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The Games Pupils Play

| Owen Edwards

Case in point: Many years before my son began casually blocking my best basketball shots, I had bought him a handheld Space Invaders digital game, a primordial ancestor of the remarkable video games that exist today. The concept was simple -- flights of alien spaceships descended from the top of the small screen to the bottom, and the job of the threatened Earthling was to destroy them before they completed their flight.

When my son wasn't around, I practiced playing the game, and felt that I was getting pretty good. As I recall, I had moved up to level two, heading eventually (I hoped) for five, the master level. When my son played, however, he quickly leaped up to level four. And he was only seven.

One day, while he was watching me play, he said, "Dad, I think you're missing the patterns."

I was stunned. There were patterns? I had been convinced that the alien ships were launched against me in completely random waves. The kid, however, had figured out the various patterns -- and how to recognize each instantly -- the first few times he played. He was a natural chaos theorist.

My son is now a criminal defense attorney and an expert on eyewitness testimony (which he has written about for Edutopia.org), and, frankly, I'm not surprised.

Why am I telling this mildly Oedipal story of domestic domination? Because as up-to-date teachers know and I (neither a teacher nor particularly up-to-date) am discovering, video games are considered by many to be the next big thing in education. A recent article in the Economist describes Katie Salen, a games designer and professor at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York City, who recently opened Quest to Learn, a publicly funded school in that city that will teach entirely through games. (See also this Edutopia.org video interview with Salen.)

The article describes how, at Quest to Learn, 90-minute "domains" will replace the familiar blocks of subject study. For instance, Being, Space, and Place will teach English and social studies. "Pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action," the article states. "In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography, and public policy."

Should those pupils ever find themselves in a war with ancient Athens, they will be well prepared. Otherwise, the curriculum seems somewhat underwhelming. Is this the virtual pathway to Arcade High, or an essential approach to reinvigorating the classic chalk-and-talk method that has shaped the classroom dynamic for a couple hundred years?

Of course, the old paradigm has been changing for quite a while now, led not only by technology but also by the growing importance of project learning, both core concepts of The George Lucas Educational Foundation. And creative, interactive video games like the intriguing simulacrums of The Sims, the ingenious gene pools of Spore, and the avatars of Second Life have been around for quite a while.

But let it be noted that Salen, the theorist behind Quest to Learn, is a game designer. She's also a college professor, but -- and I'm guessing here -- I somehow doubt that she's ever stood before a middle school class and taken on the challenge of imparting important knowledge that may be long on difficulty and short on fun.

My guess is that however cool technology becomes, however much of it provides the shape of pedagogic things to come, there will always be teachers standing in front of students -- or sitting with them at screens -- passing on what they have learned to those who need to learn it too. Education is not all games, and teachers will, I hope, never be mere facilitators of tech whose only job is to monitor kids immersed in virtual school.

I'm sure there may be much to be gained by using games, if those games are carefully crafted. After all, many students today are veteran gamers. But who will be making the decisions about which games teach, and which games merely seem to teach?

As psychologists have shown, anything that moves on a screen will capture people's attention, so student involvement is not a trustworthy measure of effectiveness. I'm just speculating here, but any educator over 40 (the Pong generation) probably isn't going to be very good at assessing the value of games for the World of Warcraft generation.

An education system dominated by games may change the balance in classrooms -- power may shift from living teachers to game designers, and from students who are adept at abstract thinking to those better at doing things, even virtual things.

Ideally, a good game curriculum will help the nonmathematical student grapple with numbers and the linguistically challenged to navigate the terra incognita of the subjunctive. But, as I learned from my son long ago, some people are good at games and some aren't, just as some students are natural athletes and some struggle on the playing field.

Will game learning create a new elite group, just when teachers work so hard to get everyone involved and educated?

In Herman Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game, where a vastly complex cultural game becomes the ultimate measure of superiority, this is pretty much what happens. I've noticed more than a few times that dedicated gamers, with their alpha-dog winning-is-the-only-thing competitiveness, can be a pain to deal with in real-life social and working situations -- the kind of office politicians who would just as soon see others fail as help a project succeed.

