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Video games start to shape classroom curriculum

While more educators adopt games as a learning tool, one public school designs a brand new teaching philosophy.

By Huma YusufContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2008

Scott Wallace/Staff


Attention parents: Don’t be surprised this school year if you tell your kids to stop playing video games and they respond, “But it’s homework.”

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In classrooms across the country, electronic games have increasingly become tools for teaching problem solving and critical thinking.
For example, Brock Dubbels, a teacher at the Seward Montessori School in Minneapolis, has eighth-graders reading Homer while playing Sega’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” to better understand Odysseus’s quest.

Jeremiah McCall, a history teacher at the Cincinnati Country Day School, turned to Creative Assembly’s “Rome: Total War,” a real-time strategy game that lets players assume the roles of ancient generals. Mr. McCall’s students compare battle depictions in the game with historical evidence, then design their own simulations. “It’s amazing how much you have to practice the skills of a historian – fact gathering and interpretation – to design a game,” he says.

Once shunned as a brain-rotting activity, video games are now winning over many middle- and high-school teachers as a way to inspire kids to learn.

“If you, as a teacher, are satisfied with engaging only 15 percent of your students, then you’re failing the majority,” says Mr. Dubbels. “The big idea is to identify what students are already invested in, and that’s video games.”

Less than 1 percent of schools teach through video games, according to Marc Prensky, author of “Don’t Bother Me, Mom – I’m Learning.” But those that do laud games as a way to help develop 21st century skills, such as collaborative problem solving, multitasking, and networking. Some educators compare game play to the scientific method: Players enter a phenomenon that doesn’t make sense, observe problems, form hypotheses, and test them while being mindful of cause and effect.

But even among schools that agree to dabble with games, debate rages on the best way to incorporate them into the classroom.

How games can mold curricula
This fall, Katie Salen, an associate professor of design and technology at the Parsons School of Design in New York, will propose a new public school with a game-centered curriculum. If approved, the school, called Quest to Learn, will be part of the New York City public school system and teach grades six through 12.

“The school is designed around the way games work,” says Ms. Salen, who hopes to open Quest to Learn by fall of 2009. “Kids are challenged to step into identities – mathematicians, scientists. They are immersed in an interdisciplinary [setting], and instead of completing units, they go on a series of missions or quests, each of which has a goal.”

Traditional school activities – for example, converting fractions into decimals – will be presented as quests that are part of a larger game, which could last days or weeks to unravel.

A game-centric school requires a whole new teaching philosophy, Salen says. To help distill her idea, she tapped the Institute of Play in New York, a nonprofit organization that promotes collaboration between the gaming industry and educators, to design the school’s curriculum.