Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who teaches the teachers?: A how-to series on using games in the classroom.

An article recently appeared in the Huffington Post describing teachers' latest concerns about using games as learning tools in the classroom.  Among their reservations about using games, they felt like the learning students experienced through games didn't always translate well when other, non-gaming forms of assessment were applied.  They likewise recognized that the games themselves are often poorly suited to self-assessment in the classroom.  Many games are great at assessing how well you understand the rules of the game--you don't advance to the next level if you don't learn the skills need to play the game well. Unfortunately, that's not always the kind of assessment teachers need to ensure that students are learning.

This problem of finding ways to meaningfully incorporate video games into classrooms has been on my mind a great deal lately. Over the summer, a colleague and I worked on developing a games-based curriculum on health and science education, so I think it's fair to say that all of the above concerns are ones I understand all too well.  They hint both at the ways in which makers of games for children are sometimes missing the mark (by, for example, insisting on a strictly linear progression through a game instead of letting kids' own skill level determine the level at which they should be playing), and they also suggest that teachers themselves may not be getting the instruction they need to make games a thoughtful part of their curricula. Of course, the former is something that requires the cooperation of game makers to change, but the latter is something that I think results simply from a deficit of good information for teachers.

Even though many teachers seem excited about the idea of using video games in the classroom, some, I fear, have been mislead about what games can do for them and for their students. Teachers have too much on their plates today as it is, and throwing games into the mix is often wrongly offered up to them as a solution to their problem: here, let these games do the teaching and you can work on something else. Unfortunately, most games are not really built to work as substitutes for classroom instruction. Teaching games and simulations requires the same amount of thoughtful engagement from teachers as any other classroom text does. The exercises and assignments that teachers construct for guiding and measuring student learning need to thoughtfully balance the teacher's own curricular goals against the game's content. And if teachers themselves only have limited experience with teaching digital content, making such appropriate exercises can be difficult.

Over the next few months, I will be posting a few short teacher's guides for some specific games that I think might be usefully employed in the classroom. Drawing strongly on some of the lessons in Jeremiah McCall's fantastic book, Gaming the Past, which is about using games and simulations to teach history, these guides will hopefully help teachers (or parents) jump-start their thinking about how they can get the most out of video games as learning tools.

There's simply no denying that digital literacy is going to be one of the most important skills we can teach kids growing up in the 21st century, but in order for our kids to learn to think critically about today's digital media, I think we need to be giving our teachers more resources for making games an effective component of classroom instruction. Hopefully, this series will help provide such a resource.

If you have any games you'd like to nominate for classroom use or exercises you've used successfully in the past, please share your ideas in the comments below.

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