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?


Serious games: FATWORLD

FATWORLD is a video game about the politics of nutrition. It explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S. The game’s goal is not to tell people what to eat or how to exercise, but to demonstrate the complex, interwoven relationships between nutrition and factors like budgets, the physical world, subsidies, and regulations. Existing approaches to nutrition advocacy fail to communicate the aggregate effect of everyday health practices. It's one thing to explain that daily exercise and nutrition are important, but people, young and old, have a very hard time wrapping their heads around outcomes five, 10, 50 years away.

You can choose starting weights and health conditions, including predispositions towards ailments like diabetes, heart disease, or food allergies. You'll have to construct menus and recipes, decide what to eat and what to avoid, exercise (or not), and run a restaurant business to serve the members of your community.

FATWORLD comes with numerous foods, recipes, and meal plans, or players can create their own from the foods in their pantry or their imaginations.

via FATWORLD – The Game.

Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools: 2009

New data from the U.S. government National Center for Educational Statistics: Teachers’ Use of Educational Technology in U.S. Public Schools: 2009.

This First Look report presents data from a spring 2009 Fast Response Survey System FRSS survey on the availability and use of educational technology by public elementary/secondary school teachers. The teacher survey includes information on the use of computers and Internet access in the classroom; availability and use of computing devices, software, and school or district networks including remote access by teachers; students’; use of educational technology; teachers’; preparation to use educational technology for instruction; and technology-related professional development activities. (released May 2010)

Some key highlights:

  • Teachers reported that they or their students used computers in the classroom during instructional time often (40 percent) or sometimes (29 percent)
  • Results differed by low and high poverty concentration of the schools for the percentage of teachers that reported their students used educational technology sometimes or often during classes to prepare written text (66 and 56 percent, respectively), learn or practice basic skills (61 and 83 percent, respectively), and develop and present multimedia presentations (47 and 36 percent, respectively)
  • The percentage of teachers that reported that the following activities prepared them (to a moderate or major extent) to make effective use of educational technology for instruction are 61 percent for professional development activities, 61 percent for training provided by school staff responsible for technology support and/or integration, and 78 percent for independent learning
  • Of the teachers who participated in technology-related professional development during the 12 months prior to completing the survey, 81 percent agreed that ―it met my goals and needs,‖ 88 percent agreed that ―it supported the goals and standards of my state, district, and school,‖ 87 percent agreed that ―it applied to technology available in my school,‖ and 83 percent agreed that ―it was available at convenient times and places

The data is broken down by school size and location, teacher experience, and lots of other variables. They asked about blogs, wikis and other social media, both for parent and student communication as well as class assignments. so if you want to know what percentage of teachers have students contribute to blogs or wikis, and how that varies urban to rural, poverty level, or by years of teacher experience, it’s all here. (Overall, 12% rarely, 9% sometimes/often) There are little variations to ponder, like how the biggest response for “rarely” is from big urban schools.

And that carries throughout – high poverty schools do have and use computers, but the students are doing test prep, not creative work.

So – a treasure trove here for data fans out there…

Update – here’s the link to the raw data.