How I learned to love games in the classroom – or, conversion by Derek Robertson

I’ve always been a sceptic about the use of off-the-shelf computer games in the classroom (in other words, pre-existing games not designed for education being used in schools). This is even after working on a Futurelab-sponsored “thought leader” panel about it. My doubts stemmed from a number of things:

  • The sloppy thinking that “you can just put the learning in” – I’ve seen one prominent commentator describe how he thinks that French questions should be inserted into an existing action-adventure game at key points in the action, forcing the student to answer them before they can continue. This apparently would make it educational. In fact, it would be positively damaging: the whole point of an action-adventure game is the visceral experience. Stopping that experience ruins the game and demonizes the learning. It may be possible to integrate the French into the plot somehow – but that requires developing the game with that in mind from the beginning, and ensuring that it fits seamlessly into a compelling story and experience. Shoehorning sucks.
  • Many of the games ideas that I have seen, implemented or not, have contained an inherent dishonesty. The idea is that the learning gets “hidden” – that kids won’t notice that they are learning about history while they are playing a game. This is a recipe for disaster. Make the learning necessary for the game, but be honest about it. Kids of every age spot the lies very, very quickly.
  • The limits of simulations. There has been some interesting and good work in schools with a range of simulations – from SimCity to Theme Park – but several issues emerged. It took the teachers a very long time to work out the way the game worked, and where they did, even more time to embed them into meaningful lessons. More profoundly, though, I have always worried that however interesting the simulation, it never reflects the true, sometimes fickle complexity of reality. Additionally, there is often a rather frustrating relationship between the fidelity of the simulation and its usability.
  • Scalability and transferability. Almost all of the work I have seen or read about depended on an a charismatic and motivated teacher delivering great lessons. Arguably, these teachers could have delivered a great lesson with a carrot and a piece of string, never mind a computer game – the success of the teaching depended on an individual, not the resources they were using. I have rarely seen examples of work which could be used without that fantastic teacher.

But. I’m writing after the Handheld Learning conference this week, where on both days I saw Derek Robertson from Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Consolarium speak about his work across a wide range of Scottish schools. I also saw a teacher from a London LA talking about how she has re-applied one strand of Derek’s work (with the Nintendo DS and the Dr. Kawashima Brain Age game) in her school. All of the numerous examples Derek gave of his projects – from Guitar Hero to Endless Ocean – seemed honest, well thought through, compelling and – and here’s the important bit – scalable.

I even challenged Derek on a big issue for me about projects involving ICT. I always wonder how much the novelty and attention which kids automatically get from being involved in a project with computer games and learning increases their motivation and focus automatically. Derek’s great answer was: why shouldn’t kids get new things all the time? And what’s wrong with giving them attention? Fair cop, particularly if you are working for an organisation which has institutionalised that novelty and attention by providing Derek and his colleagues as an ongoing resource.

It strikes me that the key things about Derek’s work are the following:

  • Selection. Derek chooses – very carefully- the games which he works with for their potential for use in the classroom. Strangely, Grand Theft Auto hasn’t featured in his work yet…
  • Derek’s notion of a “contextual hub”. Derek doesn’t just push the games (and their associated devices) into the classroom. He spends a lot of time working up how the games can be used, and building extensive activities around them. So, when working with Nintendogs the children got so excited with dogs in general that they wrote about dogs, read about dogs, made pictures of dogs, and even got the local dog warden in to understand how you should treat and look after a real dog.

There’s a challenge here for those of us who develop software for education – to match the way in which off-the-shelf computer games engage their users (mercifully, this isn’t just a question of production values and money, although they obviously play a part). It’s this motivational quality that Derek is so successfully harnessing in his work. Guitar Hero offers a great context for learning, if you have the imagination. Off-the-shelf games are going to provide a fantastic – but by definition patchy – set of resources for teaching. Let’s make sure the dedicated resources that people like me develop learn from the games and from Derek’s work with them.

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