Or will the spectrum of educational games allow those of us who don't see the patterns comprehend a rich universe of learning that chalk on the blackboard never showed us?

In other words, can teachers teach game designers how to teach? Please comment on this idea, and others shared in this blog post.

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Comments (22)

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Games

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This is a feeling that all parents feel at some point. In fact, I can remember being better at some things than my parents were and my children are definitely better at technology and gaming than I am. sauce

John McLear (not verified)

Games Arena

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I'm one of team members from http://primarygamesarena.com and we would be happy to help you out in trying to identity which games are more frequently played and/or the feedback from those games.

It would be interesting to see a review on each game and to give it an "educational score or weight".

Check it out and let me know if I can help!

http://primarygamesarena.com

Michelle (not verified)

As a teacher, I would not

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As a teacher, I would not mind using video games as long as they are educational and useful. I think playing to student interest is extremely important in getting students invested in their studies. However, I am not sure how much I agree with a school that teaches entirely through games, such as Quest to Learn. First, I do not believe in only one method of teaching. There is no secret to teaching that suddenly makes every student learn. We need to assess the needs and learning styles of our students and find learning activities that meet them. I believe strongly that students need to be exposed to a variety of learning styles, such as games, cooperative learning, reading, etc. Secondly, I believe that teaching solely through video games denies the students of a much needed lesson in school: social skills. If students are only interacting with people through a computer, they will not learn the needed communication and rapport-building skills they will need to succeed in “the real world”.

As a member of a younger generation, I do feel that I defend video games a lot. I am definitely a fan of playing them, whether it is shooting zombies, playing a song, or solving a puzzle. While the majority of video games I would say are purely recreational, there are also a good number that have can have teachable moments whether at home or in the classroom. For example, the game Braid for the Xbox360 or the Professor Layton series for the Nintendo DS are puzzle based and one cannot advance in the game without applying critical thinking skills. There are even some that try to apply morality by having a character and how others in the game react to him change based on what types of decisions he has made.

I find the argument for/against video games is probably similar to the one about TV. A lot of people complain about shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy as being crass. Yet my high school English teacher, knowing we enjoyed these shows, used them to teach about high and low comedy. Almost anything can have teachable moments. The important thing for teachers is to figure out how to apply these new resources effectively in the classroom.

Michelle (not verified)

As a teacher, I would not

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As a teacher, I would not mind using video games as long as they are educational and useful. I think playing to student interest is extremely important in getting students invested in their studies. However, I am not sure how much I agree with a school that teaches entirely through games, such as Quest to Learn. First, I do not believe in only one method of teaching. There is no secret to teaching that suddenly makes every student learn. We need to assess the needs and learning styles of our students and find learning activities that meet them. I believe strongly that students need to be exposed to a variety of learning styles, such as games, cooperative learning, reading, etc. Secondly, I believe that teaching solely through video games denies the students of a much needed lesson in school: social skills. If students are only interacting with people through a computer, they will not learn the needed communication and rapport-building skills they will need to succeed in “the real world”.

As a member of a younger generation, I do feel that I defend video games a lot. I am definitely a fan of playing them, whether it is shooting zombies, playing a song, or solving a puzzle. While the majority of video games I would say are purely recreational, there are also a good number that have can have teachable moments whether at home or in the classroom. For example, the game Braid for the Xbox360 or the Professor Layton series for the Nintendo DS are puzzle based and one cannot advance in the game without applying critical thinking skills. There are even some that try to apply morality by having a character and how others in the game react to him change based on what types of decisions he has made.

I find the argument for/against video games is probably similar to the one about TV. A lot of people complain about shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy as being crass. Yet my high school English teacher, knowing we enjoyed these shows, used them to teach about high and low comedy. Almost anything can have teachable moments. The important thing for teachers is to figure out how to apply these new resources effectively in the classroom.

