Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Beyond Blowing Up Enemies: The Future of Games for Learning

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

Erin's picture

I also agree with Casey, that Smart Boards are a great tool to use in the classroom. I have now taught math for two years with mine, and it has made a huge difference in my students'motivation to learn. They love to solve problems, use the tools such as the protractor and ruler, and also play interactive games. This summer, I am teaching summer school for the first time. I was placed at a different school and the room I am in doesn't have a Smart Board. I have been teaching summer school math now for two weeks, and to be honest, I am board. The Smart Board excites me just as much as the kids.

I think that educational video games would be an ideal way to bring the "fun" back into learning. I constantly hear my boys talking about what level they have gotten to in certain video games. I would love to hear them competing like that through educational video games. It would also be great if they were competing against children all around the world. I think this is a great idea, but wonder how soon it will actually be in our hands. With all the budget cuts, I worry that this idea will make it.
Is this type of program meant to teach concepts, or is it more of a tool to assess what they have learned from the teacher?

As a 5th grade math teacher, I would love games that cover computation of whole numbers, fractions, and decimals. I would also like many word problems that focus on these concepts since that seems to be what standardized testing has moved toward.

This is such a great idea. I really hope it becomes a reality.

Jessica's picture

I am a special education teacher and have had trouble getting my students to learn their times tables. I was able to do an internet search for online math games and found multiplication.com. I love this site it has all kinds of multiplication games, that my students now love to play. I believe that games are a great way for students to learn in a different way. This year I started teaching a new program and that the students learned a great deal of information from but eventually grew tired of the same routine everyday. I know that students love to play games, so I turned our daily lessons into a game show and my students loved it. They even were nice to each other and would share their points sometimes.

Kathleen Beard's picture
Kathleen Beard
Science Teacher

[quote]I am a 4th grade science teacher and I really enjoyed reading the article on the popularity of video games and education. My students go home each night and voluntarily engage in a variety of video games be it through a Wii, Playstation, etc. It would be an awesome power to harness that energy and enthusiasm and have them apply relevant and educational strategies using these games. I think that the mold of traditional education is changing and that video games should be part of the bigger change in how we reach and teach our students. When the kids see these "school concepts" on a worksheet, they are immediately turned off, but if we could intertwine these skills into an interactive video game, I am sure that the results would be astounding.Personally, I would really love to see a virtual reality video game that would engage my students in internalizing the scientific method. It could by any science problem solving activity and should involve reading and math skills as well. For example, the kids could be given an energy problem and have to work to solve for the most reliable solution using renewable energy resources. The possibilities are endless.I am so excited to see that so many people are in favor of this profound change in education. I can't wait to see what happens!Megan Tucker4th Grade TeacherFort Walton Beach, FL[/quote]

I'm a Science Teacher in a Title One school in Florida and I could not agree more with you, Megan. I have students that cannot concentrate for more than five minutes when working with text, yet are willing to spend hours solving puzzles, working cooperatively and plan a sequence of attack when they are home using games on thier PS3 or Wii. Technology is going to loom huge in these kid's futures and yet we teach them using archaic methods; 'if it worked for us, it should work for them too' is not going to cut it.
I read an article recently that stated that Orlando alone will need to hire 100,000 people in technology and science five years from now- when we shy away from teaching these things in the classroom.
I'd like to see interactive games where students work cooperatively with a goal; attacking human viruses in the body, creating a new world (geography, biomes, economy, plants, alien races, sociology) that thrives, designing space craft to explore beyond our planets, working on saving the rainforests of the world for starters.

Make it fun, make it cool, make it shiny. Make these games help them appreciate thier peers and learn to work in teams, bringing out the strengths in each child. Make it cutting edge, yet user friendly.
I know... I'm not asking for much!

Lee's picture

I enjoyed reading about using games for educational purposes in the classroom. I look forward to trying out several of the websites mentioned in the comments. We do not have a lot of time for technology in our classroom and I think that would make a lot of difference. I see so many kids with their heads in the DS or talking about wii games. It would be very beneficial for our students to use this to expand their knowledge of basic subjects.

Jeremie's picture

With the ever popular Smart phones and hand-held gaming devices used as tools for communication and entertainment, school systems around the country need to be proactive in acquiring the latest technological advances and ensuring they are being used in the classroom setting. In 1977, Bruner noted that the "construction of curricula proceeds in a world where changing social, cultural, and political conditions continually alter the surroundings and goals of schools and their students" (p. 8). This is a necessity as we try to stay competitive in the global market.

Currently, I use a Smart board with an immediate response clicker system in the classroom setting. During intervention time, the students review state level indicators with a handheld device called Brain Child Study Buddy. Student who participate in the After School Math Club students compete against each other on their Nintendo DS. The game is called Math Trainer.

These systems were all purchased through technology grant money.

Bruner, J. (1977). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jeremie's picture

With the ever popular Smart phones and hand-held gaming devices used as tools for communication and entertainment, school systems around the country need to be proactive in acquiring the latest technological advances and ensuring they are being used in the classroom setting. In 1977, Bruner noted that the "construction of curricula proceeds in a world where changing social, cultural, and political conditions continually alter the surroundings and goals of schools and their students" (p. 8). This is a necessity as we try to stay competitive in the global market.

Currently, I use a Smart board with an immediate response clicker system in the classroom setting. During intervention time, the students review state level indicators with a handheld device called Brain Child Study Buddy. Student who participate in the After School Math Club compete against each other on their Nintendo DS. The game is called Math Trainer.

It is important that schools employ a grant writer. The previous mentioned systems were purchased through technology grant money.

Bruner, J. (1977). The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meagan's picture

Wow, this is wonderful. Kids love their video games. There is no doubt that young people spend much of their time playing video games these days. It would be a great benefit to student learning if the games were teaching lessons. Since playing games are a beloved pass time for many children, it is important to have games in the classroom for student learning. Currently I use some educational websites in my class. The students like to visit starfall,and funbrain the most. Teachers must find what their students interest are and use those interest in the classroom. by doing so the teacher will have a overwhelming amount of positive student learning outcome. Teachers need to make sure that they stay focused on student learning and do whatever is needed. I believe these games will be a giant leap for closing learning gaps. It is my hope that these games will be used in all schools.

Meagan's picture

Wow, this is wonderful. Kids love their video games. There is no doubt that young people spend much of their time playing video games these days. It would be a great benefit to student learning if the games were teaching lessons. Since playing games are a beloved pass time for many children, it is important to have games in the classroom for student learning. Currently I use some educational websites in my class. The students like to visit starfall,and funbrain the most. Teachers must find what their students interest are and use those interest in the classroom. by doing so the teacher will have a overwhelming amount of positive student learning outcome. Teachers need to make sure that they stay focused on student learning and do whatever is needed. I believe these games will be a giant leap for closing learning gaps. It is my hope that these games will be used in all schools.

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 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. 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.

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.