Ask a Gamer 6: Games in Schools

Posted on May 24, 2015

From a former student and now-teacher friend of mine:

I have been wondering about gaming and education, particularly because I suspect that gaming is the only technology that is actually ‘revolutionary’ in term of education; all the other multitudinous ways that technology is great in schools has allowed for changes in degrees rather than kind – so, blogs are a great way to expose kids’ work to each other and others around the world, but the skills involved (apart from the specific technological ones) are pretty much the same as were involved in writing a journal. Gaming on the other hand seems like it activates/requires a skill set that you can’t replicate without the technology itself. Do you have any information/research on how gaming accesses different cognitive skills/how it can be used meaningfully in education?

Well this is a very large question so I’m going to just have to hint at a couple of possibilities. The first thing I would say is that, avid gamer as I am, it’s very important not to be evangelical about the potential of games for education. Games are not a panacea, a magical cure for educational ills. Sometimes they can be useful, and sometimes they can do amazing things, but they require design, implementation, facilitation, and can only ever be part of an overall good learning environment.

Prensky: "Digital Native"

Prensky: “Digital Native”

But after this disclaimer: yes, games have some amazing potential for learning. I think that games can do something very special for learners: they have sophisticated mechanisms for learning built right into them, which are not always present in school institutions. James Paul Gee‘s What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy explores the notion of ‘situated cognition’ and the many ways it is present in even commercial, off-the-shelf games. For Gee (a Professor in Linguistics), ‘situated cognition’ is a type of contextualised thinking: just the same as we always read about something, we always think about something. Games help the mind learn how to think in these ways.

Extra Credits (see video below) have some huge insights into the potential for games in learning. A very common theme is motivation and engagement, but as we see in the video we are only right at the very beginning of exploring the potential.

I’ve often considered a couple of examples of how this might work, and fitfully attempted one or two. Consider Angry Birds for learning about gravity, trajectory, velocity, displacement, and potential/kinetic energy; or Osmos as an elegant enactment of the law of the conservation of linear momentum; or SpaceChem for an introduction to chemical engineering. These off-the-shelf games need a lot of curriculum design (and perhaps even instruction) to make them valuable in the classroom. Bespoke games like Crystal Island: Outbreak have a lot of resources poured into their development and this one has a huge amount of potential for learning 8th-grade microbiology through a kind of adventure-based scenario. But reeling off examples risks turning this into a listicle.

For my money, the biggest danger in game-based learning is the assumption that if you give a kid a game, they will somehow magically learn amazing stuff. It’s true that games can enhance engagement (see Whitton, Digital Game-Based Learning) – but honestly, simply using a game as a resource is a pretty transmission-based approach to it. Even reading without any structure or scaffolding can be a pretty light activity.

Learning with games becomes really exciting when students actually have to do something, or especially create something interesting in a game. This is why Minecraft has such amazing potential: kids can develop massive projects in collaboration with others; they negotiate digital spaces with other users (or just make their own servers), and this is much more like the constructivist/connectivist approach that we would recognise as good learning in the 21st century. Most parents I speak to who have a kid who is passionate about Minecraft acknowledge that the child’s learning outstrips the parent’s very quickly. (See The Minecraft Teacher and for more.)

Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities

Understanding Minecraft: Essays on Play, Community and Possibilities

Even better, the potential in getting kids to actually make their own games is phenomenal. Platforms for games creation (see Scratch, GameStar Mechanic, Unity) are now so accessible and affordable that creating their own games is within the reach of many children. And activities like the Australian STEM Video Game Challenge are enhancing the profile of learning through game creation. As always, it is ‘what the learner does’ that we need to focus on, and the more original and creative we can get with our use of games in learning, the more potential there is.

In short, for teachers who are interested in technology and the use of games for learning: it takes a lot of work and a lot of courage, but the results can be impressive.

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