Curriculum Opinion

The Children Are Waiting

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 08, 2013 7 min read
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Today’s guest blogger is Peggy Sheehy. This is part two of her three part guest blog on gaming and learning.

Gaming Changes Teaching and Learning Part II
It seems we just can’t seem to get past some obstacles. Why is it so hard to accept the fact that games and the associated notion of play are powerful ingredients in learning? The research supports it, pioneering teachers have documented their successes, and the U.S. government has even created a White House position to lead the investigation and direct the progress of games in learning. Yet, educational leaders and policy makers continue to cross their arms, dig in their heels, and frown over their glasses at the mere mention of video games in school.

Part of the reason for this is the negative media hype surrounding video games---so let’s dispense with that once and for all. USC Professor Henry Jenkins published a document entitled, Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked . In it, he systematically addressed the 8 most popular claims around video game violence. In addition, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) clearly delineates these three indisputable facts on their website:

FACT: Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. During the same period of time, video games have steadily increased in popularity and use, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if there were a causal link.

FACT: Many games with violent content sold in the U.S. - and some with far more violence - are also sold in foreign markets. However, the level of violent crime in these foreign markets is considerably lower than that in the U.S., suggesting that influences such as the background of the individual, the availability of guns and other factors are more relevant to understanding the cause of any particular crime. In fact, an analysis by The Washington Post of the 10 largest video game markets across the globe found no statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related deaths.

Finally, FACT: Numerous authorities, including the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission have examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior. The truth is there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence, despite lots of overheated rhetoric from the industry’s detractors. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime (ESA, 2013).

The facts, the studies, and plain old common sense all counter the hype that there is any causal connection between video games and youth violence. “For most kids and most parents, the bottom-line results of our research can be summed up in a single word: relax. While concerns about the effects of violent video games are understandable, they’re basically no different from the unfounded concerns previous generations had about the new media of their day” (Kutner & Olson, 2009).

OK, so let’s imagine that we can move past the question of violence. What are other impediments to widespread adoption of video games in school? To begin with, there is an obvious difference between serious or educational games (games designed with clear educational outcomes in mind) and the commercial off the shelf games (COTS) designed purely for entertainment. This divide is characterized by a number of differences in purpose, design, and funding. While the “educational” games may be well intentioned, most are nothing more than electronic worksheets or skill and drill with animation in between. In this teacher’s opinion, the best of educational games can’t compete with the commercial off the shelf (COTS) offerings produced by billion dollar behemoth corporations, and those are the games our students are playing off campus. When all that we offer is the “educational flavor” all that we are going to get is a disenfranchised kid- who reports, “I guess it’s better than a worksheet...barely.”

Not only do COTS have state of the art graphics, soundtracks, and mechanics to attract and maintain their player base, but also these well-designed commercial offerings have science on their side. Game designers rely on the psychology of happiness to leverage the gameplay, crafting their products in such a way that a task or a quest is presented at the perfect degree of difficulty to keep the player engaged and willing to keep trying, yet not so complex that the player becomes frustrated and quits---similar to what the educational theorists refer to as the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978) or what Seymour Papert called, “hard fun”. "...every one likes hard challenging things to do. But they have to be the right things matched to the individual and to the culture of the times” (Papert, 2002). The analytics behind the interface constantly determine a player’s skill level, and produce challenges that sit at that “sweet spot” that keeps a player engaged and in a flow state.

But there are also impediments from a very practical vantage point. Most games are not cost effective, and those that offer free versions have placed such extreme limitations on them that the gameplay is severely compromised and diminished. Very few COTS have made any effort to accommodate the unique demands of school networks or budgets. Some notable exceptions to this are VALVE, who produce STEAM, the dominant game distribution platform that released Portal2 to educators at no cost, and, on the horizon is SimCityEDU--- a collaboration between Institute of Play, the Entertainment Software Association, Electronic Arts, Educational Testing Service, Pearson’s Center for Digital Data, Analytics & Adaptive Learning and others.

However, all too often teachers are unable to find games that will support or enhance their mandated curriculum, and there doesn’t appear to be a “sweet spot” for those who are subjugated to “high stakes” testing. Entrenched in a vicious cycle of preparing students for the tests, administering the tests, gathering the data and analyzing it, and then, armed with the latest test results that indicate where their students are falling short, teachers can initiate another round of the cycle, aiming their instruction directly at those identified weak spots. The thinking behind this madness is that this skill and drill, data driven instruction will yield higher test scores, which in turn will generate positive teacher evaluations. This will then assure the teachers are employed for another year and all will be well... except, we will have produced a generation of young people who cannot think. Even if test scores improve, it is at the cost of a quality education. We have poured the Kool-Aid, and these children (and their parents) are gulping it down without a moment’s consideration that perhaps something is amiss. After all, this is the way it has always been...at desks, in rows, with a bubble sheet, a textbook and a No. 2 pencil.

The young people who have learned to “play school,” that is those who have managed to acquiesce and excel in the “No.2 pencil rigor” of standardized test driven education, will continue along this path towards the holy grail of a college degree. The big lie that education tells is that a college degree is the certain key to future success, happiness, and the mythic American dream. Regardless of intent, by designing our “one size fits all” test driven pedagogy, we have proliferated that lie and have patently failed our young people by neglecting to provide any setting, circumstance or opportunity to unearth, investigate or pursue their passion

This pedagogical approach does not teach the skills that STEM careers require: strategic thinking, planning, communication, negotiating skills, group decision-making, or data handling. Personal skills such as initiative and persistence, spatial and motor skills such as coordination and speed of reflexes, social skills such as teamwork and communication, intellectual skills such as problem-solving are also missing. I know of some video games that offer this all.

In addition to teachers learning how to identify when and how a game might support the curriculum (or not) on the “con” side of things, we should add the struggle with fitting gameplay into a typical school schedule. Also, as in a traditional classroom, teachers are the key components in effective game-based learning. It is the teacher who steers the learning, and serves to guide and mentor the social/emotional culture that is formed around the game. Educators will need time and support to navigate these new waters and they need leaders who understand the value of gaming and support those who want to take the initiative of creating a new path.

Peggy is a well-known fierce advocate for the meaningful infusion of technology in education. She has presented her work at major education, technology, and gaming conferences, and continues to share her knowledge and experience with teachers all over the world. Peggy is a pioneer in virtual world education, serves as Guild Master of The Cognitive Dissonance Educator Guild in World of Warcraft, and is a founding member and officer of G.A.M.E.

Resources can be found at part one of Peggy’s three part post!

Peggy’s third post will be published on Thursday, August 15th.

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