Game-Based Learning to Teach and Assess 21st-Century Skills | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Game-Based Learning to Teach and Assess 21st-Century Skills

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Game-Based Learning, and particularly serious games that teach content, are fast becoming utilized in the classroom. Frequent success stories are appearing, from Minecraft in the elementary classroom to games that teach civics. There is curriculum that pairs World of Warcraft with language arts standards, and many other variations where the gaming focus is on content. What about 21st-century skills? Yes, games can be used to teach and assess 21st-century skills! As the conversation in education reform moves forward, and educators are increasingly leveraging 21st-century skills, we need to consider how to couple games with reform. Let's take a look at what many consider the top three 21st-century skills and how games can teach and assess them.


MMOs are hugely popular. As an avid gamer myself, I see a new MMO almost every month. The brilliance and appeal of games like World of Warcraft is the requirement for collaboration with others to complete quests, raid enemy territory and destroy bosses. In addition to MMOs, games with online team battles like HALO, Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty utilize the team to complete goals. You survive together, plan attacks and work together. These games, coupled with instruction and other assessments, could be used in and outside of the classroom. A teacher can "translate" the game experience to classroom teams through written reflections and discussions, as well as hands-on gameplay in a fishbowl, where the classroom observes and documents elements of successful collaboration.


All of the games above, which require collaboration, also require communication. Whether written in the chat window or via oral communication through a headset, gamers constantly communicate to each other. This is because there is a clear goal and purpose for the work. Why do students often appear disinterested about communicating in class? Because, to them, the purpose of the classroom situation seems inauthentic. By design, games create the authenticity that attracts them. Getting your point across in a chat window or generating effective team directions and communication can be used in the classroom as lessons to demonstrate the challenges and teach the skills of effective communication.

Critical Thinking/Problem-Solving

Well-designed games require players to solve a variety of complex problems, some of which require standards-aligned learning and some that simply require general critical thinking and problem-solving. Consider a couple examples. Angry Birds (which also doubles in teaching perseverance), progressively gets more and more complicated. Each level adds newer variables and aspects to increase difficulty, leveraging effective gameflow. Your brain must evaluate, analyze, plan ahead, try new ideas and more to solve these levels. You can use reflection and other techniques to have students demonstrate and document their critical thinking skills. Pocket Law Firm, a game which helps players learn civics content in the Bill of Rights, requires explicit critical thinking through the content learned. Teachers can use the game to teach the standards content, as well as critical thinking and problem solving. Through successful planning of the law firm, evaluation of incoming cases and more, players are using critical thinking to get the highest score. Great games require critical thinking with a great "flow."

We must find time for students to play these games in and out of the class to teach content and 21st-century skills. To make it easy and save time, pick a game that develops a relevant area of content learning as well as building 21st-century skills. In addition, you can target one or two of the 21st-century skills that you intend to teach and assess, as games require many skills to play. In the end, if students are successful in the game, hasn't the game assessed the skills and content required?

One of the biggest misunderstandings about games, and people who play them, is that games don't "teach" anything. It's assumed that there is no value in the experience. Hopefully, others can see that the skills utilized in games can be translated from the gaming experience to the real world through a skillful teacher. When you plan to teach and assess 21st-century skills in the classroom, consider games as a valuable method for engaging your students.

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Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

I got a lot out of your piece, Andrew. One of the fundament parts of game-based curriculum design that I like (and that James Gee discusses) is the idea that learning "failure" should be low stakes--a principle that encourages risk, exploration, and perserverance. Thanks for this important piece. -Todd

Jackson's picture
English, Spanish, ESL teacher pursuing degree in Educational Leadership

In reality, 21st Century skills don't have to have anything to do with technology, though technology very often facilitates their development.

My concern is that by saying Halo is educational (which it clearly can be) students and educators might miss the point. Technology by itself isn't educational, the critical thinking and problem solving skills are what is critical. What is most often missing is reflection on the skills used to solve a problem in WoW or Angry Birds. The 21st Skills education comes in to play only if students are encouraged to identify what they did, think in a metacognitive manner about what they accomplished and if they analyze their thinking throughout the process.

I totally agree with Miller's assertions, but believe that more time must be given to reflect. I actually love using table-top, board games to teach such skills. Games like Flash Point and Pandemic are extremely engaging boardgames that pit the game against the group of players who work together to solve problems like the outbreak of diseases across the globe. Students must talk, plan, analyze, and reflect in order to win and they have to do it in the middle of the game.

In the end I think such ideas are more closely related to project based learning, (as opposed to use of technology) where the project is a problem to be solved by using 21st Century Skills.

Prodigy Game's picture

Really enjoyed reading this. Jackson - you are right on the ball when you say what is missing is the association of specific skills with activities in current games today. Being part of an organization that has created an educational game, I can attest to the fact that the ed community is not as open as they could be to the concept - although it is getting better!

Our game focuses on the development of early math skills (grades 1-5) by allowing children to enter a fantasy world, customize their wizard and level up as they progress through the game (learn additional skills), very similar to World of Warcraft. Using both adaptive algorithms in the software itself and a wrist sensor to detect a child's emotional state, the game adapts itself to retain a child's attention longer.

Check it out when you get the chance here. I would love to see the engaging aspects of gaming be put to good use!

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