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Game for Learning

New studies have found that video games may become a powerful learning tool for students. The biggest hurdle: training teachers how to play.

The students in Tim Rylands’ class at the Chew Magna Carta School in Bristol, England are playing computer games.

Far from punishing his pupils for surreptitiously button-bashing Nintendo GameBoys under their desks, Rylands is encouraging them to play out in the open. Some would argue that this kind of tom-foolery with potentially-dangerous interactive entertainment is an irresponsible use of classroom time.

The results of Rylands’ game-related efforts, however, are positive: his students are gaining top SAT scores and are excelling in creative thinking.

Indeed, his award-winning method is making headway with learners, engaging and motivating kids at a time when school drop-out figures are alarming. Kids report leaving because traditional subjects don’t “speak” to them or are irrelevant in their increasingly tech-centric lives.

Even those students with top marks in applied areas like physics and biology find they have the proclivity to pass tests, but experience difficulty putting their classroom knowledge to use in solving any practical problems in the real world.

“What stands in the way is what I call the ‘fact fetish’,” explains James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. “For me, learning an area like biology should be about learning how to ‘play the game’ of biology, that is, learning to think, act, and value like a biologist.”

The appeal of computer gaming is the personal involvement the students have in the tasks on the screens. Results such as Rylands have encouraged other techno-savvy teachers to incorporate computer gaming into their curricula.

Governments, cautiously optimistic of the positive results such as Rylands’, are testing the waters to see if video game entertainment in schools will to persuade an apathetic generation to embrace learning.

Federally-supported research in this area ranges from specialist content development in the United Kingdom. to inclusion strategies in Canada to knowledge transfer in the United States.

American studies in particular have been supported by grants of over $1 million from bodies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education.

Currently, most of the games in classrooms are simplistic, quiz-based interactive toys explicitly intended to support the curriculum. Sonica Spanish, commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES), is one such product which encourages students to learn while playing games, singing songs and dancing on electronic floor mats.

Many video games deal with the sway of epic battles and real-time administration of resources, the very ideas that teachers hope to impart on their students. So, teachers have been incorporating commercial games Into their classrooms.

Rylands has adapted the role playing title Myst for creative writing. Others champion Microsoft’s historical real time strategy simulation, Age of Empires, to teach the mechanical and social processes which led to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some have even enlisted soccer management simulation Championship Manager into learning activities..

Gee argues that the learning supported by computer gaming could replace traditional teaching models – where teachers speak and students take notes – with arenas in which students are active consumers who are engaged by simulations that literally allow them to interact with and manipulate virtual worlds.

By learning a subject like science in a way which encourages problem-solving, lateral thinking and critical analysis, the consequence would be a population confident in their knowledge, and the ability to apply it in everyday life.

“When you ‘play the game’ of biology, you learn and use lots of facts,” says Gee. “But not just in and for themselves, or for a test, but to accomplish your goals in biology and to ‘win’ the game.” 

The results of a 2001 U.K. Home Office report supports Gee’s contention; those who play computer and video games regularly are more likely to be academically successful, to go to University and to have better employment prospects. In particular, a 1998 study argued that children who were taught reading and comprehension tasks via interactive entertainment improved their abilities more rapidly than a cohort engaged in tutorial-based activities.

A report released last year by the University of London’s Institute for Education (IoE) similarly encourages the use of interactive entertainment in schools. It claims that computer games are useful in the development of critical thought, and could be used as a text, in a similar way as traditional literature, to examine character development and narrative structure.

The results also suggest that game play promotes social development, during both in class exercises and on the playground.

However, David Buckingham, one of the authors of the report, suggests caution when promoting educational interactive entertainment.

Games literacy among teachers is low, and introducing a new product into this sphere requires extensive planning groundwork. Furthermore, importing games into the classroom has implications for assumptions about the current models of teaching.

“A great deal of argument for gaming in the classroom is that it’s all about fun learning,” Buckingham explained at a recent seminar. “This depends upon the conception of learning as hard work and play as easy. The evidence that this kind of learning will motivate all students is questionable.”

Indeed, factors like gender and previous technology experience confound issues.

Software that has been developed for all potential audiences has been mediocre at best, as “edutainment” in which play is the reward for attaining an easily surmountable learning objective. In cases such as these, learning is detached from enjoyment, and students quickly learn how to cheat the system.

Therein lays the conflict between commercial titles and games for the classroom. Over-the-counter games are designed for entertainment, and learning that occurs within them is an unexpected, albeit happy result.

Furthermore, public backlash against over-18 products like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas could conflict with well-meaning teachers who use suitable commercial titles like Age of Empires or Myst to encourage learning.

There have been some steps to solve the problems with educational titles. Successful bespoke applications have been introduced in British schools, such as the NESTA Futurelab-funded Savannah, in which students use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technologies to learn about the ecological and natural challenges facing animal life in a virtual environment. Well-received by both teachers and users, products such as these are paving the way for future gaming education.

“The learning principles built into good games could be used tomorrow to improve the teaching of things like science, social studies, and mathematics in schools,” explains Gee.

In future, along with a No. 2 pencil, a student’s toolkit may include a PlayStation control pad.

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