Project Details


The need for developing students’ 21st century skills have long been advocated by international policy organizations, international organizations such as Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, as well as researchers and practitioners. There exist several frameworks and learning rubrics for teachers, which they can use to develop students’ 21st century skills. However, these rubrics are often based on abstract taxonomies, which can be difficult to relate to everyday teaching and learning situations. Moreover, the rubrics impose extra-curricular aims, which may be difficult to relate to existing curricular aims. In order to support teachers’ existing practices, the proposed project will build directly on specific aims in the Danish curriculum (Fælles Mål), which relate to 21st century skills. These aims will be reflected in the students’ subject-specific literacy practices as a part of the GBL interventions.

Games are valuable tools for developing 21st century skills as they pose engaging and complex challenges, which provide a wealth of opportunities for fostering problemsolving, collaboration, knowledge sharing, construction and strategic thinking. In spite of the often-claimed potential of GBL, there have been few large-scale empirical research projects on GBL and several reviews emphasize the need for further RCTs evaluating the effectiveness of GBL.

A recent review of GBL finds evidence that design-oriented approaches to games are the most effective in terms of developing 21st century skills, which is also the approach taken in our project . One study finds that computer game development as a pedagogical activity does not only have a positive effect on the development of digital literacy skills, but also has a positive effect on student engagement and motivation. Another study shows that students’ construction of computer games has a positive effect on student motivation and can stimulate deep learning approaches such as problem-solving and critical analysis.

GBL does not only take place inside games. Students can develop valuable off-game literacy practices, e.g. by producing guides to specific games or writing game journalism [28]. Consequently, our project applies a broad perspective on GBL as unfolding through educational scenarios, which both involve learning activities in and out of games. We understand GBL as relating to the process of designing games, exploring game worlds, and reflecting on game activities - through the use of both digital and analogue game tools within the subjects Danish, Math and Science.

Our design-oriented approach to GBL is inspired by the public school Quest 2 Learn ( in New York, which ranks among the top 10 innovative schools in the US and was co-founded by our project collaborator Institute of Play. Students at this school become engaged in designing and exploring both analogue and digital game dynamics in learning environments, where “failure is re-framed as iteration”. In this way, our approach to GBL is informed by design thinking, which implies an analytical and synthetical process where design methods are applied as strategies for innovation.

Design thinking has proven its usefulness in the corporate industry through improved communication, creativity, collaboration and company culture, which result in increased innovation. The process of designerly inquiry requires knowledge and skills and thus acquiring skills is legitimized by the game design process offering a meaningful frame for learning. By taking a design thinking approach to GBL, our project aims to empower teachers with tool kits that support their creative abilities and provide a process that facilitates students’ learning by fostering 21st century skills. This will promote subject-specific literacy practices, which move beyond the basic skill-oriented assignments that dominate Danish schools.

Teacher support is key to successful implementation of GBL. In order to support the project teachers, we will use and refine prototypes for GBL materials validated in Danish schools. Examples include studies on the use of 3D sandbox games such as Minecraft and Build A World - e.g. for learning storytelling, geometry and sustainable city development. Members of the project group have also studied how students can develop literacy practices around computer games and learn to program games through the digital tool Hopscotch as well as robots. Moreover, we have documented how computer games can be used to increase motivation for at-risk students, especially through collaboration and communication. By building on existing knowledge and prototypes, we aim to design and distribute validated GBL materials, which we are confident can be adapted by teachers and generate impact in terms of developing students’ 21st century skills.

Relevance of the project
The proposed project presents an ambitious and unique opportunity for addressing the needs and challenges of the Danish school system through the tools and pedagogies of GBL, design thinking and 21st century skills.

In the short term, the project interventions and developed tools are able to add substantial value to the participating students by increasing their 21st century skills as well as their motivation for learning, subject-specific performances and social wellbeing. In the long term, the project has the potential for setting a new political and pedagogical agenda in the Danish school system by demonstrating and highligtning that it is possible to actively teach, assess and promote students' 21st century skills in combination with their subject-specific learning, which will be highly important to the success of their future education and workplace experiences.

In spite of considerable investments in digital technologies and an overwhelming amount of reforms of the Danish school system, there are few indications that these initiatives have been effective in terms of developing students’ 21st century skills beyond “the basics”. According to Fullan, reform instruments such as accountability pressure in terms of high-stakes testing and technology without pedagogy can be seen as “wrong drivers”, because they do not lead to desired culture change in school systems. In light of the earlier mentioned challenges, the Danish school system faces the long-term risk of producing students, who will only be exposed to basic use of digital technologies and primarily measured according to narrowly defined learning aims. This will make them insufficiently equipped to the complex demands of their future education and the workplace.

We believe that this project will lead to achieving better measurable results for students by following OECD’s recommendations for putting higher focus on the learning-teaching-assessment nexus, social capital to build the profession, the matching of pedagogy and technology, and the development of systemic synergies in the educational system. Looking at other countries, it is possible to implement longterm strategic aims for improving students’ 21st century skills. A good example is the Finnish educational system, which promotes phenomenon-oriented learning that involves students’ active and cross-disciplinary exploration of real-life phenomena. Another example is the American NGO Institute of Play, which supports the development of schools and teacher competencies that allow students to learn by solving complex problems through design processes and exploration of GBL environments. However, none of these initiatives are documented through rigorous research, which makes them difficult to validate and translate to other educational contexts.

