“I have seen game-based learning improve grades, scores, attendance and classroom behavior. Even the most risk-averse campuses are looking to replicate these kinds of results, so perhaps my company’s work has removed some of the grueling guesswork by showing – definitively – that game-based learning can work wonders in the classroom – and beyond.” – Rick Brennan, USA

“History is the greatest story ever told,” says Rick Brennan. “It just gets lost in translation. I became a history teacher to breathe life into history.” But Brennan, a 13-year veteran of teaching middle school social studies, consistently found his students – and himself – bored and uninspired. So, he made changes and tried many different teaching methods, from debate-type classes to art history based projects. And while some students became energized, he also found that others were not. “It was sort of like a sad shell game,” he says. That is, until he started using games. “Everything changed,” he says. “The class was electrified.”

Brennan, along with his business partner (and fellow teacher) Jason Darnell, have spent the last six years building Historia, a curriculum-aligned social studies simulation and strategy game that teaches world history and cultures, economics, geography and government through interactive game play.  

“Basically, our Historia prototype was a paper and pen game paired to an interactive whiteboard that presented world history like a ‘choose your own adventure’ styled graphic novel that would shape shift based on the group decisions each student team made in class,” says Brennan.

The years of trial and error have paid off. Recently, their company – Histrionix Learning Company – formed some powerful partnerships with E Line Media, Upper One Games and ASU Center for Games & Impact to develop the Historia prototype into a digital classroom learning game that will be playable on interactive whiteboards and PC/Mac computers and tablets.  Historia will be formally launching – and available to classrooms worldwide – in the fall of 2014.  

“Histrionix was also hired by a Houston-based United Way agency called Neighborhood Centers, Inc. to help build their brand new charter middle school into a game-based campus where nearly every lesson is taught through games and play,” notes Brennan. “Towards that end, our company provides Ripley House Middle School with game-based professional development, teacher training and a growing curriculum catalog so our one-of-a-kind school can take shape – and grow.” Ripley House Middle School will also launch its game-based initiatives this fall.

Brennan’s work has not gone unnoticed in the broader world of education. He was featured in the PLAYMAKERS film series produced by Institute of Play with the generous support of The Gates Foundation and distributed by Fast Company. Additionally, The Atlantic recently wrote an article about Historia and he was interviewed for the Atlantic’s EdTech Forum, too. And Brennan spoke at the TEDxHouston and gave a present called “What if sixth graders ruled the world?”.

“We at Histrionix believe both of our primary projects hold great promise for continued innovation in education,” he adds. I have no doubt. Brennan’s humor, candor and intelligence are a formidable force for the future of education, and especially games-based learning. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Rick Brennan!

TEDxHouston Talk  (2013) – What if Sixth Graders Ruled the World?

 What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

Once I got to college, I soon realized how little I knew about the world around me – including its history. So, strange as it might seem, I decided to become a teacher as a way to breathe life into history, because I wanted my students to get a good, solid social studies experience before they got to college – just in case that day never came.  

That was my mission then; it continues to be my mission to this day.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

I was taught the tools of the teaching trade by historians and master teachers like Dr. Steven Mintz, Dr. Myrna Cohen, Dr. Janice Nath and Dr. Patrick Sheridan at The University of Houston.    Without their expert tutelage, I would never have seen so much success in the classroom.  

Truly, I stand on the shoulders of giants.  

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

Education technology – like apps and tablets – have changed the face of public education by freeing teachers from textbooks and traditional teaching methods – like lectures – that are behind the times by now.  Nowadays, teachers can use technology to take attendance, gather grades and convey content – among other things – allowing them to focus more intently on what matters most: their students.  

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

In my experience, game-based learning is the most exciting innovation happening in education today.  Games are global; they exist across all continents and cultures – beyond borders – like a language all people speak.    

And since learning is fun, game-based learning seems a nice, natural fit – and a powerful pedagogical force. For students – games can enhance creative thinking, problem solving, cooperation and the intrinsic motivation to learn. For teachers – games can drive instruction, so their jobs are made a bit easier by freeing up time to develop deeper relationship with their students – like a learning coach.  And for entrepreneurs – games are an emerging global marketplace that has yet to fully form, so there is great potential to earn a living and help build a better world – all at once.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

If we bend the arc of public education, we will bend the arc of history.

