Finding good learning games

Often teachers ask me what kinds of games help kids learn. I know they want a list of “good” games, so they can avoid the “bad” ones. But the problem is that to answer the question, “what’s a good game for learning?” – you really have to start with, “what do you mean by learning?” Now that’s a difficult, downright philosophical question that gets tough right away. But to really talk about whether games have anything to do with learning, and if they can help, you have to ask it.

We also know that most people talking about learning games these days are talking about video games, since they seem to have extraordinary abilities to enthrall kids for long periods of time. It’s obvious that when you play video games, you learn. You learn rules, you gain experience that allows you to adjust your play for greater success, etc. So when you look at educational games, you have to decide if this translates to the kind of learning that you believe in.

There are lots of educational games that use the vocabulary and look of games to create a game-like experience, except that it’s not really fun (unless you already know the answers.) Dragging or shooting things (the correct fraction, igneous rocks, the matching chemical symbol)  is not a game, it’s a fancy worksheet. So – do you believe worksheets and flashcards are good for learning or busywork? Putting it on a screen with 3D graphics should not change your answer to that question.

Do you believe in practice? Alfie Kohn says, “…practicing doesn’t create understanding.” If you have kids who can’t multiply, or haven’t grasped the concept of fractions, will shooting at the right answers with a galactic flamethrower help?

Do you believe in chocolate-covered broccoli? Do students have to be tricked into thinking that they are doing something fun to learn something important?

So the answer to the question, “what’s a good game for learning ____” – is not so simple as a list. It has to be answered with the question – “what do I believe about learning?” leading the way.

  • Do you believe learning is about making meaning – or memorizing?
  • Do you believe that learning is natural, or that children have to be tricked and cajoled into learning?
  • Do you believe that math is a set of skills – or deeper understanding of concepts?
  • Do you believe that faster answers are better answers?
  • Do you believe history is memorizing facts – or understanding complex relationships between events?
  • Do you believe “time on task” is a good measure of learning?
  • Do you believe that vocabulary can and should be learned without context?
  • Do you believe that practice creates understanding?

Even when teachers hear this, they say, “but surely practice is good reinforcement”, “if they gain speed and automaticity on easy problems, they can tackle harder ones”,  or “some students are so far behind they really need the practice” – to which I can only quote Alfie Kohn again, “In reality, it’s the children who don’t understand the underlying concepts who most need an approach to teaching that’s geared to deep understanding.  The more they’re given algorithms and told exactly what to do, the farther behind they fall in terms of grasping these concepts.” (my emphasis)

What this says to me is that using practice to reinforce skills may actually undermine a student’s confidence in their own thought process. They may come to look at learning as a rote skill that is supposed to be automatic, not thoughtful, something that if not immediately obvious, is unreachable.

So finding good games, then, means finding games that reinforce the style of learning that you believe in. Which, in a sea of hype about the benefits of educational games, might not be as easy as it looks!

What do you believe about learning?


3 Replies to “Finding good learning games”

  1. I have to totally agree. I got my principal to purchase Inquizitor for my Science classes. I was so excited because I could create my own quizzes and students could play the quiz like a game. First of all, I could only make multiple choice quizzes. That was a bummer right there. So kids were motivated to play, and they got faster to get more points, but all they were doing was memorizing which answer went with which question. There was little if any learning going on. I ended up sad and disappointed.

    I see the same problem with Qwizdom. One of our Math teachers has a class set and I’m just not interested in using them. I want more for my students than just memorizing facts. I want deeper learning. Now if someone could create a game like World of Warcraft or games like that where deeper understanding takes place over longer periods of time, AND make it affordable, I would try it. But for now I haven’t found much that I’m willing to use with my students. I want more for them. Having them create their own games, now that helps them think deeply about what we’re learning!

  2. I think you’ve hit on something critical here. So often in education we are not asking the right question. We’re asking the simplest question, looking for the quickest fix. We’ve got to dig deeper.

  3. Children learn while they play, we should advice them to play educational games instead of allowing to play few horrible games. At this age they have to be guided well and taken to the right path.

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