Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Columnist

7 ways games may save our schools

I have never played video games. They cut into reading time. Today, I don’t even understand TV advertisements for games. Do you have to get inside an Xbox? What?

I am sensing this may become a handicap for an education writer. What game designers know about what excites and involves their users may be the key to a new age of online learning.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.

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I say maybe because I have grown weary of technological breakthrough reports that promise more for classrooms than they deliver. Twenty-first century learning plans, when you examine them closely, often appear to be little more than curriculums from the previous century with more expensive equipment and better-written mission statements.

That’s what I thought until I bumped into Tom Vander Ark’s new book, “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World,” particularly the chapter on motivation. He lists seven ways video games reward the brain, as revealed in a 2010 speech by editor and game theorist Tom Chatfield. Even I could see that it was also a list of seven things many great teachers use:

1. Continuous grading. Vander Ark notes that “most games give participants the ability to watch their progress slowly but surely creep along in infinitesimal increments . . . like a bar graph, or a figure in a race, but somehow how the gamer is doing overall is clearly displayed and communicated.”

2. Multiple long- and short-term aims that are clearly defined. There are multiple levels and multiple forms of success.

3. Rewarding effort. You get credit every time you do something.

4. Feedback. “Gamers can fail in millions of small ways, learn quickly what they need to change and then move on,” Vander Ark says .

5. Element of uncertainty. Experiences that surprise just enough can create high engagement. The gamer, like me reading a detective novel, wants to know what happens next and see if he identified the perp.

6. Finding windows of learning. Games give players some important elements they need to remember.

7. Confidence. Chatfield concluded that game reward systems make people braver, more willing to take risks and harder to discourage. I will have to take his word for it, but those are qualities good teachers impart to their students.

Motivation is the key to good schools. It is at the heart of our many arguments over education policy. Can the desire to learn be stimulated by tests that affect graduation, or lessons that fit the subject to the students’ personal experiences, or a yearning to please a caring teacher, or a team spirit that wants our class spelling average to beat that of the third grade across the hall?

For game designers, Vander Ark points out, motivation means sales. They can see quickly what works and what doesn’t.

I have seen good teachers do continuous grading by calling on everyone in class each day and starting each day off with a short quiz. They reward effort with a smile, a cheer from the class, a better grade or a chance to read a better book. They introduce uncertainty by asking a question that does not have an obvious answer and with a series of questions to the class (Socrates would have been an awesome game designer) to find the most likely answer.

Fairfax County’s Bernie Glaze, one of the best social studies teachers I ever saw, once explained to me the useful connection between games and learning. Two of her students were resisting her lesson on philosophers. They called them old white guys without a jump shot. She engaged the two by saying that all she wanted from them was some thoughtful analysis, just as they discussed each morning why their basketball heroes had won or lost the night before.

It will be hard to produce online lessons that make this happen in physics, calculus, Romantic poetry and civics. But smart people say there is a way to do it. That’s fine as long as they check the result with teachers.

 
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