an interest in using ICT in my class and my work was picked up by Tony van der Kuyl, who ran the Scottish Interactive Technology Centre at Moray House. I worked in quite a challenging area of Dundee and got a terrific reaction in class from what I was doing. I saw a couple of boys playing a Nintendo console in class on the last day before Christmas and they were able to solve problems in the game but were failing in textbook problem-solving. It made me wonder why they were successful in one context but not another.

You became an education adviser and then taught the BEd course at Dundee University. What made you move out of the classroom?

The opportunity arose for me to become an ICT adviser for the council. It was a good career move - ICT was on the up. Then the university job came about. I always intended to go back to school, but when I went for a promoted post, I was being asked: "What can you bring to the class, having been out of it for five years?" So I had decided to make my career at the university when the Learning and Teaching Scotland opportunity came up.

Would you describe yourself as a geek?

I would love to be described as a geek - I think geek is now a positive term. Before, children in classrooms and the playground would have been perceived as geeks because they were interested in computers and games, but now it's mainstream.

You have led the LTS Games Consolarium since 2006. How did that come about?

It was through Laurie O'Donnell, then head of future learning at LTS. At the time, Mark Prensky's work on "digital natives" was being talked about everywhere and I had introduced games-based learning into the BEd primary course and was doing a lot of research into this area. I came up with the name "consolarium", because the room was filled with consoles and got the sun all day.

Do you have a fundamental philosophy to explain games-based learning?

If you take the domain of the school, it's the teachers who have status, expertise and mastery of the content. But in the games world, children have the mastery and status. When you bring in something from the Xbox and link it to traditional learning, you get an overlap in that space. Learning is not something that's being done to them - it's part of their cultural framework.

You must encounter people who disapprove of the use of computer games as a learning tool. What do you say to them?

In the early days, computer games were seen as modern-day folk devils. But I would bring education managers to the consolarium and I would let them get their hands on the games and explain how they could bring them into the classroom.

How has games-based learning evolved?

The focus now is not why but how are you using them. Scotland has always had this aspiration that we could jump from the playing of games and integration of already-built games into a context that allows children to be the creators of the games. What I want to try to convey to children's minds is "I can build".

What will be the next big development in this area?

The prize we have our eye on is games design - it has great potential.

Do you have a favourite learning game?

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis - a timeless piece of software created in the '90s. I used it as an early games-based learning project when I was a P5 teacher. Schools should still be using that one. The other one is Nintendogs - children seem to take ownership of their character.

Will classrooms ever become paperless environments?

I sincerely hope not. I love the ceremony of reading books - that's why I haven't bought a Kinder yet - and I can't see us stopping that for a long time.

Most people play computer games to switch off from the pressures of work. What do you do to relax?

I've got a couple of young daughters, aged seven and eight, and they take up all of my time. I go hill walking when I can and I love to read and watch BBC4 - I'm a right anorak - and listen to the radio. I like my daughters to have a varied diet of activity - games play a part of that, but they're also in three or four sports clubs, the Brownies, they read books, watch TV and bake.

Do you have a favourite ICT gadget?

Nintendo DS - it's a fantastic resource for education and it's not too expensive. But I also love BBC iPlayer - I watch it all the time. It can also deliver learning resources to schools on demand.

Personal profile

Born: Dundee, 1968

Educated: Whitfield Primary, Whitfield High, Northern College of Education, Dundee.

Career: Teaching at Whitfield Primary; ICT education adviser, Dundee; lecturer, BEd course, Dundee University; 2006, seconded to Learning and Teaching Scotland, games-based learning; 2008, national adviser for emerging technologies and learning, LTS.

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