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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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

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malcolm bellamy's picture
malcolm bellamy
Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

This may well be one of the most important posts that we will read this year from Edutopia.I spent the last evening with a friend who works for Ford International here in the U.K. He bemoaned the fact that the products of our schools are coming out without the creative and collaborative skills needed to become an efficient part of his organisation.

He told me that he works on simulations, scenarios and ideas and that project based activity is what he does all the time. Yet the schools are still narrowly focussed on skills that the pupils do not need now no mind in the future when they are a part of organisations such as Fords.

The statement by James Shelton, quoted in the post is significant.Here is a top Government official acknowledging that schools need to adapt to a changed society. In games we see a medium for change that relates to the children's own world and interests.

I remember many years ago that a British software firm, 4Mation, came out with a game that was called "Granny's Garden". This was run on what would now be considered very slow, low memory computers and yet the children loved it... it helped them to read, they showed motivation and, as in the example of the reluctant pupil who spent 45 minutes at a task, there would often be children who would rather miss their break and carry on with the program!

We really need to develop the inquiry into games in education and we need to give children the time to really get something out of playing them. We need them to work collaboratively, sometimes off the computer and we need to work out real assessments of their progress in picking up and using skills.

To facilitate this we need the ongoing change of "mindset" by teachers and teacher trainers that is slowly getting out there (particularly with the help of organisations such as Edutopia) and conferences such as "Games For Change" must be applauded and encouraged for all our futures.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Blogger 2014

Malcolm, thanks for this thoughtful response. I think the kind of learning you describe is just what the folks at this festival were getting at, and what they're hoping to encourage more in schools. An old friend of mine whom I saw in New York actually told me that games helped him learn to read. Because he wanted to read the instructions and storyline embedded in his favorite game as a kid, he accelerated his learning to read.

Cheers,
Grace

Joanne OBrien's picture
Joanne OBrien
High School English and Career Education teacher

I can't think of a more timely and relevant tool for learning. I tell my Career Ed students that all work is problem solving and a game that would have them learn marketing, budgeting, management would help them develop a whole host of relevant skills.

Lindy Flynn's picture

A K-6 Computer teacher in No. Idaho, USA, I am very excited to read about Games for Change. Already I have a long list of free websites that have games for elmentary children which assist in teaching everything from letter recognition to sentence structure, math to physics. A few are GameGoo, PBS Kids, Starfall, Physicsgames.net (my list has 66 sites and is growing) etc. Plus the sites with white board lessons available are growing. Because I'm in public education in a state with a drastically shrinking education budget, I am a proponent of free online resources, and thrilled there are so many. This levels the economic access playing field a bit.

Jane Alexander's picture
Jane Alexander
Director, Calvary Christian Academy (Apex, NC)

I am the director of a small, independent school with a unique model--3 days at school, 2 days at home when students work with parents completing teacher-directed activities that are differentiated for each student to provide them with the one-on-one learning opportunities they need to advance. This August the school opens for children grades K-5.

Our primary goal for this educational model is to create dedicated time for children to learn in a variety of unique ways that fit their individual interests and needs to challenge them to build deeper cognitive structures of classroom objectives. By shaping their experiences to encourage their knowledge to move from "working" to "mastery/fluency," our educational model enables
students to develop into creative, adaptive thinkers.

I am excited to hear about the work being done in gaming for educational purposes. Games enable children learn at their own pace, to learn in an environment that's intriguing to them, to extend the world of learning beyond the traditional classroom setting, and to equate learning to fun--imagine that! The social development that's part of team-based gaming also has huge benefits for general childhood development.

I look forward to hearing more!

Jane Alexander
Director, Calvary Christian Academy
Apex, NC

suzi4411's picture

I teach 6th grade in Central California. Do you know of a good free site for Newcommers to learning English. I use Starfall, but I have a 6th grader and that can get babyish real fast.

Megan Tucker's picture

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 Tucker
4th Grade Teacher
Fort Walton Beach, FL

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