Classroom Technology Q&A

Q&A: Reporter Delves Into World of ‘Digital Play’

By Benjamin Herold — April 21, 2015 6 min read
Fourth graders take part in a lesson on figurative language in one of Rocketship Education’s “flexible classrooms.” In a new book, Greg Toppo profiles a Rocketship elementary student’s experience using a math software program.
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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.

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 City-based nonprofit that studies digital-media use and children. Benefits include increased student engagement and, in some cases, early evidence of improved student learning.

Greg Toppo. The USA Today reporter is the author of a new book on how students learn through “digital play.”

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.

Even so, Mr. 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 hope 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, Mr. Toppo said, can be transformative.

Following is a transcript of his conversation with Education Week Staff Writer Benjamin Herold, edited for length and clarity.

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

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.

You describe your encounters with teachers making innovative use of games as “a welcome break from covering school reform.” Why?

It actually really hit me when we all started having to write about the [common-core standards]. 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 educator you profile is Eric Nelson, a teacher in the Minneapolis suburbs using the mechanics of fantasy football to engage students 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 that “gamification” strategies rely heavily on extrinsic rewards and penalties, especially to encourage basic classroom behaviors, rather than promoting “deeper learning.”

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 Sí 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 was 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.”

Sí Se Puede is part of the Rocketship Schools charter network, which has used software to push class sizes to 100 students or more, and senior Rocketship officials have acknowledged that their students sometimes struggle when given more independence. How does the context in which games are used matter?

I don’t say anywhere in the book that games need to absolutely overtake everything, [or] 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 reinvent school in these kinds of ways?

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.

But you wrote very positively about Amplify, a large ed-tech company that is taking a pretty top-down approach in trying to bring its games to classrooms.

I make no judgments about [Amplify’s] actual curriculum or devices or customer service. 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 [prominent game developer] 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. [Editor’s note: Larry Berger, the CEO of Amplify Learning, a division of Amplify, is a board member of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that publishes Education Week.]

You close the book with a chapter about “Surface: A World Above,” an opera 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.

[What] 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 world ... my 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.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Journalist Steps Into Realm Of Digital Games


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