This makes our proposed project unique as it is the first large-scale evidence-based intervention that aims to use GBL and design activities for promoting students’ motivation and 21st century skills. By providing an innovative design- and evidencebased approach, the project also aims to develop a new large-scale model for educational research, which is potentially able both to improve existing teaching practices and provide statistically sound evidence for the impact of the students’ learning. This model can be adapted to other educational systems - e.g. by using the free and redeveloped TAO performance assessment tool to measure 21st century skills in higher education.

The project will focus on students in the 5th and the 7th grade. These two grade levels have been chosen in order to compare differences between primary and lower secondary students. The inclusion of the 5th grade is based on the hypothesis that these students tend to become demotivated by their experience of increasing educational demands for abstract conceptualization. In this way, they may benefit from grasping subject-related concepts through the hands-on experiences of the GBL interventions. Similarly, we have also chosen 7th graders in order to get insight into how the planned intervention will affect their bi-annual grades, which are given for the first time at the end of the 1½ years intervention phase, when they reach the middle of the 8th grade. This will allow us to make comparisons between the participating 8th graders and the control group students of their subject-related performances in Danish, Math and Science as well as in other subjects.

The project will also strengthen the participating companies by providing them with new market opportunities for selling learning resources that actively promotes students’ 21st century skills within Danish, Nordic and global markets. In the long term, this is also expected to benefit other educational publishing companies and game developers’ production of innovative learning materials through the design guidelines to be developed in the project.

Project description
The project design combines the methodological approach of design-based research with large-scale surveys, performance assessments and observations of the participating students’ 21st century skills. The project progresses from a development phase with multiple iterations of tools for learning and assessment at 3 pilot schools to large-scale interventions at 20 schools distributed across the municipalities of Aalborg, Aarhus, Mors, Rødovre and Slagelse, which will implement the developed tools in order to assess the impact of the intervention.

The development phase of the project includes iterative cycles between developing theoretically informed design principles and trying out tools that support students’ GBL and 21st century skills. This involves redesign of functional prototypes for the 24 GBL materials across the subjects Danish, Math and Science at 3 pilot schools and subsequent redesign before distributing the learning resources to the project teachers. The companies CLIO Online and Build A World will develop 6 and 2 materials, respectively. The remaining GBL materials will be developed based on existing prototypes and research conducted by the project members. The development process will be informed by theoretical and empirical knowledge on GBL, 21st century skills and pedagogical design principles.

The project also develops and implements surveys and assessment tools. The surveys focus on teachers and students’ socio-economic aspects, game experience, digital literacies as well as motivational aspects. KMD will develop a tool for formative assessment of 21st century skills to be implemented in the MinUddannelse learning platform. We will also redevelop the TAO performance assessment tool in order to measure the students’ 21st century skills. The TAO platform has been used in a number of international research studies, e.g. the OECD PISA and PIAAC studies and provides a broad range of functionality, but we will need to build new features for human scoring and new item templates.

The assessment items will be designed as content-rich scenario-based modules where students will meet and solve realistic challenges. The modules will assess 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, critical reasoning, problem-solving and digital literacy. The modules will be built using the experiences from ICILS 2013 and 2018, as well as from the Demonstration School Project and the “Hitte På Projekt”. The instrument is developed during 2018 and tested in a field trial at 3 pilot schools. The field trial gives us the opportunity to try out all aspects of the administration (communication with schools, delivery, scoring, item estimation), and to assess the quality of the modules, and to edit and improve the items.

The intervention will be carried out at 20 schools across 5 municipalities, which are distributed across urban, suburban and rural areas. From each municipality we randomly select 2-5 schools as intervention schools and the same number of control schools. The number of schools needed for the project is based on a “power analysis”, which has been conducted in order to ensure that the estimated value creation of the intervention is achievable with statistically significance. The cost and power balance between the number of classes on each grade level is illustrated in a power curve - cf. FIGURE 5. Based on this analysis, we estimate that the project design needs to involve 20 schools.

During the intervention, the project teachers will teach with 4 GBL scenarios in the 5th and 7th grades within each of the subjects Danish, Math and Science. This will result in 12 GBL scenarios at each grade level over 1½ years of teaching. Each GBL scenario will last between 12-18 lessons. The teachers will be given autonomy and support from the Games and Learning consultants in terms of choosing and adapting GBL materials to curricular and 21st century aims.

The qualitative data collection will involve observations, interviews and collection of student assignments in order to describe and understand how teachers adapt the gamebased learning resources and how students’ participate in learning activities and subject-specific literacy practices that develop 21st century skills. The collection of student assignments will allow comparison with other studies of student assignments.

The third phase of the project concerns the analysis of the collected data. The quantitative data and qualitative data will be analyzed separately and then combined through a mixed methods approach. This approach will allow us to examine both the explanations for the outcomes of the interventions as well as describe the subject specific literacy practices through which these outcomes are produced. Both aspects are of crucial importance in order to develop evidence-based practices for teaching and learning that can support students’ 21st century skills.

Layman's description

The purpose of GBL21 is to develop students' abilities to emphasize with others, generate ideas, modelling, and process management. These four design competencies are examples of 21st Century Skills, which are of great importance to children’s opportunities to participate actively as part of society in their future life. The project investigates how design of both analog and digital gaming tools can be used to create more meaningful, challenging, and engaging teaching. The project is carried out in collaboration between researchers from Aalborg and Aarhus University, the National Centre for Reading, University College Copenhagen (KP) and VIA University College as well as the companies CLIO Online, Build A World, and KMD/Uvdata.
Short titleGBL21
Effective start/end date01/12/201701/12/2022

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth


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