Monday, December 26, 2011

NCSS 2011: Post 3, Gaming in Education

At the NCSS conference this year one of the few sessions I went to promoted a series of games put out by PBS called "Mission US."  It struck me quickly that these games have a lot of potential- more than many other games I've seen that are designed for classroom use, which are more about rewarding students for jobs well done or repetitive drill for low-level cognitive skills rather than for actually supporting instruction in critical thinking and analysis of more complex ideas.

Some of the work I've done outside of the classroom this year has been a collaborative effort between "technologists" and NYC educators to create new technologies for the classroom that are actually useful, easy to implement, and attractive to teachers.  This is a significant departure from many technology initiatives, which are created by people outside of the classroom and oftentimes by people who have never been in a classroom.  Most of these initiatives fail because they don’t lead to real academic improvement or achievement and are really more about bells and whistles than solid instruction.

One of the major veins the larger group of technologists and educators has worked is "gamification": bringing elements of gaming such as leveling-up, accruing points, and defeating levels into an academic curriculum. There is a wide range of opinions about gamifying education, ranging from the naysayers to those that believe this will help deliver public education from its obvious bottoming out (see the previous post about Ravitch’s view on education).

The largest issue I have with using games in the classroom is that when you play most video games there is essentially one preferred outcome- completing a level.  While there might be some variance in how a level is completed, the problem is the same and is not created by the player and there are generally very few ways of effectively addressing the challenge.  In education, this strikes me as something that puts a learner at quite a disadvantage, as they will develop the mindset that the end goal is obvious, that there is only one, and the ways to solve the problem are either predefined or extremely limited.  This seems to put boundaries on critical thinking, problem generation, and problem solving skills.

On another level, I think that video games are rotting many young minds in this country.  They’re addictive and have replaced hours of time that could have been spent playing and discovering things with friends, reading, etc.

At the conference, a representative from PBS presented the first mission in the "Mission US" series, entitled "For Crown or Colony?".  The goal of the game is to teach students basic facts about the colonial period and pose problems that can be discussed in the classroom by the teacher and students, thereby directly supporting instruction about the colonial period in United States history.  The developers recognized that flexibility is a must for any academic curriculum, so they provide graphic organizers, vocabulary exercises, extension activities and other materials for the game, while at the same time promoting the idea that this game could be used for one day, two days or three weeks.  This leaves it up to the teacher to determine how it best supports the students’ needs and how it can be woven into the curriculum he or she developed- quite a departure from the canned online curricula being sold in licenses by the thousands all across the United States.

The PBS game is also set up like a choose-your-own-adventure book, wherein your actions change the outcome of the story.  Because of this, students can play the mission numerous times and get a different perspective on the colonial period in what seems to be a fairly engaging way.  I actually had to refocus my attention on the speaker several times, as I was getting sucked in before he was even half-way through the session.

This year I started using more BrainPOP videos as homework assignments. My assumption was more students would watch them and complete the associated quizzes than would complete reading assignments about similar topics.  When students do this, it frees up more class time for things such as writing, inquiry, and collaboration, and also shifts the structure of the class.  Instead of class being used for both content acquisition and skill development, it becomes more about the latter, which is something for which the students seem to need a bit more guidance.   

While I can't endorse it yet, I'm definitely going to pilot the use of "For Crown or Colony?" in my homeroom this year to see how it engages students and how well they learn content through it.  PBS is also coming out in January with another mission about abolitionism.  Based on what the presenter showed at the conference, I’ll likely give that one a whirl as well.


  1. Nick-

    I am lucky enough to teach in Washinton State and am in a situation that has my program working closely with Microsoft. Have you had a chance to look at their program called Kodu? In December it was introduced to my kids and they really love it. They make their own computer games make I mean they actually write the code.

    I think the critical thinking and communication skills that Kodu promotes makes it an effective educational tool.

  2. Educational videos and games on electronic format certainly give students nowadays the needed focus they deserve as there as so much distractions now that lure them to veer away from digesting traditional curricular instructions. I think these forms of methods should be enforced more often.