Games are the new silver bullet in education. How can they create good learning experiences, and what can you learn from them to become a better teacher?

Every prospective or new teacher soon faces two salient facts about our schools: All sorts of people criticize them (far fewer praise them), and all sorts of people have different ideas about how to reform them. Teachers are inundated with new fads and fashions and constant hype about silver bullets that will leave no child behind.

Today, there is a great deal of interest in and a lot of hype about using video games in schools. This includes commercial games like “Civilization,” “The Sims,” “Portal,” or “Minecraft,” and educational games like “Dragon Box,” “Quest Atlantis,” “Immune Attack,” or the “i-Civics” games. Video games are a new silver bullet. Games can create good learning because they teach in powerful ways, but what many people miss in the rush to bring games to school is that the teaching method good games use can be implemented with or without games (though games are one good platform with which to deliver such teaching). In fact, the theory behind game-based learning is not really new, but a traditional and well-tested approach to deep and effective learning, often represented in the best problem-based and project-based learning.

Games are just well-designed experiences in problem solving.

Recent work on learning suggests that human beings do not learn primarily from generalizations and abstractions. They learn from experiences they have had and shared with others. They find patterns in these experiences with the help of good teachers. With enough experience, they can eventually generalize from these patterns to form larger generalizations or principles. For example, learners who have learned, through simulations or actual experiences in a lab or the world, how Newton’s Laws of Motion apply to one situation (e.g., an accelerating car in a race) gain an embodied and situated understanding of those laws. As they gain understanding in more and more situations, they eventually come to see the laws as general and can think about them in abstract ways as applied to a great many situations.

Words in a text or textbook gain their meanings from the experiences people have had, not from definitions in terms of other words. The words in a manual for a game are about the actions and images in the game; the words in a biology text are about the actions and images in the world as biologists engage with it. The game or the world of plants, animals, and cells is what gives meaning to the game manual or the biology text. If a student has no experiences (no actions or images) associated with a text, the student cannot understand the text deeply. That is why doing comes before reading. People need experiences before texts make sense, and then they can use them to learn new things and improve the learning they do in new experiences.

Dive deeper

See (and follow) Edutopia, including its section on game-based learning.

For a first game, download “Dragon Box”, a game that is great preparation for future learning in algebra — even if you hate algebra.

— James Paul Gee

Because learning is based on experience, students do not learn facts (“information”) well if we just focus on facts themselves. They learn and retain facts best when they use these facts as tools to solve problems. Teaching that focuses on facts can get paper-and-pencil tests passed, but such learning does not lead to problem solving. Teaching that focuses on problem solving and that uses facts as tools to solve problems leads both to fact retention and the development of critical-thinking skills.

However, there are problems with learning from experience. It can take a lot of time, and learners can fail to know what to pay attention to in their experiences. The experiences that lead to the best learning are experiences that are well-designed and well-mentored through good teaching. And here is where games become one good tool among others: Games are just well-designed experiences in problem solving.

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