Reluctance is only one of the words that comes to many a teacher’s mind when thinking about letting students play video games in class. After all, video games ruin your brain, so they say. They turn you into passive, drooling vegetables and will ultimately ruin your grades and your life and nobody will ever want you.
But seriously, the idea that video games can be a beneficial and engaging tools in a classroom no longer seems as controversial as before. Millions of students around the globe have learned their times tables by shooting rockets at asteroids, or learned their spelling words by guiding a frog across a river of drifting logs, or gone on web quests around the world collecting artifacts, and learned a multitude of skills without even realizing they were learning, simply by playing video games.
Recent studies have found that what makes video games so addicting and so engaging can also help in making learning irresistible. The brain, according to Tom Chatfield in this TED Talk, is rewarded when put in a game environment. Those rewards are intrinsic in our chemistry, and if we as educators can learn how to tap into those veins, we can make students into learning junkies.
It all has to do with dopamine and how the brain craves more of something it finds rewarding.
Watch the video to find out the 7 ways in which video game architecture can be used to engage students, as I don’t want to repeat what he says. However the ideas he advances should be taken very seriously by todays education gurus. Here are a few points that I think could be furthered developed:
Current assessment models that track student progress are known for being obtuse and non-immediate. A student report card is usually a collection of grades weighed with different considerations in mind like homework, test results, effort, etc. They are mere summaries of a grading period and especially in the elementary grades, provide very little feedback. Instead, students academic progress should be measured by experience points, starting in Kindergarten and ending at graduation. These records could follow a student throughout her or his educational career and would provide a greater motivation than simply getting an A here and a B there, year after year. It would make learning into a cohesive continuum in which students move at different speeds and accumulate points as they move through life. Furthermore, a student would not be limited to gaining these points by attending a particular school or completing a regular course, but in theory they could accumulate them through other means, as long as they prove they master the essential steps (in our case academic standards). They could learn from home, or accrue more points though real life learning situations. A whole variety of programs and curriculum would exist to permit students to play and gain points though video games, simulations, brick-and-mortar learning, digital portfolio evaluations, and even peer review.
Chatfield mentions that engagement is greater when there are mini-missions to complete. Huge tasks are overwhelming, but smaller, more manageable ones are a lot more fun and will give the brain a better “high” in the end. These mini missions would essentially replace the typical lesson.
“Today, class we will work on dividing decimals by two digit whole numbers. Take your textbook and turn to page 89!”
“Today we will see how well you can use conjunctions in a sentence with correct punctuation. Open you practice books and try not to fall asleep.”
Quotes like the ones above will hopefully be a thing of the past one day.
“Today we are going to play a game with some students in Singapore who are challenging our class to divide decimals in order to escape a labyrinth they made! Make teams of five and log on to…”
This example shows how students could complete a quest as part of a team (this part is key) and move through to the next level only if they problem solve and use the skills above. They could complete the mission at home on the Wii, or on their mobile device, in the learning lab, or in their portable holographic projector while they run on their treadmill. (Hey, learning does not mean sitting on your butt).
In fact a student could go on a hunt and take pictures, video, and gather evidence, to later present to their peers and show how they were able to use decimals and conjunctions and earn a digital “badge” like scouts.
Students should not have to be limited by their particular school in order to make progress. They should be able to connect to students at the global level and work on solving problems in teams, like in the virtual worlds described by Chatfield. I would also expand this to include a peer-teaching component. It is no secret that students often learn faster from each other.
Any sort of online learning collaboration should, as a fundamental part, include an element of peer review and instruction. Those students who have more experience points can team up with those who are starting out and lend them a hand.
Competition could still play a role, but students would be compelled to make sure everyone on their team was up to task in order for the team to complete a mission.
The challenge in all of this is not merely to change the way we teach our children. Many of these ideas are already permeating the educational world in smaller, more limited settings. Others are still in their infancy. What is truly worrisome is that these changes will arrive and that they will become centralized and monetized for the for-profit world. The last thing we need is for all of this to be handed over to Pearson or some other large conglomerate whose only concern is reaping a profit and who see our students not as the leaders of tomorrow, but as items on a quarterly report.
Also of interest is a study by Stanford Medical School that found that the male brain is more likely to be rewarded by video games than the female. Hmmm…definitely throws another wrench into the equation!
Also, check out this podcast for some funny insight on the world of video games: