Monthly Archives: March 2012

The value of play

Did you ever notice how the same child that seems completely incapable of attending to any of his/her schoolwork is able to sit for hours concentrating perfectly on a video game? The question for educators to figure out is what do video games do to engage their players. If we could copy those same elements and techniques and insert them our lesson plans, then classrooms could begin to approach 100% cooperation from students. One might think that is it simply that the subject matter of the games is more interesting to the child. However, video games cover a wide range of topics. Rather than topic alone, I suspect that the difference is the approach to subject that makes learning in video games more relevant than traditional classroom learning.
Video games teach
While entertainment is the main goal of most video game producers, every game teaches something (or at least has the potential to teach). For example, traditional maze type games require the player to learn the patterns of the board, the special weapons of their opponents, and the powers that their own characters possess. Unless the player master’s all of those things, usually in a timed environment, it is impossible to move onto the next level of play. Role play games (RPG) can teach any number of things from economics, to social behavior, to city planning. Try teaching those topics in the classroom from a textbook, and you will quickly see that many of your students will have difficulty attending the lesson. Yet, many of the same students spend hours playing Farmville, and other similar games where they are interacting with other players to help build an online community. The difference is simply the approach.
Traditional classrooms
In most classrooms the structure hasn’t changed since the Industrial Revolution. Chairs and desks are arranged in rows, with the teacher at the head of the classroom in the position where they can act as foreman, or supervisor of the class. Learning is mostly linear, where the teacher is the source of information that delivers lessons to the students through lecturing, assigning textbook reading, and skill and drill exercises. Assessment is almost always in the form of a test. While each of these things are useful tools, none completely cover the way students learn best.
Imagine setting up a video game in this manner, where the players learn solely from a main character talking, reading information from the screen, and practicing the same skills over and over. Mastery of a level is shown by a multiple-choice or essay test. Only players who get 70% of the questions correct can move onto the next playing level, where they are introduced to more of the same. Is there any doubt that the game would fail at its learning objective, and would end up in the bargain bin because no one would want to play it? Yet, that is exactly how we teach, and expect students to learn.
Interactive learning
The best of video games, the ones that students find most engaging are those that incorporate interactive learning. Players can learn from each other in the process of the game. This allows each player to feel like and important part of the learning experience. It makes the information that they are learning more relevant, because that is how people naturally learn. It is a give and take environment rather than a linear one were students are able to learn and are motivated to grow.
We could set up our classrooms in a manner where the teacher is a part of the class who guides the lessons. Every student gets to participate—to add information to the collective knowledge of the classroom. Wouldn’t that make the students more engaged automatically? I don’t think there can be a doubt.
Why did the traditional approach work in the past?
It made sense in the past for the information to come directly from the teacher and the classroom, because they were the best, most reliable sources of information. Therefore, the best way for students to learn was in a linear fashion. However, we live in the digital media age where students have access to more information than teachers can possibly know, and textbooks can possibly hold. Why then should we restrict their access to knowledge by holding on to teaching methods that have become obsolete?
Nearly every student has access to some kind of computer, or mobile communications device. I remember reading in the newspaper a year or so ago that one high school (I believe it was in Harmony, FL) encouraged their students to use their mobile communications devices to research topics in the classroom. It seems like a novel idea, but in reality it should be automatic rather than innovative. All students should be able to use their devices not only to retrieve information, but also to add to the collective knowledge that is the
World Wide Web.
Storytelling verses fact memorization
From early days the greatest teachers, philosophers, and theologians have preferred to teach using a storytelling format rather than simply stating facts. That is because they recognize the power of story, plot, character arch, and other story elements to teach in a manner that makes the facts more relevant and engaging. Yet, somehow many traditional educators rely on fact memorization as the preferred way of teaching. Students are often left uninspired. They wonder why they need to memorize things that they can easily look up if they need the information. It makes learning disconnected and unnecessarily laborious.
Video game designers use elaborate storyboards to teach the facts of the game to players in a similar manner. When players need to look-up facts, like how to use a player’s powers, there are usually lexicons built into the system that the players can easily access. There is no need for memorization, so the learning is more relevant.
Today, almost any lesson can be taught using storytelling. Students can even create digital stories using small, inexpensive, hand-held digital video cameras, or even the web cam built into a smartphone or tablet, and edited using simple editing software. They can become part of the storytelling process, and really engage with the lessons.
As I stated earlier another important difference between traditional learning, and the kind of relevant, engaging learning that goes on in the video game environment is the assessment process. Traditional classes typically assess by testing and/or writing papers. While these are important methods of evaluation, they are far from the only ones, and they may not even be the best.
Video games typically assess the player’s progress by actually monitoring his/her mastery of the skills that must be acquired for a student to move onto the next assignment. Furthermore, there are usually associated positive rewards and reinforcements for mastering skills. The Kahn Academy utilizes this form of assessment in its classes to keep students motivated and moving forward. The process of learning tells the system that the student is ready to move on in real time. Every skill must be mastered before the next is available to
the student.
Conversely, tests traditionally come at the end of a block of learning. The writer of the test selects representative parts of the unit to test, and the students are assessed by how well they remember how to solve the associated problems. This form of evaluation has two problems as I see it. First, there is often a big lapse of time between the early parts of the learning unit, and the test, so the later parts are fresher in the student’s mind. Second, not all parts of the unit can be put into the test, so there are gaps in the actual assessment process. Things some of the student know well may not be included in the test, or perhaps the areas that they lack understanding may be missing. The grade scored can actually be higher or lower than the student’s actual knowledge of the subject matter. This wasn’t a problem for the video game type of assessment, because the student can’t move on until each new skill is mastered. Therefore, it is a more comprehensive and fair method for assessing student progress.
There is so much that teachers and educators can learn from video game producers that will make it easier for all students to access the curriculum. From the time we are born, we learn by playing and experiencing the world around us in an interactive manner, and for most people that is how we continue to learn through life. Yet, traditional education stifles the importance of play in learning, and with it makes it harder for students to engage. Even big companies like Google incorporate play into the work environment because they feel that it is the best way to have productive workers who come up with innovative ideas. Classrooms must get back to the roots of education, and incorporate play, storytelling, interaction, and built in assessment to ensure that truly no child is left behind.

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Posted by on March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


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