Beyond Blowing Up Enemies: The Future of Games for Learning | Edutopia
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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

Gina's picture

What an interesting post! Why haven't these high-tech game ideas been implemented years ago! If kids are addicted to video games at home, why wouldn't they enthuse over academically oriented games in the classroom?! This really could be a way to revolutionize the educational realm. Children are already bored with the traditional academic structure, which I find leads to their lack of motivation. Think about it - when kids hear the word "game" in class, their eyes and ears perk up; this is the type of attention teachers need for effectual learning. In turn, children are able to turn learning into action and action into learning. I am an ESL teacher and this would be a brilliant way to get my students to learn English. If there are any workshops or professional learning communities that are looking into how they could help advance this tool (even before the game designers dream up their master game plan) let me know!

Casey Burdette's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article about the future of games and their role in education. Every year, it seems that school districts are putting more and more money in the funding for technology. Many schools have laptops for the teachers and some even have them for the students. Other schools are outfitting their computer labs with newer computers every few years to keep up with new technology. The biggest change I've seen over the last five years in schools, is the implementation of Smart Boards into schools.
Most schools begin with them in their computer labs and/or libraries. From there, they are being placed throughout the classrooms. Some schools have them in every classroom, while others only have one for each grade level to share.

The Smart Board is fairly new in the technology world, but is making a huge impact on the way teachers are now teaching, and the way students are now learning. Bringing these "interactive whiteboards" into the classroom setting is a huge step forward for school districts. And in turn, teachers and administrators have had the task of going back through their curriculum and changing it to meet the needs of the teachers using this new technology.

Where do games fit into this scenario? Well, I've seen educators use these Smart Boards in two ways. The first teacher who does not have the patience or initiative to go back and create new lesson plans in order to use this technology to its fullest, simply use it as a white board and projector. They display worksheets, books and other work onto the white screen, and maybe go so far as to pull up a website here and there to supplement a lesson. The second teacher, overcome with excitement about his/her new classroom tool, goes above and beyond to work every aspect of the technology into a lesson. This teacher uses the Smart Board interactively, as do the children. Each subject seems to pull up a new activity onto the board. Students come up and use their fingers and the markers to create new ideas, or contribute to ones already established. The teacher shows them interesting websites, many of which build on to the knowledge the students have already covered in class. Games are included on many of these websites, and they help the students reinforce what they have learned about that particular topic.
In my school, each grade level is assigned a country. The class studies the people, culture, etc throughout the year, in all subjects, and by the end of the year, they are experts in that country. The goal is for them to have explored the entire world by the time they graduate. Our country in third grade is Japan. My students studied how the people live, what they eat, how they dress, what language they speak and much, much more. We also compared school and home life in Japan with ours in America. The students loved every minute of learning about this new place, and were excited to share their findings with other classes and their families. Gaining information from books was sufficient enough, but using technology really put our learning over the edge. I found a plethora of information through websites. I shared many with the class. We even learned how to make origami from short videos on a kid-friendly Japanese website! At the closing of our unit on Japan, I took my students to one last website. There were games on the site that challenged the students to think about all the things they learned about Japanese culture. My class was so excited to play the "games" and were proud of themselves that they retained so much about a place they had never even visited.

Like all things out there in the World Wide Web, teachers have to be careful about what sites they visit, and what they expose their children to during lessons. However, a well-planned teacher can create beneficial lessons using games and interactive activities using these websites. Whether you're introducing a topic, having students experience that topic, or wrapping up a study on a topic, internet games and activities can be a huge help for educators. And the Smart Board tool is just the beginning in bringing them to life!

Kristi's picture

I love these blogs. I think educational games in the classroom is a must. I just do the tradtional review games, but these others could be a real turning point for our students. How great would it be for kids to be excited about learning. I get so tired of the moaning about learning. I have heard about the smart boards, but have not been lucky enough to use one. I am teaching a new subject this year, and I really don't want it to be boring. I want my students to want to learn. Great ideas! I can't wait for this to be in all of our classrooms around the world.

