Beyond Choose Your Own Adventure: Branching Logic for Deep Understanding and Empathy

Many in the EdTech community have been exposed to various ways students and teachers can use Google Forms, Sites, Dos, Slides, and other platforms to create interactive branching logic “choose your own adventure” style activities. I’d like to take the conversation deeper to explore how this kind of technology can do more than create interactive narratives and how it can teach challenging science topics, how it can simplify complex math concepts, and how it can build empathy to broaden our students’ understanding of world cultures.

What is Branching Logic?

To get a sense of how branching logic works, play this simple Oregon Trail ripoff game designed using Google Slides.

Notice how you start with a choice to make, and the outcome changes based on what "branch" you choose? Anyone can easily build these kinds of web experiences as long as you know that you can link any object (including a text box) to another slide in the deck. Select the object and then insert > link.

You'll also notice that I have oriented the aspect ratio of this slide deck to be portrait instead of the traditional wide landscape. I did this to make the slide deck more mobile friendly. We normally hold our phones vertically, so this app is more of a mobile app. File > Page setup > Custom > 9x16.

While this "app" is cute and kind of fun to make and use, its educational value is relatively limited. Sure we could add as many different complex branches to this app, but in the end, it would really be an interactive narrative. To be true, this alone is a great activity to freshen up creative writing activities and turn writing work into visual collaborative projects for students.

Go to on your phone to try it!

How does this redefine education?

Well, it doesn't really. It really just augments education with cool and useful technology. You could create this kind of experience using pencil and paper and building an interactive book that tells the users to turn to a different page based upon their choices. Hence, Choose your own Adventure Books, which I adore by the way.

Purpose Driven Education

I have dedicated my career to help teachers and students find direct meaning and purpose in education. I don't believe school should just be a means to get a job or even build skills. It should be a tool we use to explore and define our purpose in life ... a place to figure out life's meaning. That's why I am constantly asking my students to ask, "Why are we doing this?" "How is this work having an impact on our world?" "Who will benefit from the work we're doing?"

The Syrian Journey

I was absolutely blown away when a colleague sent around a link to a BBC website called "The Syrian Journey." In the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, the BBC was looking for ways to build more empathy for a population what was, frankly, not receiving a great deal of empathy in the western world. These victims of terrorists were often portrayed as terrorists simply because of their religion or ethnicity.  The Syrian Journey asks readers to assume the role of a Syrian looking for a way to help keep his or her (the user chooses the gender) family alive through a civil war. Readers are forced to confront a series of very difficult choices. Few of them are desirable, and most of them have life-or-death consequences. I couldn't help but feel more invested in the story and identify with this population on a human level rather than a statistic or another politically charged headline.

An Immigrant's Journey

Several fellow teachers and I were so moved by this site that we began collaborating on how we could get our students to develop a similar project using a variety of academic subjects. Our humanities students started drafting the narrative and conducting the research. Art students started working on the illustrations, Spanish students began translating the writing, and my tech students started building the framework. We decided to use Google Site for the project, but other platforms would have worked as well.
An Immigrant's Journey Mapped out with Post-it Notes

This process was MUCH more complex that we had imagined. Keeping the story coherent required a great deal of complex post-it notes and Google Doc folder structures. The project isn't perfect, but we do have something to share with others, and we learned a great deal through the process.

Branching Logic in the Science Classroom

Using branching logic isn't limited to creating interactive narratives. We can use branching logic to help organize and understand complex structures. Imagine you're hiking down a trail and you notice an animal track. How would you go about identifying the source of that track without an expert zoologist at your side? Scientists categorize species of animals based on the kinds of tracks they make and by simply answering a series of questions based on observations, we can get closer to the species of that animal. Here is a prototype of an animal tracking app that could inspire your class to make more complex identifying applications with more choices and more data. 

This kind of application could be used for identifying plants, insects, even diseases. Math teachers can create these kinds of projects to help students how to identify shapes or to identify what rule students could choose with applying a geometric proof. When I shared this with an anatomy teacher, she immediately saw this as a way to help students understand how dermatologists identify skin diseases. This fall her students are going to create a skin ailment app. A librarian wants to use this kind of project to create a kiosk in her library to help visitors get book recommendations. She's going to build the site using Google Slides and display the slides using a mounted iPad. Visitors can answer questions such as what genre they're looking for and get the latest recommendations based upon their choices.

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