Are educational games taking advantage of social learning?

Games-based learning (GBL) strategies are engaging, fun, and effective. The most-utilized games fall into the Cooney Center’s definition of short-form games, focused largely on content recall with one player interacting with the software – and (hopefully) the teacher in the background monitoring progress and adjusting teaching. But that’s only one aspect of what games can accomplish.

If that’s all we ask, we are short-changing the potential that GBL holds to play a part in transforming education. Let’s explore one aspect of GBL’s potential in more detail.

Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.


The premise is rooted in social learning, which could be an entirely separate post. But suffice it to say, that social learning emphasizes the role of others in how we make meaning. Others provide models; we learn from and with them. Much of what we learn and share is for others.  It’s how we validate, amend or reject our ideas.  Social learning is highly dependent upon the structure of the environment in facilitating others in the learning process.

This is an environment that schools (and most of our games) – despite having lots of people – do not naturally foster. Learning in schools is largely a conversation between one student and the teacher (or one student and a game-designer). Models for learning – even the rare student exemplar – are generally reluctant to be shared because in rote learning situations these models are seen as a stepping stone to copying and regurgitation – and that’s correct… and also where the problem lies.
When we don’t set up experiences where students can see each other’s thinking, results, and rationale, we’re not taking advantage of all those collective learning experiences. Instead, we have 25 one-way conversations with teachers (or game-designers)  – where Student A is largely ignorant of how Student B approached the problem.
One solution is Problem-Based Learning. PBL advocates know this, and structure environments where social learning is encouraged.  The next step for Games-Based Learning advocates is to establish these types of naturally interactive environments:
  • where the intelligent application of content is required,
  • where multiple correct answers are possible,
  • where students can learn from one another, and
  • where students are intrinsically motivated to find the best solutions to authentic problems.
Now educators (and game-designers) can rightfully argue that most accountability metrics measure fragmented learning, and therefore throw up their hands and revert to the teaching the testable content. But certainly there’s some room where we can apply all the benefits of GBL (engagement, fun, clear sense of purpose) with the open-ended PBL approach – an approach where we ask ourselves, How can I approach this content in a way that has students practicing skills and thinking like a _______?”  (INSERT YOUR FAVORITE ! historian, mathematician, physicist, writer, etc.).  That’s our next step – for educators and game-designers.

These are the environments that foster social learning, where students can explain and test out their ideas. And, in the process, learning becomes a lot more relevant.

 

GBL and PBL: Can we play matchmaker?

(This post was originally shared on ASCD’s SmartBrief and is modified from it’s earlier post.)

GBL and PBL Sitting In A Tree.  K-I-S-S-I-N-G

“Hello Games-Based Learning; this is Problem-Based Learning.”

Like two pandas in a zoo, we need to do all we can to ensure that these two find a soul mate in one another.

Games, by definition, are meant to be fun. But, in the race to transform schools, we’re missing out if the goal of games-based learning is to help us run that race faster or provide students with more fun while they run. We’re running towards the wrong finish line.

Games transform education and learning. The question is: transform “towards what end?”  If our goal for games is to take traditional school content — multiplication tables — and spice it up as more fun for students, then we are missing a golden opportunity.

In the 2013 research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on short-form games  (quick tools for practice) versus long-form games  (higher-order thinking skills better aligned to the Common Core), they rightly advocate that there is significant potential for these long-form games to transform education.

We’ve all heard the familiar student refrain, “Why are we learning this?” Short-form games can decrease this cry, but only temporarily.  Any game, by definition, has a context.  But if games are only taking our same-old learning outcomes and making them fun, then we’re missing out.

Games have the potential to set a context and purpose for learning that is rich, complex and authentic — something followers of problem-based learning have been advocating for years. This is an element of game design we need to better leverage.

The descriptors below are not unique to each model; there is significant overlap. But like pandas at the zoo, we need to foster collaboration between the model of Games-Based Learning with those of Problem-Based Learning.

Games-Based Learning Problem-Based Learning
dynamic environments context rich, authentic, real-world environments
immediate feedback, where failure is a natural part of the learning process open-ended solutions with no “correct” answers
multiple decisions / choices authentic audiences for student work
clear goals recall not sufficient, application of content / skills is required
meta-cognition (“How am I doing?”) naturally holistic and cross-disciplinary

The best games — with or without technology —  can set a context for learning that can combine the characteristics above to create new types of learning environments.

These environments will:

  • Empower teachers to customize the environment dynamically, so that content can be specialized and individualized as needed.
  • Enable students as creators of solutions — beyond recall and decision-making.
  • Encourage students to be environment evaluators — aware of each others’ creations/ solutions.
  • Allow students — and the teacher — to act within an interdependent environment, where the actions of one user affects others.
  • Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.
  • Provide a context where the game is not the teacher of “content” but rather it is the “context” through which learning happens.
  • See learning and assessment as individualized. The teacher — not the game — is in charge of the learning and that happens at the teacher-student level. The game is simply the introduction to that interaction.
  • Strive to mirror the real world by giving students multiple roles and goals which sometimes conflict. Students are not simply an all-out pursuit of a single goal as they strive for points, badges or rewards.

This does not mean that all games need to fit into this category to be useful. Creating games that get us to the very limited goal of content recall can be one piece. But we should distinguish this from the nature of what games can be and the role they can play in transforming education. Otherwise, we’re just running the race faster to an out-dated finish line.

As we gamify our schools, we’re missing a huge opportunity if we’re not considering “games” in multiple perspectives. Certainly, the combination of PBL and GBL elements has vast potential for changing the way we prepare students with the 4 Cs of the 21st Century. It needs to be on our radar; we need to use our limited time, energies and money to to scrutinize our understanding of games to create these new, transformational learning environments.

There is no silver bullet. Creating games like this can’t be done with every topic and it’s not always the most efficient way to get students from A to B.

Not every panda-romance is a match made in heaven. But, for the propagation of the species, we need to encourage this budding romance to grow.

Who we are

It’s No Game was started by educators Derek Luebbe and Christie Mckee.

We share a belief in games-based learning as a transformational model for education.  Yet we also believe that there are barriers in place that prevent its growth, and we hope to better understand those barriers here.

Part of this belief is based on the idea that games-based learning is still largely focused on “gamify-ing” traditional educational practices instead of embracing how GBL can transform our model of learning.

Beyond our background as educators, we are founding members of Jetlag Learning.