Games and learning

Lots has been written lately about video and computer games and learning. It’s obvious that these games engage many students in a way that school doesn’t, so naturally people wonder if the two could be combined in some way. Some teachers actually use games in their classrooms. The question is, do games actually teach, and what do they teach?

I think the best thing games teach is problem-solving strategies. In a project-based classroom, games can be a great vehicle to help students “puzzle” out strategies that they can use in many subject areas. Let’s look at an example.

PLANned is a casual game that is completely web-based. It starts out simple and gets harder quickly. It takes planning and strategy to win each stage. As you play, you will soon figure out that there is a strategy to winning.

By introducing this game to students, and asking them to deconstruct the rules and winning strategies, you have a quick classroom activity that will challenge them to reflect on their own thinking and problem-solving skills. If you make this a group activity, it becomes even more powerful, requiring them to collaborate and articulate their thoughts.

This is a cross-curricular activity requiring mathematical skills (pattern recognition, planning, and analysis) and language arts skills (written and verbal).

Part 1: Rules

Show the students the game and allow them to play individually or in groups. Ask the groups to play the game, and then agree on the rules of the game. The entire class can then compare each group’s rules and see if they are all the same. (The rules can be seen on the splash screen of the game, but ask the students not to just copy them. Most students won’t read them anyway!)

Asking students to deconstruct the rules makes them think about their own actions. Putting these thoughts into words is a more difficult task than it seems. By comparing the group results, students can see how the same simple tasks can be described in a number of different ways. This activity should also result in a good discussion of using precise language, written communication styles, and the skill of technical writing.

Part 2: Problem-solving strategies

After students have discussed the rules, return to the groups and ask them to write down how these puzzles can be solved. You may want to have a discussion of the difference between strategies and rules. This is not as obvious as it seems! The nice thing about this game is it provides immediate feedback on whether your strategy is working or not. Groups can then come together and discuss their strategies as a class.

A final note – like many real-world problems, there is no “right answer” to these questions. Students may even decide that the rules that appear on the initial splash screen are not complete or exact enough. That’s fine. Let them write new ones. The goal is for the students to learn how their own thought process works, and be able to put that into words.

For older students, you may want to point out that pattern recognition is a field of math and computer science that is still developing. The human brain can recognize some patterns much faster than a computer can! You may have some students who want to program a game like this themselves. More on that in a future blog…

Sylvia

2 thoughts on “Games and learning”

  1. I liked the PLANed game! Quite catchy once you get started, and fairly challenging too.

    One thing I find interesting is how students problem solving skills transfer (or fail to transfer) across different problem domains… or vary with different types of problems. Getting good general skills in this area is undoubtedly important.

  2. In discussing this with some people, one good idea was to make this work for younger students to just simplify it to one session of group work that combines rules and strategies. The distinction between them isn’t necessary at a younger age.

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