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Beyond Blowing Up Enemies: The Future of Games for Learning

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If you've ever tried to pry a child away from some video game that seems to exert more influence over him than you could ever hope to, you might have asked yourself: Why can't we get a force this captivating in schools?

After two days at the Games for Change festival at New York University last week, I'm encouraged to say the answer is: we're working on it. This was a conference of, by and for game designers and researchers, so it was heavy on complex charts about research methods and far removed from how you might engage students in your classroom Monday morning. But the fruits of this conversation could be incredibly pertinent on a Monday morning just a few years from now.

Jam Session:

James Shelton talks with festival-goers about how to spark innovation in education.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

These game designers and researchers, a couple hundred strong, are passionate about tapping the power of games to deliver learning -- and perhaps even to transform schools. And the U.S. Department of Education, in the person of Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement James Shelton, wants to use its power (and purse) to nourish a flowering of just this sort of innovation. We need it.

"We may have the perfect storm to help us break loose from the status quo," Shelton told the conference-goers. He was speaking about an education upheaval much bigger than games -- a new focus on building creativity and critical thinking, not just drilling basic content knowledge -- but games could be one potent part of it.

Whipping up this storm, he said, is a "consensus in Congress that something big needs to happen," along with economic strains that will force us to consider "radical solutions," and "the reality that people are becoming more aware that we're fooling ourselves. We've lulled ourselves, because of the status of our county and our achievements, into a false sense of security. That security has been disrupted, and people are more open to the notion that we need to do something very different." (Wait a sec -- I think that was just a high-ranking federal official saying that America isn't doing everything right, and we need to take a hard, humble look in the mirror and change our ways.)

The Power of Games

No doubt assessment will be key to this mission. And games could transform assessment. Scratch that: games could be assessment. One powerful form of it, at least. Instead of slaying pixel-painted dragons, for instance, I discovered that you could navigate a mid-air obstacle course using the laws of physics in a quest of save the world (that's a game in the works at Vanderbilt University) or try out different ways to save the real-life lake that is dying in your real-life town (a game being developed in Madison, Wisconsin, starring local Lake Mendota).

Game Quest:

Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute, addresses the crowd of game designers and researchers.

Credit: Grace Rubenstein

OK, these scenarios might sound less sexy than dragon-slaying, but the designers believe they can solve that. There's evidence that strong narratives will motivate kids to solve hard puzzles, said Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute. In one study, he said, a child pursued one problem for 45 minutes -- and this was a problem that the girl wasn't particularly interested in to begin with. Is that music to anyone's ears?

Games could also be a powerful means of differentiating instruction (by, say, adapting the quest to the learner's abilities) and personalizing -- putting the learner directly into the content they're studying. Richard Wainess of UCLA explained that something as simple as using the words "I" and "you" in a lesson -- saying "You look up and see clouds" vs. "There are clouds in the sky" -- yields significantly better learning outcomes. Learning through games is, almost by definition, learning by doing.

There's even some evidence that games, if designed right, can encourage kids to use more positive social behavior (cool!).

Designers at the conference envision taking this quest far beyond schools as we know them. Kurt Squire of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said: "Plugging this back into schools to get a few points higher on a standardized test misses the point. The whole point is that there's an opportunity for something much more revolutionary, letting kids build games, run their own guilds, direct their own learning."

What Teachers Want

Now for a dose of reality: we've got a ways to go, and the education sector isn't known for the speed of its innovation. Try out this stat from Shelton: 3 to 4 percent of spending in a mature industry typically goes to research and development. In education, it's 0.1 percent.

Shelton wants to change that by building a reform-minded R & D agenda and jumpstarting it with public investment (and, he hopes, private capital as well). At Games for Change, that vision was not a hard sell.

One important thing missing from the conversation in New York, though, was the strong voice of everyday educators (not to mention students). As we launch this surge of innovation, we need to explore not only what groundbreaking new things the designers can dream up, but also what real folks in schools want and need.

So let's start here. If you could pick anything, what kinds of new materials (video games or otherwise) would you want in your classroom? How would they engage kids -- individually, competitively or collaboratively? What kinds of lessons would they teach -- basic content, critical thinking skills or good social behavior? All of the above?

Think big. These could be tools that suit the kinds of schools we have now -- or they could radically transform those schools.

I'm eager to hear how you all want these seeds of progress to grow. Tell me, and I'll pass it on to the folks with the fertilizer.

-- Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia

Comments (57)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

K. Campbell's picture

I love the idea of adding gaming, or gaming qualities, into the curriculum. My students spend hours playing COD, Wii, or Guitar Hero. If we as educators could tap into the qualities of the games that entice students then the possibilities within our classroom are endless. As my principal once mentioned, it's no wonder kids love games...they are the perfect example of differentiation: the player is able to make any number of choices from the character, to the level of difficulty, tools, graphics, etc. And, if you 'die' in the game you learn from your mistakes and start over, hopefully becoming more successful at each attempt. The games are designed so you want to succeed.
So often our classes and lessons are the exact opposite. The students have very few, if any, options. They are given one, maybe two, chances to practice specific skills before we move them onto the next one, and the desire to reach success is minimal.
While I do not believe it is our job to entertain our students and make every lesson as thrilling as a Wii game, I believe it is our job to make our lessons interactive, engaging, and motivating. If we can apply some of the qualities of gaming to our lessons and classrooms then we might just hook a few more students and turn them into life long learners. Like Casey Burdette mentioned in a previous post, I think Smart Boards are an excellent way to begin bridging the gap.

