In school, kids play during recess and work during class. But some of the biggest names in psychology, including Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner, believe that play is a child’s work. The best way to teach kids, they say, is through hands-on, active learning. But with state benchmarks and performance-based teacher evaluations hanging above our heads, it’s hard for educators to imagine spending precious academic time playing games with kids. That’s where game-based learning (often confused with gamification, which isn’t quite the same thing) comes in. With this approach, learning and play aren’t at odds with each other; in fact, games are the vehicle and environment for learning.
According to Bruner, students who engage in hands-on learning and play-based activities experience the following benefits:
What teacher doesn’t want her students to be motivated, creative, smart, responsible, and filled with joy? If playing games truly benefits students in this way, we can’t afford not to play with them. But what does that mean in real terms?
You may be wondering where, in your busy classroom schedule, you’d find time in your day to insert more games. One solution is to go whole hog and play nothing but games 100 percent of the time. That’s the theory behind Quest to Learn (Q2L), a 6th through 12th grade NYC school in which students learn every subject via digital games.
Q2L opened its doors in 2009. At that time, writer/editor Owen Edwards expressed trepidation in an Edutopia blog post. The school’s curriculum, said Edwards, consisted of an “underwhelming” set of lessons that would be taught solely through games. He quipped that education is not all fun and games and fretted over the future of legitimate schooling.
Q2L’s founder and executive director, Katie Salen, offers a different point of view. As a game designer and digital media professor, Salen endorses Q2L’s “game-like” learning style. She believes that because video games are such an important part of most students’ lives anyway, playing them at school is a potent way to inspire and motivate them.
Every course taught at Q2L is standards-based. For example, sixth-grade math and science standards are integrated into a one-trimester gaming experience called “The Way Things Work.” Through video gaming, the students help a mad scientist navigate his way through a virtual human body. As they play, the students absorb the same Common Core knowledge taught to their cohorts across the country. And they have a great time doing so.
While the benchmarks taught at Q2L are familiar to most teachers, the curriculum is obviously different. Game designers and curriculum designers meet with teachers at a place called the “Mission Lab” to design classroom games. The team identifies learning strands that are difficult for students, then brainstorms ways to overcome those difficulties through play.
Learning Design strategist Eliza Spang calls the brainstorming process at Q2L an amazing experience. When three heads come together at the ideation table — the teacher, the game designer, and the curriculum specialist — Spang says students benefit from educational products that a single-minded group of teachers or other professionals would never create.
If you’re intrigued by the concept behind Q2L and want to learn more about how playing video games boosts learning, you’re in good company. Reviewers at the American Psychological Association recently delved into the effects of playing video games on student learning, social skills, and health. These professionals reported that playing video games, even violent ones, helps develop a person’s capacity for three-dimensional thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released a blog detailing a joint effort with the White House called Education Game Jam, a one-off event that took place in September 2014. Teachers, game developers, and students collaborated to create 23 educational games that address difficult-to-master K-12 concepts, then showcased their creations during a 48-hour conference at the White House.
Most teachers don’t have the means or the administrative support to initiate curricular changes like those seen at Q2L. However, that doesn’t mean that you and your students can’t play more games in your classroom. Here’s a look at three popular video games that are used in classrooms today:
Q2L educator Dan Bloom recently wrote of his success using Minecraft to teach DNA extraction to 9th-grade biology students in an Edutopia article. Minecraft can help you with more than just biology; visit MinecraftEdu for a “school-ready” version of the beloved game, and learn about more great curriculum ideas in this recent article on Edudemic by Ann Elliott. The company offers discounts to teachers.
Illinois teacher Zach Gilbert uses the strategy-based Civilization IV game to hook his sixth graders on history. Through play, students are transported back to ancient times in which they must build their own civilizations. Some critics worry that Civilization IV, a game developed by Firaxis Games, is not always historically accurate. Gilbert views these inaccuracies as “teachable moment” opportunities. If you’re interested in using Civilization IV in the classroom, our very own Jim Hinton has more tips in an article he penned for us in late 2014.
You might feel squeamish about allowing your students to play a gory video game like The Walking Dead as a means of learning ethics and decision-making. But that’s exactly what Norwegian high school teacher Tobias Staaby has done, according to a recent Edutopia post. Never has Staaby seen his students so engaged. He has his principal — a man who encourages teachers to use an “entrepreneurial approach” to designing lessons — to thank.
Whether you’re an elementary teacher who wants to integrate math learning apps into your classroom or a high school teacher looking for ways to use Minecraft at school, video games are a fun and effective way to inspire and motivate your students. Follow these tips for the best results:
Increasing play time when you’re under the gun to crank out achievement-oriented test takers requires you to take a leap of faith. Though it might seem counterproductive, research has shown time and again that your leap of faith will have positive results. For more ideas on incorporating games into education, check out Edudemic’s Best Game-Based Education Resources for 2014.