Andrew Pass (not verified)

Teaching with Video Games

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Certainly not every game is going to provide an equally high quality educational experience. However, it is imperative that students have an opportunity to learn in contexts within which they are comfortable. When students go home they play very high quality games (typically totally uneducational) and have access to all kinds of information via the Web. These same opportunities are typically not available in the classroom. While my small publishing company does not develop video games, we do develop supplemental curriculum resources (and units) that sit atop popular Web 2.0 technology. I would hold any of our units up against traditional learning styles.

Andrew Pass
http://www.pass-ed.com

Andrew Peterson (not verified)

Games In Education

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http://www.otb-games.com/usa/index.html

Joy,

The game listed above is fun, and teaches the US geography. I dare say, it's even fun. The company (Out of the Box) specializes in educational games. To my knowledge, they are board game only, but that keeps implementation costs to a minimum.

I know I learned more world geography from 'Risk' than from any textbook.

-Andrew

Bonnie Nesbitt (not verified)

Interesting research.

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A book that may be of interest is Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good For You- how today's popular culture is actually making us smarter." From the back cover, "Steven Johnson draws from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics and media theory to argue that the pop culture we soak in every day has been growing more sophisticated with each passing year and far from rotting our brains, is actually posing new cognitive challenges that are making our minds measurably sharper.

His analysis is fascinating and addresses not only video games but TV shows as well.

Nalcolm Bellamy (not verified)

I have to agree with Juli

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I have to agree with Juli Choden. There is a need for a diversity of games that does not emphasise war and winning at all costs. The developments in technology have allowed us to explore virtual worlds collectively and this cooperative element is one that will help to combat the obsessive "win and destroy" mentality that leads to self-centred thinking and would not bode well for our future when our planet needs collaborative solutions to large problems.

Jerry Jaco (not verified)

Technology Coordinator

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When given free choice, a popular online game among my junior high students is Runescape http://www.runescape.com/title.ws (see also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RuneScape for an overview)

In the game, players travel through a variety of regions, exploring generally, but interacting with other players as desired, or going it alone and trying to learn/accomplish a variety of skills and tasks. When I ask a student how much they have to learn to play the game, they seem nonplussed about my use of the word "learning" in relation to the game. It's just stuff you have to do to get to the next level.

As to healthy activities - would it be too far-fetched to consider some of the handheld device-based activities as ways to encourage getting out into the open air? Geocaching is quite popular and can be done with just a smart phone or GPS device. In the old days (prior to GPS devices), the pastime of orienteering combined a thinking activity (map reading skills) with an outdoor race/obstacle course. Something like that could be easily incorporated into something technology-based as well.

Let's not forget the old standby - simulations. A teacher friend recently recommended a company she'd happily used while in the classroom - Interact Simulations (http://www.teachinteract.com) - and when I purchased a couple and showed them and their catalog to teachers at my site, there was a great deal of interest. In fact, I was able to successfully apply for a small grant to purchase 6 of the packages. These are "old-school" simulations, based in books and papers, but the ideas are sound and proven, and can be easily augmented into video game simulations.

I believe it's time for this to become a significant portion of our curriculum. The models are all there. All we need is a "collaboration of creative minds" to bring it about. Perhaps Edutopia and the GLEF can push even harder at the edges of this envelope.

Joy (not verified)

I think that video games to

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I think that video games to teach would be fantastic. So many of my students relate EVERYTHING to their video games. I think every morning I hear something new about the game they played, the new game they got, or the game their going to get if they get all A's. It is amazing how much children have changed. If they recieve a "game" day, three quaters of the class will get out their Nintendo DS, while the remaining kids get out their IPODs. What happened to checkers and life? If their were games that could help my students learn the distributive property of multiplication, the regions of the USA, or the food web I would be all over it! Hey, maybe there already is and I just don't know about it! It would also help if maybe my school would be a little higher in the technology department!

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