George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Game-Based Learning to Teach and Assess 21st-Century Skills

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Game-Based Learning, and particularly serious games that teach content, are fast becoming utilized in the classroom. Frequent success stories are appearing, from Minecraft in the elementary classroom to games that teach civics. There is curriculum that pairs World of Warcraft with language arts standards, and many other variations where the gaming focus is on content. What about 21st-century skills? Yes, games can be used to teach and assess 21st-century skills! As the conversation in education reform moves forward, and educators are increasingly leveraging 21st-century skills, we need to consider how to couple games with reform. Let's take a look at what many consider the top three 21st-century skills and how games can teach and assess them.


MMOs are hugely popular. As an avid gamer myself, I see a new MMO almost every month. The brilliance and appeal of games like World of Warcraft is the requirement for collaboration with others to complete quests, raid enemy territory and destroy bosses. In addition to MMOs, games with online team battles like HALO, Left 4 Dead and Call of Duty utilize the team to complete goals. You survive together, plan attacks and work together. These games, coupled with instruction and other assessments, could be used in and outside of the classroom. A teacher can "translate" the game experience to classroom teams through written reflections and discussions, as well as hands-on gameplay in a fishbowl, where the classroom observes and documents elements of successful collaboration.


All of the games above, which require collaboration, also require communication. Whether written in the chat window or via oral communication through a headset, gamers constantly communicate to each other. This is because there is a clear goal and purpose for the work. Why do students often appear disinterested about communicating in class? Because, to them, the purpose of the classroom situation seems inauthentic. By design, games create the authenticity that attracts them. Getting your point across in a chat window or generating effective team directions and communication can be used in the classroom as lessons to demonstrate the challenges and teach the skills of effective communication.

Critical Thinking/Problem-Solving

Well-designed games require players to solve a variety of complex problems, some of which require standards-aligned learning and some that simply require general critical thinking and problem-solving. Consider a couple examples. Angry Birds (which also doubles in teaching perseverance), progressively gets more and more complicated. Each level adds newer variables and aspects to increase difficulty, leveraging effective gameflow. Your brain must evaluate, analyze, plan ahead, try new ideas and more to solve these levels. You can use reflection and other techniques to have students demonstrate and document their critical thinking skills. Pocket Law Firm, a game which helps players learn civics content in the Bill of Rights, requires explicit critical thinking through the content learned. Teachers can use the game to teach the standards content, as well as critical thinking and problem solving. Through successful planning of the law firm, evaluation of incoming cases and more, players are using critical thinking to get the highest score. Great games require critical thinking with a great "flow."

We must find time for students to play these games in and out of the class to teach content and 21st-century skills. To make it easy and save time, pick a game that develops a relevant area of content learning as well as building 21st-century skills. In addition, you can target one or two of the 21st-century skills that you intend to teach and assess, as games require many skills to play. In the end, if students are successful in the game, hasn't the game assessed the skills and content required?

One of the biggest misunderstandings about games, and people who play them, is that games don't "teach" anything. It's assumed that there is no value in the experience. Hopefully, others can see that the skills utilized in games can be translated from the gaming experience to the real world through a skillful teacher. When you plan to teach and assess 21st-century skills in the classroom, consider games as a valuable method for engaging your students.

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Health Teacher's picture
Health Teacher
Health Teacher

I enjoyed your thoughts. I think the most critical component that you mention is a skillful teacher. A skilled teacher can make a lesson out of just about anything, even Angry Birds. The problem is that there are not a lot of really skilled teachers especially when it comes to using digital tools in the classroom. I feel there are teachers that were taught to teach a certain way and integrating games and technology is not part of it. I hope universities can start to train teachers to be more prepared for 21st century skills and thinking about how integrating technology will assist in that process. Are universities training teachers to be 21st century teachers?

catez's picture
Charter School Teacher from NY

You made me rethink the idea behind "games". Games do get a lot of attention and yet, we underestimate its influence. Educators try to discover the best possible ways to capture a learner's attention. And here we are overlooking the potential of such method. Game-based curriculum seems to encompass two important factors of successful learning - excitement and strategy. The excitement it brings about will obviously generate interest and motivation from students. Strategy, on the other hand, will usher in critical-thinking and that extra push to tap into their skills and win the game. The only thing left for us to do is to design the learning module according to a learner's needs. It may be tedious at first or at least until we learn the ropes of the game. Great ideas...Keep them coming!

Joshua's picture

Great articles.
In my experience games are fun and very effective in the process of learning for both young and adult learners.
On one hand you want to learner to have fun and not feel "Being taught" on the other hand you want the learner to come away with meaningful new insights or knowledge.
A tricky point I have found is letting learners/players have fun but still take insights and knowledge with them into real world situations.

The School Speech Therapist's picture

I found this article interesting enough to follow up with my own piece on my blog.

Sometimes we need to think out of the box either to motivate kids, make things fun or just to provide them with a well rounded experience. I didn't add this in the article but core curriculum and mandated testing is going to ruin this for all creative teachers.

AMH's picture
8th and 9th Grade Math teacher

I like the ideas about using games. I just want to raise a question about if Call of Duty or other war simulation games are the ideal candidates. If given a choice, I would prefer games that don't involve simulated killing of other human beings.

Andrew's picture

Game-Base learning would be a perfect way to revive and engage students who lack interest in math and are subsequently low achievers in this discipline. A student will complain about completing simple problem-solving task yet, that student will sleep in class because he was up all night playing the new Call of Duty. I believe Game-Base learning is on the horizon and will be one of the 21st century learning innovations. Education Researchers, Game-Developers will play a very important role in this change. good article, good ideas

Donald Ciaravino's picture
Donald Ciaravino
High School Instructor

God forbid you actually SHOW us an example of this being successful. Anyone can theorize and say "this works." Why would you advocate for something without showing anyone a living example of how one can apply this to their content?

Daniel F.'s picture
Daniel F.
HS Social Studies/English teacher

Really? Our students don't stay up till all hours of the night already playing these games? Whatever value the games might have are already part of the student's skill set outside the classroom. What we need to do is engineer games that hammer home the skills and content that they aren't mastering.

JoshW's picture
K-12 Math and Science Teacher

Video gaming in the classroom can certainly liven up a lecture, get the kids amped up and teach complicated subjects by involving the kids in various visual activities. However, I think there is a far simpler way to do the same thing and have it be even more effective. This is old school but still the most effective natural teacher we ever had--the board game, but not an adventure board game. It is a board game for STEM subjects. You can check it out here if you are interested: I have played it with my junior high and high school kids for years, and sent it to other colleagues in other schools with different demographics. The result has been the same every time. The knowledge improvement shows up on tests. Natural competition is the best teacher there is.

Volkan Tirpanci's picture

Thanks for the article. My students are well underway using them and telling me how they improve their English with the help of them. As mentioned in the article, in some games cooperation is compulsory, which makes communicating in English as the only way to sort things out. They need to use English in order to accomplish the tasks in the MMOs, which is our main goal,desperately, during the lessons.

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