Hurry up, Billy, it's time to go play games!

I enjoyed “Learning By Playing”, which explores the potential of games as educational tools.

Games can provide the kind of instantaneous feedback I praised a few days ago. Also, kids respond positively to failure in a game — by learning and trying new strategies — whereas failure in a classroom can be humiliating. Additionally, well-designed games can replace testing altogether because completing a game can prove the student has mastered the material necessary to complete the game:

Getting to the end of even a supposedly simple video game can take 15 or more hours of play time, and it almost always involves failure — lots and lots of failure.

This concept is something that Will Wright, who is best known for designing the Sims game franchise and the 2008 evolution-related game Spore, refers to as “failure-based learning,” in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary. A well-built game is, in essence, a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses. This in the end may be both more palatable and also more instructive to someone trying to learn. According to Ntiedo Etuk, the chief executive of Tabula Digita, which designs computer games that are now being used in roughly 1,200 schools around the country, children who persist in playing a game are demonstrating a valuable educational ideal. “They play for five minutes and they lose,” he says. “They play for 10 minutes and they lose. They’ll go back and do it a hundred times. They’ll fail until they win.” He adds: “Failure in an academic environment is depressing. Failure in a video game is pleasant. It’s completely aspirational.”

It is also, says James Paul Gee, antithetical to the governing reality of today’s public schools. “If you think about kids in school — especially in our testing regime — both the teacher and the student think that failure will lead to disaster,” he says. “That’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll never get to truly deep learning.” Gee and others in the games-and-learning field have suggested that someday, if we choose to channel our resources into developing more and better games for use in classrooms, the games themselves could feasibly replace tests altogether. Students, by virtue of making it through the escalating levels of a game that teaches, say, the principles of quantum physics, will demonstrate their mastery simply by finishing the game. Or, as Gee says: “Think about it: if I make it through every level of Halo, do you really need to give me a test to see if I know everything it takes to get through every level of Halo?”

Games are also generally more fun than lectures, which means students are more likely to become engaged, active learners:

Neuroscientists have connected game play to the production of dopamine, a powerful neuro­transmitter central to the brain’s reward-seeking system and thought to drive motivation and memory processing (and more negatively, addictive behaviors) — all of which could have implications for how, when and what type of games should be used to advance children’s learning….

Paul Howard-Jones, a neuroscientist who teaches in the graduate school of education at the University of Bristol in Britain and coordinates the NeuroEducational Research Network, says that dopamine sends a “ready to learn” signal to the brain, essentially priming it to receive new information pleasurably. His research has shown that children’s engagement levels are higher when they are anticipating a reward but cannot predict whether they will get it — or, as Howard-Jones put it to me, “when you move from a conventional educational atmosphere to something that more resembles sport.” He is careful to add that games are not meant to supplant teachers nor undermine the value of more traditional learning. “Children need to learn how to read a book,” he says. “They need to learn how to ask questions.” But as our understanding of both cognitive science and game design continues to advance, he says that game play will find a central place inside schools. “I think in 30 years’ time,” he says, “we will marvel that we ever tried to deliver a curriculum without gaming.”

I especially like the idea of using games to teach in a more multi-disciplinary way because mixing disciplines together in the context of solving problems is more engaging, holistic, organic and natural than presenting math (and other subjects) in sterile, context-free teaching silos:

Once it has been worked over by game designers, a lesson doesn’t look like a lesson anymore. It is now a quest. And while students at the school are put through the usual rigors of studying pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing, they do it inside interdisciplinary classes with names like Codeworlds — a hybrid of math and English class — where the quests blend skills from different subject areas. Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles….

The traditional school structure strikes Salen as “weird.” “You go to a math class, and that is the only place math is happening, and you are supposed to learn math just in that one space,” she told me one day, sitting in the small room at the school that served as Quest to Learn’s operational headquarters. She was dressed in a purple skirt with a hot pink scarf knotted around her neck. “There’s been this assumption that school is the only place that learning is happening, that everything a kid is supposed to know is delivered between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and it happens in the confines of a building,” she said. “But the fact is that kids are doing a lot of interesting learning outside of school. We acknowledge that, and we are trying to bring that into their learning here.”

Posted by James on Thursday, September 16, 2010