Code breakers in a different class
An interactive computer game - Spy Quest - is spreading fast by providing rich cross-curricular learning, not to mention a boon to pupils in transition from primary to secondary school
“The name is Bond, James Bond,” says the shadowy figure sitting in the corner of the dimly lit room.
Shaking nervously, hearts thumping, the brave team of classmates edges forwards. The spy’s eyes narrow suspiciously as he carefully studies the eager, innocent-looking faces. Is he surprised they are so young - S1 pupils in their first week at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary in Glasgow, taking part in a live trial of Spy Quest?
“Do you have something for me?” 007 asks in a Sean Connery accent, shifting his penetrating gaze to the smallest member of the group.
The shy boy summons all his courage and replies boldly: “Diamonds are forever …”
The secret passwords are correct. Silently, Bond slides a newspaper across the table with the information they need to crack the code and complete their first mission.
Quickly and stealthily, they leave the geography department and scurry back to the library to log on and decipher their next online Spy Quest mission.
Time is ticking. They are against the clock, competing with another 31 teams of around 200 “agents” to be the first to complete all seven secret missions.
Accomplice “spies” to James Bond include Elvis, back from the dead and lurking in the music rooms; a nun who can change appearance at any time, hiding among the costumes in the drama department; and an Irish granny who can lead you into a false sense of security with her chatty ways but has a mad scientist sidekick in the chemistry lab, ready to release a poisonous potion if she suspects one false move.
It is tense and exciting. Who would have expected that the challenge of finding our way around a new and confusing secondary school building with all its corridors, steep stairs and floors could be so much fun?
This is Spy Quest - a new online, immersive and interactive game for children with a host of educational benefits. David Goutcher, a former Strathclyde Police CID officer, has used the skills he developed as a real-life undercover detective to invent a spy computer game for all ages which is fun to play, but has fundamental learning principles too.
The father of four came up with the idea after being away from home on surveillance missions, staying at hotels where there was very little to do during time off. When the inspiration struck for an interactive game which could be played by families in hotels, he set up his software business - Polybius Games - in 2008.
His secret didn’t take long to come out. Spy Quest (or Super Spy Camp as it was first called) is now being played by millions all over the world, translated into 26 different languages in 86 countries. Polybius Games won the John Logie Baird Innovation Awards in 2010 and was recognised by NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) for educational enterprise.
Families presently play the game as a leisure pursuit within hotels and holiday parks as prestigious as Gleneagles, Center Parcs, Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort in Walt Disney World, Florida, and the Four Seasons in the United States. Now it is being introduced to schools at very little cost as part of a social enterprise.
For just £250, the Polybius team will train members of staff and prepare a bespoke game tailored to the individual requirements of every school. The school then has a year’s membership to use the game in the curriculum for all pupils. All that is required to play is internet access, a secret spy code name and a password.
It can be played on computers, tablets and smartphones; but the beauty is that only the clues and missions are given online - it is then up to the children to go out around the hotel or school grounds to search for the answers, much like a modern-day treasure hunt.
One way in which Spy Quest can be adapted for schools is as an aid in the transition from primary to secondary. Playing the game helps children find out more about their new school, make friends with classmates, meet teachers and build the confidence required to adjust to the bigger and more challenging surroundings of a secondary school.
The P7 or S1 pupils are divided into small spy groups, each assisted by senior agents, called “Buddies”, who are S3 pupils or above, encouraged to try out leadership skills by organising the youngsters and keeping noise levels down.
Drama students are selected to play the part of spies (such as James Bond or Elvis) who hand over vital information in strategic parts of the school - perhaps the first-aid room, the janitor’s office or assembly hall.
Senior pupils are also invited to act as roving reporters - following the progress of the spy groups, taking notes and filming the activities to provide written articles and video footage. This helps in English language and literacy as well as media skills.
In a briefing to the pupils taking part, the spymaster quickly sets the scene. Stories can be adapted to suit individual tasks and settings. At St Thomas Aquinas, international jewel thief Franco Rodriguez was suspected of having stolen the Hope Diamond. The objective for each spy group was to read the clues, crack the codes and solve each mission in order to track down the legendary diamond smuggler.
As the pupils become instantly engrossed in the imaginary underworld of subterfuge, spurred on by the chance of winning a T-shirt and trophy, little do they suspect how much they are learning. Not only do they discover more about their surroundings, but each mission ensures that teams have to share skills by problem-solving, working together, communicating effectively, being observant and using ICT.
