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Use games to empower students, create resourceful learners

By Douglas Kiang
December 21, 2015
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We recently asked our students and teachers, “What is the most important thing you will learn or teach this year?” The answers were surprisingly similar: solve difficult problems, become a better thinker, learn to handle failure, collaborate with others and manage time better.

No one said the most important lesson would be how to solve a quadratic equation, fill in a spreadsheet or list the reasons behind the Civil War. Yet, although we do a great job of assessing content knowledge, we don’t have nearly as many ways to reinforce the very important skills of collaboration and critical thinking. That’s where games come in.

The real power of games in the classroom is their ability to teach skills rather than content. Humans have a desire to play games that are both social and physical. Sports have always been this way. Video games used to be a solitary experience. Now, with physical and networked game platforms such as Wii and PlayStation, gamers are getting more physical and social.

The best games challenge players to think critically and find unique solutions to problems. Often, games will adjust to the gamer, changing their level of difficulty to adapt to the player’s style of play. Nearly every new game or app contains a tutorial level designed to teach the complexities of the game by scaffolding the experience, putting players into a game world that is carefully constructed to minimize dangers and present one challenge at a time. Players are forced to demonstrate mastery before they can proceed. With this approach, the game allows players to use trial and error to learn what works.

In this way, good games embody what we know about effective learning. They provide a personalized, scaffolded learning experience that includes a high degree of engagement. Kids who play games regularly exhibit critical-thinking skills that make them good problem solvers.

After all, the heart of critical thinking is knowing how to get unstuck because, at some point, every learner gets stuck. Getting unstuck involves thinking critically about defining the problem, breaking the problem into smaller parts and determining what resources are available. These are strategies that gamers intuitively use because they are central to solving many of the puzzles that are inherent in modern gameplay.

In my class, for example, students can redo assignments as often as they want to improve their grade, as long as the original assignment was turned in on time. Some students use this as a chance to try new strategies or take risks in order to grow. I was inspired by Angry Birds, a game in which the only way to succeed is through iterative failure. Each time players fail a level, they have learned a little more about what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t work. Learning through failure is the way to succeed.

In addition, most good games are not didactic. Instead, an incredible amount of thought and care go into the construction of each level, building a learning environment that feels nonlinear by providing choice (even if you still need to complete each level in a particular order).

As teachers and course designers, we can learn a lot from games. Our goal should not be to present students with lots of text-based material and a syllabus that outlines the semester’s work in a linear fashion. Rather, we should pour our expertise and energies into crafting a learning environment in which our students can play, explore, fail safely and design innovative solutions to problems that exist even outside of the game world.

Games have an extraordinary power to engage, teach and inspire. They model a powerful way of learning through play, present us with challenging puzzles to be solved alone or with others, and provide a safe place for us to dream, build, experiment and create. So much of what we know about learning comes from watching children play. By using the dynamics that make games so powerful, we can bring compelling learning experiences into our classrooms and empower students to be resilient and resourceful learners.

Douglas Kiang is a teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a frequent speaker and workshop presenter. He’s been and ISTE member since 2012.