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.