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.