To that end, in the 21st century, students (and citizens) must be able to solve complex, real-world problems by finding solid sources of information, thinking them through critically and articulating data-driven decisions in their own, creative voice. I want to do my part to help advance the cause, which I see as my life’s work.  

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

If every student had their own tablet – and the means to use it – lifelong learning would take root, no matter where you were in the world.

Over time – by unlocking the potential in all people everywhere – we would build a better world.


What is your region doing well currently to support education?

Though I support public school systems, over the years, Texas has nurtured a strong, statewide charter school movement to help advance innovation in education.  For example, currently, Histrionix is part of the design team for The Ripley House Middle School – a game-based charter school in the historic East End of Houston, Texas.    

In other words, Ripley is an incubator for game-based learning in the region – which is the reason behind the charter school movement. Hopefully, our design team will perfect a game-based learning model that can be replicated by public schools across the state – and beyond.

How must education change in your region to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

I spent 13 years teaching middle school social studies in Houston. As I see it, Texas tests too early and too often, so standardized scores seem to matter more than anything else. As a result, too many students have lost the love of learning and too many teachers have lost the love of teaching.   

And if so many students and so many teachers don’t want to come to class, there is little that can be done to build better schools. Hopefully, we are reversing the testing trend in Texas, but – unfortunately – the damage has been done. 

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
For a variety of reasons, too many school systems resist change and are behind the times as a result, which is especially problematic for contemporary classrooms since we live in an era of great global and technological change.But when your job as a teacher or principal hinges on standardized test scores – as it often does nowadays – there is little motivation for innovation in classrooms or on campuses. 

All the while, students can fall farther and farther behind – with no end in sight. 

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
In my experience, I have seen game-based learning improve grades, scores, attendance and classroom behavior.  Even the most risk-averse campuses are looking to replicate these kinds of results, so perhaps my company’s work has removed some of the grueling guesswork by showing – definitively – that game based learning can work wonders in the classroom…and beyond.       

AboutRick Brennan
Co-founder & CEO
Histrionix Learning Company
Houston, Texas USA

  • Birthplace: Houston, Texas
  • Current residence: Houston, Texas
  • Education: Bachelor of Arts – History/Education (University of Houston)
  • Website I check every day: Edutopia, Digg, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, Youtube
  • Person who inspires me most: My wife Kate, my daughter Rhea and my son Sage inspire me the most. 
  • Favorite childhood memory: During the summer months, my younger brother and my friends and I played baseball all day, every day – all summer long – and we loved every single second of it. 
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Big Sur, California is the most beautiful and magical and humbling place I have ever visited, so I travel there every year to rest, relax and recharge amongst the redwoods.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Last night, my daughter Rhea (6) and my son Sage (3) did dueling versions of the Frozen soundtrack in a public park – and drew a small crowd, too.  I had a deep belly laugh watching the show unfold before a live audience. 
  • Favorite book: A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn
  • Favorite music: The Beatles, The Black Keys, Radiohead, REM & Stevie Ray Vaughn
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Years ago, I volunteered to help my grandfather clean out his garage.  I remember struggling to pick up a stack of cardboard boxes and carry them to the other side of the garage.   In just a few minutes time, I was dripping in sweat – and tired. My grandfather looked me over – and slowly pushed a nearby hand truck in my direction. When it slowed in front of me, he simply said, “Tiger, work smart – not hard!” And I have tried to do so ever since.
  • Your favorite quote or motto: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  This ancient Chinese proverb explains my fundamental philosophy on education – clearly and concisely. 
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2 Responses to “I have seen game-based learning improve grades, scores, attendance and classroom behavior. Even the most risk-averse campuses are looking to replicate these kinds of results, so perhaps my company’s work has removed some of the grueling guesswork by showing – definitively – that game-based learning can work wonders in the classroom – and beyond.” – Rick Brennan, USA

  1. Nancy Mottu says:

    I love this interview and his philosophy. Truly an educator with kids in mind and the future at his fingertips. Keep up your great work!

  2. Virginia Murello says:

    I am very excited to learn more about your program. I teach elementary art for Clear Creek ISD and would love to incorporate gaming into teaching the students about art history. I also have opportunities through the clear creek education foundation to acquire a grant to purchase your product…I definitely and interested in learning more about what your program offers.

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