Gaming the Curriculum

March 27, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Do online games have a place in the classroom? Fervent proponents of each side have been debating game-based learning and its effectiveness in the classroom. Meanwhile, developers are propelling the conversation forward by designing educational games specifically for classroom settings. Although there is little conclusive research to support either perspective at this point, there are plenty of people working to show the rest of us just how effective classroom gaming can be.

Take the folks over at GlassLab. The innovative designers at the Institute of Play have been working with EA Games to create SimCityEDU, an online educational resource for teachers wanting to use digital platforms to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects. Through the platform, classroom teachers can create and share their own curriculums and lesson plans using SimCity, the popular urban-planning simulation video game.

The idea behind the collaboration was to align the game with Common Core State Standards to drive home STEM concepts while developing students’ 21st-century skills. These skills include things like collaboration and creative problem solving; however, it is often more difficult for teachers to monitor the progression and development of these skills, which students will absolutely need in the future.

Michael John, Game Director of GlassLab, talked about 21st-century skills in a recent video for the Amplify Education YouTube Channel. “They're hard to assess; they’re a little bit difficult to design a curriculum for, but there’s a growing belief that they're very important,” said John, “and not only that they're important but that games are a really good fit.”

And teachers across the country are finding that digital games are, in fact, a great fit for honing these specific skills. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Jessica Millstone attested to this in a recent blog post about the center’s video case studies and subsequent K-12 teacher survey about the benefits of digital gaming in the classroom.

But if you’re still skeptical of using games in your classroom, don’t worry—you’re not the only one. New York Times features editor and children’s book editor Pamela Paul recently penned an op-ed arguing why she believes digital games belong where they’ve always been—outside the classroom.

 “When I was a child, I liked to play video games,” says Paul. “I didn’t learn much of anything. My parents didn’t expect me to. I just had fun.” And “fun,” Paul claims, can’t always be the stuff of classroom learning. Sometimes students just have to buckle down and learn the facts, without extrinsic rewards.

Paul cited, among others a survey of elementary, middle, and high school teachers we published in November 2012. According to our findings, based on 685 responses from K-12 teachers, 71 percent said entertainment media use has hurt students’ attention spans either “a lot” or “somewhat.” She also cites an additional report, sponsored in part by the technology industry, which found that only 17 percent of teachers believed technology encourages students to further their creative thought process.

Meanwhile, proponents of educational technology, like neurologist, teacher, and Edutopia writer Judy Willis, have proposed that these resources provide an "unprecedented opportunity for educational equity." Others, such as cofounder of game developer Mango Learning Inc. and writer for Poonam Sharma, have said that educational games could allow students who already have a basic understanding of and interest in a subject to truly “master” that subject through games.

The bottom line, however, is what many fence-sitters ultimately care about. As this helpful infographic from EdTech Magazine said, “There’s little conclusive proof that educational video games work, and teachers are skeptical.”

As for Paul, she does not deny the overall importance of educational technology. “Obviously there is a place for technology in the classroom,” she said, citing examples of specific uses that she supports. However, she did caution its cheerleaders. “It’s easy to foresee a future in which teachers try to unpeel children from their screens in order to bring them back to such hands-on, ‘real world’ experiences,” she said. “Let children play games that are not educational in their free time.… Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves.”

What do you think about the great game-based learning debate? Are we straying too far from hands-on learning? Can digital devices serve as a teacher, or merely a resource designed to enhance learning in the classroom? We want to hear your thoughts and experiences on this issue.