One of the biggest problems I see reported by teachers is keeping their students engaged. It's common to hear complaints of students not able to focus longer than 10 minutes--and yet put that same kid in front of a video game and they're engaged for hours. Watch a kid playing a video game, and you'll see strong concentration and the ability to ignore external distractions. I've had to actually touch a child who was playing games on the shoulder just to get him to realize I wanted his attention! This alone tells me that kids can focus and be engaged; it's just a matter of presenting information in a way that interests them. I think video games are a great way to teach and keep kids learning in the classroom. The key is how you implement them.
I remember playing Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? as a child. These games taught me problem-solving, math, financial planning, and even geography, and I loved playing them even though their graphics were sadly low-tech in comparison to today's games. The funny thing is you can find modern versions of all of these games today, probably because of their success in engaging children into the story of the game, teaching without being "teach-y." You quickly learned that many people on the Oregon Trail died of dysentery, and rainy days can kill a lemonade stand. And all of this was before the incredible technology we have today.
Our education system is finally taking the steps to test games to determine if they're effective learning tools. Take, for example, the school Quest to Learn, which as profiled in this New York Times article. The school teaches everything in a gaming environment and instructs students in developing games as well. Just learning to develop games involves using math, writing, art, and critical-thinking skills, which is quite a bit to gain from one activity. I found this comment about Katie Salen, the lead institutional partner for Quest to Learn, very interesting:
A game, as Salen sees it, is really just a "designed experience," in which a
participant is motivated to achieve a goal while operating inside a prescribed
system of boundaries and rules. In this way, school itself is one giant designed
experience. It could be viewed, in fact, as the biggest and most important game
any child will ever play.
It can be a weird thing to consider school a game, but think about it: both involve rules you use to gain knowledge and achieve a goal, whether that's slaying a dragon or passing a test. Grades are like scores you get for successfully completing your mission of learning a particular subject--your report card is your "high score." I can see this increasing competitiveness amongst students as they strive to beat their friends. And the beauty of video games is they can be designed for group play so that students can learn to work successfully in a team in order to win. These are all very desirable skills in today's job market.
We'll see if video games can be one of the solutions to our education crisis. The research is still out, and not enough has been done to show they result in more student engagement and better grades. I do think that a game utilized as an activity to back up a specific lesson can be very successful. We here at Thinkwell have games and interactivities as part our curriculum, and the response has always been positive. In fact, students usually ask for more of them!