Competing against the clock also requires them to work to a deadline, delegate responsibilities and follow a well-planned strategy to complete the missions quickly.
It’s not always the fastest team back that wins, because there are bonus questions or challenges that can be tackled to deduct extra time. These include fun activities such as doing the Hokey Cokey in front of the teachers.
An awards ceremony for the winners and debriefing session help to decipher why the best team won and where other teams went wrong. The objective is to form team-building skills by using the individual talents of each member of the group, boosting self-confidence and increasing awareness of the school’s layout.
Successful transition trials have also taken place at Knightswood Secondary in Glasgow and Dunbar Grammar in East Lothian, and four of the most disadvantaged primaries in Glasgow have used it to encourage P1-4s to learn about the Olympics. It can be enjoyed by everyone, including some children with learning difficulties.
“Motivating, engaging and inspiring - Spy Quest grips a pupil’s imagination from enrolment to graduation,” said a teacher from St George’s Primary in Glasgow, while most of the children seemed to relish the experience, with comments such as “Solving the clues was the best bit” (P4 boy) and “Great fun - I feel like I know the school 100 times better” (P7 pupil).
Education secretary Michael Russell recently tested it at Spy Quest’s HQ in East Kilbride in the company of headteachers, representatives from Glasgow Life and the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Tweeting enthusiastically about the game, he said: “I am sure children and young people will enjoy playing Spy Quest, which can help them to learn and develop teamworking skills in an engaging way.”
There is a growing body of research which reinforces the importance of interactive computer learning technology and recognises why games such as Spy Quest have such a powerful potential in classrooms. The SQA is currently examining ways in which a structured programme could be provided for pupils to achieve a recognised award for successfully completing the game.
A report written by Ollie Bray, depute head of Grantown Grammar in Highland when he was national adviser for emerging technologies in learning at Education Scotland, outlines the role, emerging potential and educational values of using Spy Quest in schools and education establishments.
It demonstrates how the game can be used by all ages for a range of subjects - improving English through reading and interpretation or modern languages by playing Spy Quest in French or German, for example.
Mathematical skills can be sharpened by breaking spy codes; chemistry could include a project on the use of forensics; geography can be linked to the locations where the “spies” are hiding; ICT is required to play the game while drama students get an opportunity to role-play. The game can be tailored to any topic, making the missions as easy or difficult as required.
Mr Bray’s report concludes: “Super Spy Camp (Spy Quest) has now been successfully deployed in a variety of education settings. Evaluations have always been nearly 100 per cent positive.
“Its success is founded by combining engaging technology, sound pedagogy and an immersive story, which captures the imagination of children and their teachers.
“Through game play, learners develop knowledge and understanding of a variety of curriculum areas. Importantly, learners also develop a range of transferable skills to better equip themselves and prepare for future situations in school, at home and life. They also have great fun.”
Scotland is one of the countries leading the way in the use of computer games in the classroom and Spy Quest could soon be played in schools all over the globe.
“My biggest pleasure is from watching children and families in different parts of the world play the game, knowing that they’re enjoying something I’ve created,” Mr Goutcher says.
“I’m especially enthusiastic about introducing the game to Scottish schools as part of a social enterprise - and in the future to the rest of the UK, Europe, the US and possibly China.”
Polybius Games is offering Scottish primary and secondary schools its bespoke Spy Quest game, which can be used for every pupil at a discounted price of £250 (a saving of 90 per cent). Schools should email email@example.com to register their interest. For further information: www.polybiusgames.com
The young spies who came into the classroom
Here are examples of codes and ciphers used in Spy Quest. These require everyone to work together to break the codes.
Code Cracking - Caesar Cipher devised by Julius Caesar (Roman General)
Plain: ABCDEFGHI - JKLM
Code: BCDEF - GHIJKLMN
Replace the plain text letter with the coded letter. Letter A would become B, letter B would become C and so on until Z becomes A
Crack this code using the Caesar Cipher:
P M Z N Q J D U P S D I
This text message “inspect every window sadly, otherwise check ballroom suppose” was intercepted from a spy recently and didn’t mean anything until it was put into a column to reveal the hidden message.
Answer: SEND HELP.
Photo credit: Tom Finnie