Teaching With Portal 2: Spatial Thinking & Critical Analysis
contributed by Michael Catelli
Educators know that students need hands-on, engaging activities to help enhance their learning and the right video games are the best way to offer this opportunity.
When I played Portal 2 a few years ago I found the game thought-provoking and fun, but I was incredibly excited when I heard my students talking about how they enjoyed the game too. That led me to think about how Portal 2 could be used in schools, as I wanted to see how the game could challenge my students to solve physics and math problems in an environment they typically never experience during school.
What Is Portal?
If you have never seen Portal 2 (the sequel to Portal), players are put into a series of test chambers and must figure out how to reach the exit. They have a portal gun, which can shoot a portal in one spot, then shoot another portal somewhere else, and when you go through one portal you come out the other. This trailer for Portal demonstrates that concept a bit more visually. Portal 2 has potential for schools by providing a series of puzzles that promote critical thinking and problem-solving in a uniquely sardonic narrative. Beyond the structured game, the players can also design their own test chambers, which is what most educators have used with their students.
There are a lot of lessons that bring Portal 2 into your classroom, though designing test chambers and the general structure of the game typically lends itself to a STEM classroom. No matter what type of lesson you make using a game like Portal 2 it will help students learn how experimentation is trial and error and that failure can bring you closer to success. I used Portal 2 in my Sociology class to model how a non-traditional classroom could look before we dug further into our examination on educational systems, but there are many different ways it could be used.
Resources For Teaching With Portal 2
The education community has done a great job sharing their ideas for using Portal 2. If you want to see some lessons that you could use or get some inspiration on pioneering your own ideas check out the following sites.
Teach With Portals: If using Portal 2 sounds like something you want to do the best resource available is Teach With Portals, which was run by Valve (the company that developed Portal 2) during its “Steam for Schools” initiative. The “Lesson Plans” section has several activities covering different grades and subjects. There are language arts lessons for middle schoolers, math and physics lessons for almost every grade, and even some game design. Each lesson plan has downloads to help organize and implement everything in your class. I’m still amazed at the unique systems teachers designed that get students involved in doing math using Portal 2.
Physics With Portals: Another fantastic source for Portal 2 inspiration is the blog run by Cameron Pittman, a former teacher in Tennessee. His lesson plans are all on
Teach With Portals, but his “Demonstration Videos” are incredibly unique. These videos demonstrate abstract physics concepts with visual examples of formulas to back everything up.
Reinventing the Science Fair: This is a project using Portal 2 on Edutopia by Don Labonte to redesign how the class science fair works. Instead of making fake volcanoes the students design Portal 2 test chambers and then gather data about how other students complete their puzzle. The students are not just designing the level, but also taking their work a step farther with that data research. Labonte also stresses the need to have students continually discuss their thought process for solving these puzzles, which I agree is a must.
Reddit has a good explanation of Portal 1 and 2, as well.
In addition to some of these resources I would also suggest these ideas if you use Portal 2 in your class.
1. Play It Yourself
Even if video games aren’t your thing, Portal is a unique–if complex–experience. You don’t have to master the game, but teaching with it without playing it yourself can be problematic.
2. Decide How Feedback Will Be Provided
Your students are going to need feedback during the entire process. Using Portal 2 is far from an old school unit with an assessment at the end; your students will get caught during many parts of the Portal 2 lesson.
You will be tempted to tell them the right answer or even show them, but make sure you push them to discover this on their own, just like you would want in any other lesson. Remind them to reflect, think it through and encourage your students to talk with each other about how to solve the level. Never forget, even though this lesson is far from teacher-centered, the teacher is still essential to make students understand and learn by guiding them.
3. Let Students Lead
You could start by simply providing general guidelines for playing and see what ideas the students have for future lessons. Or you could start with a small mini-lesson on something related to your content–math, science, social studies, and more are all ‘available’ in terms of game content.
4. Use Video Walkthroughs
Like the one above. These are lifesavers.
5. There Is A Learning Curve
Just like any other video game there is a learning curve to Portal 2. All the lessons I linked have students working in the test chambers, but if they did not play the main game your students will not know how to use the tools in the design your own chamber area. You need to provide your students time to learn the game. As they are learning you need to give students the opportunity to articulate their thought process of how they came up with their solution to a puzzle and investigate if there are any other solutions, which there almost certainly is in Portal 2.
6. Give students alternatives
If they don’t want to or somehow can’t play the game, make alternatives available. One alternative to Portal is Bridge Constructor Portal, which is available on iOS and Android.
7. Be flexible
You can teach content, critical thinking, storytelling, physics, writing, dialogue, irony, and a million other concepts through Portal 1 or 2. Just be open-minded.
8. Teach through Portal without actually playing Portal
While playing is important to learning, if playing it isn’t feasible, learning through it without playing it is better than not using it at all.
See also How To Teach With Video Games
Decide How To Play
Hardware: It can be played on Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC
If you want to use Portal 2 in your classroom how do you go about getting it? Valve previously ran a Steam for Schools program that gave away copies of the game, but it currently looks like the program has ended. This is sad news, but perhaps if a lot of educators ask that could change.
Until then you can try showing potential lessons and benefits to your school administrators to see if they will support purchasing the game for students. Otherwise, websites like donorschoose.org provide a great opportunity for teachers to have requests for materials such as Portal 2 crowdsourced.
Hopefully, you can find a lesson using Portal 2 that works with your students using the resources the community has shared and you will have your class experimenting with portals in ways they never before imagined.
Ideas & Resources For Teaching With Portal 2; Spatial Thinking & Critical Analysis: Teaching With Portal 2