Amanda Wrasman's picture

Children respond quite well to video games. We have implemented a reading program in our school called I-station. The students spend 20-30 minutes a day working independently on the computer. The students are given an assessment at the beginning of the month and they work to master the assigned levels in four areas. They love working on the computer and the characters appeal to them. I often hear them singing outloud or laughing when a monster does something silly to a word.
Children today are exposed to all kinds of technology from a young age. As classroom teachers, we need to accept it and include technology in our lessons. Our mind set needs to change, we often worry about children not spending enough time working with pencils and paper. I struggle with learning new technology but I realize students need to be exposed to it. So I say, "bring on the challenge and let us introduce some virtual learning games."

Kerri's picture

Students love to play games. If you can use games to help students learn, I believe that the students would be engaged and want to participate. As a teacher, I try to learn something that interest all my students and use that in teaching my lessons. If the students are interested they will want to participate more. The more they participate the more they are likely to learn. I believe that using games to help students learn is a wonderful idea! Using games to help students learn will fill in some of the learning gaps. As teachers, we want all of our students to learn and we will do anything to help them succeed. I believe that using video games to help students learn is a great idea. I cannot wait to see the difference that this will make in a classroom or school!

Heather's picture

I teach four year olds, and already having learning games for them is a must! We use a Breakthrough to Literacy program in the morning that teaches basic reading skills. I also use to let them explore letters and letter sounds. Having more games like this would be very helpful. These kids are already remarkable on a computer. I would love to see more math and science games. As Casey said smartboards are a wonderful tool to use for games. Many of our classrooms have them (unfortunately not me) but the teachers that do love them. We are in a technological age. Children love hands on and interactive games. They are fun, and students engage in learning without even knowing it!

Katie McClure's picture

I absolutely have loved having access to smart boards and am looking forward to having one in my classroom next year. When I was reading this article, I could not help but think about how beneficial the smart boards are for the students and the classroom environment, and my mind took it a step further. I thought about having a game on the smart board that could be used in a group setting, and then the game could be transferred to student laptops from a network where they can individually complete more levels. With each student's answer being different, it changes the outcome of the game. I'm not technologically advanced, so it is hard to come up with specifics. I would love the idea of a group game being continued in an individual setting. I can just hear the students talking about how their game ended up with a crazy ending and how it was so different than another student's game. When the students hear about the other games, they want to play more in order to see what kind of path they might go down next.

Mary Albrecht's picture
Mary Albrecht
Fourth grade language arts teacher from Georgia

I challenged myself this year to step out and try every bit of technology I could. I teach a fourth grade language arts inclusion classroom and I am always trying to keep things fresh and new.

I was able to have a Smartboard and Mimio installed in my classroom and it has opened up a world that I am still trying to reign in! Everyday after an introduction or full lesson in a subject I would ask my students if I could show them something I found online. They were always very excited to see what I had located for them. I discovered that offers free interactive lessons and movies. United Streaming offers short movies on every topic and grade level. Education City, Brain Pop, and Timez Attack keep my kids actively engaged and looking for more. Successmaker's updated format keeps my kids excited about learning and beating their past score.

The introduction of technology in my classroom has reinvigorated my teaching! I love to find free treasures online that I know will benefit my students.

Mary Albrecht

Michael Ruark's picture

This is a powerful blog that speaks to the central problem of education today- How to make learning applicable to students in the 21st century! I am going to try to incorporate more games into my lesson plans to motivate my students. I work in a district that is committed to technology and I have a smart board in my room, which is very helpful. i think that the kids will really take this type of activity and run with it...great ideas! Thanks for the insight.

Michael Ruark's picture

Great blog! Very insightful and full of nice tips. I am excited to incorporate more technology in my classroom and I think that games are a great place to start. I believe that this is a powerful medium to reach out to our young learners with! I have a smart board in my room, which will aid me in trying to implement some of these ideas into my lessons. this blog really got me excited for next year...keep up the great work.

James's picture

I read about the idea of incorporating video games in the classroom during Classrooms of the Future training and dismissed it as a money-making scheme because the author of the article was a CEO of a video game company. Here I again see the drive for video games to save our educational system, and I am skeptical. So, I would like to pose a few questions that maybe some of you can shed some light upon.
First, how much money will this cost? Aren't our taxpayers overtaxed by school districts and angry enough about it?
If we entertain students with video games, are we simply pandering to the masses and lowering our standards again? I think we need to discern between entertainment and learning. Students want to constantly be entertained because that is what happens at home. Does learning always need to be entertaining?
I'm not so sure that video games are the answer. Think about how many times "the next big thing" in education has been tried and then it has failed. And then think about how much money was wasted by school districts invested in those new ideas for lack of a better plan. I am afraid that we will invest millions of dollars in expensive technology and then it will fail because students will eventually be bored by the educational video games; they won't be as cool as the games they play at home.

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