It’s Not that they are Playing

I spent much of last week presenting to teachers and superintendents in New York and New Jersey. Then I drove back up to Newark, turned in my rental car, and then trained, walked, and bused my way out to Long Island, where my brother owns a house — without WiFi. The intensity of my recent presentation schedule along with two days, totally disconnected, left me with nothing to say today on 2¢ Worth. In fact, being my day to write for the Tech Learning Blog, I cheated, and found an old 2¢ entry to recycle into T&L.

All that said, I was sitting on the plane a few minutes ago (delayed on the tarmac), scanning through the April issue of Leading & Learning with Technology, and ran across an interesting piece, one of those “yes” and “no” arguments entitled “Can Games Be Used to Teach?“. Taking the “yes” argument was Alix Peshette, a technology training specialist from California. She was followed by one of my all time heros and tech visionaries, David Thornburg, taking the “no” side of the argument. This surprised me, but the interesting thing was that both parts of the article were saying pretty much the same thing — that it depends on the game. I beg to differ.

Thornburg described with distaste the site of exhibitor booths where conference attendees crowd around four deep watching a video game show being played by enthusiastic volunteer (well, they’ll get a T-Shirt out of it.) The winner will be the player with the most correctly answered questions. After listing several other drill & practice style scenarios, he suggested that…

…there are “gaming” environments of value — simulations of real-world phenomena. I gladly recommend SimEarth and other programs of this kind for educators.

Thornburg draws an interesting distinction between a game show (fill in the blank game), and the more open-ended simulation style of game. I would carry it a bit further and say that it isn’t the difference between the kinds of games being played, but between the learning expectations. One type helps students to memorize facts. The other helps them to master concepts, develop problem solving skills, and do so in a more authentic fashion.

Certainly, both types of learning are necessary. I would suggest (not for the first time) that in a time of rapid change that relies increasingly on inventive and resourceful problem solving and self-directed learning, the emphasis is tilting toward the conceptual learning and less on memorizing facts. Still, some facts must be known by members of a culture.

If it is important for children to know the multiplication tables or (for heaven sake) the capitals of the states, and a mock game show helps them do that, then I say, “Bring on the prizes.” If students need to understand the interdependence of cultures in an increasingly globalized world society, then strap on your roman helmut and let’s play Civilization.

I know that David’s children are all grown. If he still had children at home and watched them playing today’s deep and engaging games, he would probably have written differently. So, what am I going to do next year when my son goes off to college.

I wonder which game system he’s going to leave behind. 😉

5 thoughts on “It’s Not that they are Playing”

  1. Is cross posting on T&L cheating?! 🙂

    I wonder if David was asked to play the Devil’s advocate for that piece. Miguel Guhlin and I wrote pieces for the March issue of L&L on the topic of laptop ownership. I think either of us could have written from either perspective, so what we wrote isn’t necessarly our “entire” opinion on the issue.

    I think the idea that gaming today is not what it was yesterday is valid and very important. I also agree with David, that game show type games have limited ability to educate compared to more immersive, complex games.

    I think complexity is the key differentiator. Kids today are often motivated by the complex problem solving environments represented by gaming worlds. I am hoping I can use this line of reasoning in a year or two to convince my wife to let me buy an XBox or the next-gen Playstation, or (gasp) maybe even a fast Windows machine. I think it’s the only platform that will play Empire at War.

  2. Wesley, concerning Thornburg’s being asked to present the “con” side of the issue, I had suspected as much. The point I was trying to make is that it depends on what you want students to learn. If you want them to be able to name the nations of Africa, then a lower level game show software product will work very well. When you want students to understand a more complex concept, then a much richer simulation style game works best.

    We all are looking to achieve deeper and richer learning. But it doesn’t mean that fact-memorization goes away. There is still a need, and basic drill games may do a very nice job of helping students learn.

    Then again, to learn to apply memorized facts does take the deeper instructional activity.

    Hmmmm! Could be tomorrow’s blog 😉

  3. Dave,

    I read the L&L article with interest, too, and I feel that David T. may also have been referring to the CPS systems that seem so popular at conferences and with conference-goers. Those booths are where I consistently see the large groups of exicited eudcators. I have a little problem with that form of summative assessment, but, recently at NCAECT, there was a pair of great teachers who explained the exciting things they were doing with CPS systems in conjunction with activities and assessments that worked the higher-order thinking skills, too, so I have backed down off of my soapbox on that topic.

    I agree with you that there are times that memorization of facts is important, and, if it works to get that done in a gaming environment, so be it. And I feel that the newer, deeper games can provide deeper and richer learning and curriculum enhancement if created and crafted carefully with lots of input from educators!

    However, as one who talked to my firiends all through my middle and high school classes (no surprise there, eh?), I know that know having the information literacy skills to find and validate the facts that I memorized for the tests (which I aced, and promptly forgot) is more important to me than being immersed in a multi-user virtual environment…although, with good searching and evaluation skills, i can probably ramp up my factual knowledge quickly to participate in a MUVE!

    Kathy Schrock

  4. A couple thoughts on this topic of gaming, off of the top of my head…

    In the book entitled, “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys,” Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm discuss the concept of “flow.” In studying a diverse population of middle school and high school boys, the authors speak of flow. Flow, a concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is defined as “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life, and the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Now, I have known many a youngster who sees nothing, hears nothing, feels nothing but the game in which he or she is currently involved. How many times have we heard this complaint from parents of young men who can’t see to stay away from their X Box or Playstation 2?

    Perhaps meeting these students in the context of their world isn’t so bad? You’re definitely making me rethink my views on these electronics. (I’m not rushing out today though to buy one for my six year old son. Unless of course I can get the Dance Revolution with it!)

    The second thought I have is the prohibitive cost of some of these drill and practice types of programs that are marketed to our schools. I currently know of one math facts software program that is being marketed to our school district at the hefty price of $250 for a single machine.(And a lab pack and/or a site license is not much better.) This seems to me an outrageous price to pay for a program that may or may not assist our students in acquiring mastery of their basic facts.
    An expense that I’m not sure I can adequately justify to my school’s community.

    I just wonder how that money could be used to give students opportunities to participate in real life math applications by communicating with members of the community or other schools for collaborative real life applications.

    Then, find other less expensive tools to help kids memorize and/or master basic skills needed to perform higher levels of mathematics, science, etc.

    I think we oughta be thinking about the best and most appropriate ways to be using our technological resources and funding for our kids. What is the strength of the tool? I would rather build upon the communicative and inquiry strengths of today’s technological resources and find other means to assist students in some of these “lower level” skills. But that’s just my opinion. For what it’s worth. And it may not be worth much.

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