Jessica Minotti Verderame's picture
Jessica Minotti Verderame
First Grade Teacher from Tampa, Florida

I agree with Casey that the SMART board brings another dimension to the classroom! The technology is new to my school, but because we are Title 1, each classroom will have one by next September. I will have one in my room next year, and I wish we were offered more information on how to utilize it rather than just how to work the mechanics of it. I had a professor in college who used one just to display his Power Point presentations and occasionally dig up a website.
In our digital age, I believe kids respond well to the SMART board. Thanks for sharing your knowldge!

Jessica Banks's picture

This article was great and refreshing to read. Schools are constantly increasing their technology and expectatios of the students and what they need to know. My district now has smartboards in every room with the interactive buttons for each student to play Jeopardy-like games. We even bought a program called "Study Island" to prepare the kids for standardized testing. This was great because as soon as the kids were proficient at a certain topic, it opened more games for them to play just like the Wii games they play at home. This really sparked the interest in learning within my classroom. We need more technology like this in order to move forward and movtivate our kids.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

I really appreciate how thoughtful all these posts are! Lindy and Casey, would you be up for posting the names/links to more of your favorite online games? That would be really helpful for others to see!

Also, Jessica V., we have a downloadable sheet of tips for ways to use the SMART Board in our coverage of Forest Lake Elementary School. Good luck!

Jeremy's picture

Kristi, I am like you. I use games during review or study. I try incorporate them into everyday lessons but sometimes it is hard. I think that games are key to learning. Using games helps reach all types of intelligences. Smart boards are amazing. They are the perfect resource to use for incorporating games into the classroom. They are very interactive.

Kristen's picture

I really enjoyed this article about incorporating more education into games. This will be a great tool for all teachers. It is always a challenge to grab every child's attention and interest them. But video games are something that most of the kids I teach, spend a lot of time playing.

I also enjoyed reading the different comments on this article. I believe that games in the classroom are great. I remember when I was younger there was a computer game about the Oregon Trail. We had to pack up our families and supplies on our wagon. We also had to look for food and take care of people if they got hurt or sick. It was the most fun game and I wasn't even aware at the time how much I was learning.

The school district that I teach in also uses smart boards. These boards really open up a window to technology in the classroom. We are able to expand our teaching through interactive games, videos and lessons. The students are so intrigued by technology, it is important we keep up with their expanding needs. Last week alone, I started a unit on the Rainforest using a flip chart on the smart board that included links to other websites and videos, music and interactive games for the entire class. We also played scrabble on the board during our word study center, math jeopardy to review for a test, took a virtual tour around a famous art museum, and watched an author for an upcoming book be interviewed by other children. The opportunities are endless.

I recently graduated from my undergraduate and immediately began in a long term subbing position. During my studies, differentiated instruction was a main focus. It was great to see this in the article because it is so important in education. If the game makers are aware of how vital it is to meet each individual child's needs, then the games will be that more valuable from an educational stand point.

I am so excited to see more educational games in the future. They will be a great asset to students as well as teachers.

Great article!

Liz's picture

Like the other commenters I think that gaming holds huge potential in the educational world, especially to build sure skills as problem-solving. However, at the higher levels I am worried that most games won't support higher thinking in my content area - English. I think games have potential help kids understand concepts like character development, plot, symbolism or even theme but I'd like to see a game that would help them transfer those skills to reading a short story or book. Can a game help them understand how a metaphor can help show the author's point-of-view?

I think it was the first post that commented on the need for more research and I agree that is what we really do need. In our current educational climate, instructional methods must be research-based and proven to promote success. A couple years down the line we'll be in a better position to judge where and when games are helpful learning tools.

Erica's picture

I too am curious about gaming in the English content area. I think games based on writing and grammar can be done and can be valuable. I have seen many games out there that challenge students when it comes to spelling, punctuation, ect. I also know that inquiry based games and role playing games are extremely educational. However as Liz said, when it comes to literature, how can we make a book a game? Unless Wii, Sony, and Microsoft all start getting into the business of making games for novel, I feel this is one area where being traditional cannot be helped. Getting students to read independently these days is extremely difficult because of technology. Making everything a game or using games too often can hinder reading. We have to make sure that moderation is the key with technology.

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