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.

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.”

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.

They envision teachers brainstorming with game designers at least once a week and having a staff of developers on hand throughout the school day. But Salen’s not too worried about overwhelming educators with new responsibilities: “Games create a need in kids to figure something out, so the need to learn comes from the kids, not the teacher.”

More integration, less intervention
Scot Osterweil, the creative director of the Education Arcade, a games and learning research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wants games incorporated into classrooms in manageable ways – and for them to become more than just “automated tests tricked out as games.”

The key, he says, is good game design and a realistic understanding of how much game play teachers can allow in their classes, given limited time and resources.

“Let kids play games outside the classroom, but get ‘game skills’ into classrooms,” he says. “Also, use kids’ experience of games to deepen their understanding and get academic ideas into a play space.”

Eric Klopfer, director of MIT’s Teacher Education Program and the author of “Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games,” points to mobile gaming as a way to address Mr. Osterweil’s concerns.

“Casual games designed for play in those interstitial spaces between school and life – on the bus, in the cafeteria – fit better with the way teachers think about teaching and kids approach games,” Mr. Klopfer says.

He points to the success of Palmagotchi – an academic spinoff of the once popular Tamagotchi virtual pets. This new version is a mobile biology game that helps players learn about evolution as they nurture their pixelated pets in a simulated world that includes predators and climate change.

Can games replace tests?
Video games do a better job of gauging a student’s mastery of a subject than actually teaching them a subject, says Timothy Magner, the director of the Office of Educational Technology at the Department of Education.

“The computer can track the choices you make in the game,” he says, “and see if you have the confidence and skill to move on to harder levels.”

Ironically, though, testing is the very thing that might curtail the use of video games in public schools. Many game designers complain that bowing to the pressure of standardized tests, such as those set up by the No Child Left Behind Act has forced teachers to push facts, not skills.

Legislated tests “create the sense that classrooms are a place of content delivery … and put teachers in a position where they think they have to teach to the tests to get kids to succeed,” says McCall. But he insists that game play and design have helped his students do well on the Ohio graduation tests.

“It’s a qualitatively different exercise with games,” he says. “Game play is like reading and critiquing, and game design is like writing your own [historical account].”

The real hurdle, Salen says, is getting educators, parents, and even students to acknowledge that “something fun can be serious.”

After completing an exercise using a commercial game, Dubbels asked his students what they had learned. “Many of them felt they hadn’t learnt anything until I pointed out that play is a form of learning. They were amazed to acknowledge that their chosen activities had beneficial content,” he says.

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