Classroom Technology Q&A

Digital Learning Games Find a Believer in USA Today Writer

By Benjamin Herold — April 10, 2015 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Tired of covering never-ending education battles over standards, testing, and charter schools, veteran USA Today reporter Greg Toppo set out in search of a fresh story about how children actually learn.

The result is “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Children Smarter,” a new book offering a wide-ranging take on the ways classroom teachers and game developers are reinventing school through (mostly) digital games.

“Frankly, I was stunned that this was happening in so many places,” Toppo said in an interview with Education Week.

Unquestionably, use of digital classroom games is on the rise. Nearly three-fourths of K-8 teachers now use such tools for classroom instruction, according to a recent national survey from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York-based nonprofit that studies digital media use and children. Benefits include increased student engagement, and, in some cases, early evidence of improved student learning.

Not everyone is on board, though; worries about children’s screen time, the quality of the games (both commercial and educational) that often get played, and everything from violence to data privacy still raise the hackles of some.

But Toppo, who is quick to acknowledge that “a lot of what’s out there is trash,” has become a believer.

In San Jose, Calif., he sat with a 4th grader matter-of-factly tackling complex math problems with the help of an animated penguin. In New York City, he watched a group of 8th graders during their final exam: playing Triple Turbo Ball, a game they had invented that blurred the lines between football, basketball, and soccer. In San Francisco, he played an early version of Throw Trucks With Your Mind!, a game being developed in the hopes of presenting a non-pharmaceutical treatment for ADHD, that rewards players with super powers when they are able to sustain calm and focus (measured through an EEG headset.)

The good stuff, Toppo said, can be transformative.

Below is a transcript of his conversation with Education Week, edited for length and clarity.

“The Game Believes in You,” published by Palgrave Macmillian, will be publicly available April 21.

Education Week: What do you want people inside schools to take away from this book?

Toppo: There’s this tool that’s developing really quickly, but it’s kind of under the radar. Until I really looked into it, I didn’t know how powerful it was.

In the book, you describe your encounters with teachers doing innovative things with games as “a tonic, a welcome break from covering school reform.” Why?

It actually really hit me when we all started having to write about the common core. It really felt like, “lather, rinse, repeat,” like I had stepped out of a time machine. That was kind of demoralizing. I felt like we weren’t talking about learning in any big, substantial way. This was my attempt to start thinking about some of those things again.

One of the people you profile is Eric Nelson, a teacher at North Lakes Academy in the Minneapolis suburbs who was using the mechanics of fantasy football to get his class engaged in world affairs.

What I liked about that game was the students’ willingness to play along with a clearly contrived system. Everybody going into it understands that it’s an odd thing to be doing: Choose your team of countries, and let’s somehow compete to see which ones are [in the news most frequently.] But it somehow did the trick.

Some people worry about “gamification” strategies that rely so heavily on extrinsic rewards and penalties, especially when they’re used to encourage basic classroom behaviors, rather than “deeper learning.”

Yeah, a lot of people I mentioned this stuff to really didn’t want to hear about it. They felt like it was a misapplication of gaming principles. [Using those principles to get kids] to class on time or sit in their seat or raise their hands, a lot of people would say you’re going to pollute the waters. But in the end, I felt like that’s part of school, too...You can’t ignore that fact that teachers have to be in front of students every day, and they have to leverage productive behaviors.

You were very moved by the experience of doing math with Luis Zepeda, a 4th grader at Si Se Puede Academy, a charter school in San Jose, Calif. Why?

When I sat down with Luis, I was blown away by the work that was on his computer screen. The problems the software [ST Math] were asking him to solve were really hard. I couldn’t solve them. But that level of math had become a natural part of that kid’s day. And I thought, ‘this is what we’ve been after for years and years, raising the level of academic achievement of poor and minority kids.’

When Education Week reported from Si Se Puede last year, its parent network, Rocketship Schools, was going through an internal crisis. Software such as ST Math had been used to push class sizes to 100 students or more, and senior Rocketship officials acknowledged having concerns that their students struggled when given more independence. How do you think context matters when it comes to the ways in which game-based software programs like ST Math are used?

I think people need to be smart about how they use these tools. I don’t say anywhere in the book that games need to absolutely overtake everything, that they need to replace the curriculum or the teacher (although I do think they would do a pretty good job of replacing textbooks.)

I want to be careful to make sure that people understand this is a tool, this isn’t magic.

You also spent time at Quest to Learn Middle School in New York City, which has a heavy emphasis on game-inspired teaching methods. How optimistic are you that games can be used to re-invent school in these kinds of ways, too?

I’m guardedly optimistic, mostly because I still see the conversation around me as being about pretty deadly boring topics. We’re still talking about standardized tests being the measure of everything. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was to get people talking and thinking about different things.

Something like games can be a bottom-up solution. It’s not going to work for everybody, but for the teachers who do see it work, they can quietly pass it on to teachers down the hall. The technology is really allowing teachers [to share and use games] in such a stealth way.

You also spent a lot of time with New York City-based Amplify, a large ed-tech company that is taking a pretty-top down approach in trying to bring its games to classrooms. You described the company’s new game-heavy digital curriculum for middle school English, which is still being piloted, as “the best hope of video-game advocates in the fight for ‘brainshare’ in schools.”

I want to be very clear on what appeals to me about Amplify. I make no judgments about their actual curriculum or devices or customer service or any of that. What interested me was the fact they were placing a big bet on games as supplemental material. And what impressed me more was the way they did it, which I consider a very smart way. They hired people like Jesse Schell to do something I think is breathtaking, essentially farming out all the game design to these really remarkable studios. The people designing [Amplify’s] games for the classroom are the same people we turn to when we’re on the couch with our iPad. That, I think, is amazing.

One more: You close the book with a chapter about Surface: A World Above, which is an opera that was built and performed entirely within the virtual world of Minecraft by a group of teenage boys in an after-school music program at Virginia Tech University.

The thing that was so moving to me was that marriage of something that these students were already so excited about with something they would never in a million years find themselves doing. So when that overture is playing, and you’re staring at this Minecraft emotions sort of got away from me. Who knows if those kids will go on to love opera for the rest of their lives. But they had this vivid experience, and they were in charge, and the teacher had to really trust those kids to let them run with it. I’m still thinking about that moment.

Photos by Lisa Meloni Photography.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.