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Rethinking the Role of Games and Education

Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand for the past six months, there has been a craze taking the world by storm. That craze is the video game, Fortnite. The cartoonish game that has 100 players jumping out of a wheel-clamped flying bus propelled by a hot-air balloon. The game that requires you to skydive down on to a map where it then becomes a case of last-man standing- a 20-minute quest for the player who can outlast their opponents while gathering resources for survival.

Whether you love it or hate it, Fortnite has been controversial – arguments over the violence (unlike other video games, there is no blood and guts) and questions around it’s addictive nature, feature readily on social media. I’m sure many of you reading this are probably wishing the game would disappear forever. As a teacher, witnessing kids doing the ‘Fortnite dances’, as they are referred to in my house, is becoming as common as roll call.

So, it got me thinking about whether we need to re-examine the role that games play in educating children in the digitally-enhanced 21st century. Young children have always learnt by playing. Granted, there was no Battle Bus back in 1875 but the reality is kids and play-based learning have been part of the education system for centuries. As a father of four young children, I have witnessed the Early Years curriculum (in particular, the C & K Building waterfalls framework) unfold in front of me as my kids have gone through Kindy and into Prep this year, where there is still allocated time for kids to “play”. This framework and philosophy is both and adaptive and contemporary and, according to their own words, ‘provides a powerful provocation and is a reminder of the capabilities of children, including their strength, optimism, courage and spontaneity’ (C&K, 2017).

If we are to be contemporary in our practice, as children move on from Early Years education into the Middle and Senior phases of schooling, then surely as educators (and dare I say it, as parents) we must be adaptive in our attitudes towards games and play and understand that the very definition of these words change as children get older.

Gamification’ is a term that has been around for a few years now and is a pedagogy that many educators may not realise they are participating in. In an article published by the Stanford News in 2013, it is argued that ‘the system of points, badges, rewards and leader boards featured in most massively multiplayer online (MMO) games can be replicated in an educational context to account for people’s different motivations and needs for interaction or self-expression’. In other words, gamification allows students from diverse backgrounds and experiences an opportunity to be involved in the positive learning environment of the classroom.

A walk around many of the classrooms here at ATC will highlight how successful incorporating games into the learning environment has been and will continue to be. Students are engaged and participating in kahoots, challenging their own abilities and taking risks with their answers. The uptake and recent results from the Education Perfect Maths World Championship was outstanding. ATC finished 43rd overall Globally out of 1454 schools. An amazing result. What is more staggering, is the number of hours spent answering questions, competing with other students and earning points- the backbone of gamification.

In just 7 days, ATC students in the Middle School answered over 144,000 questions. They spent 253 hours of time answering questions. Extraordinarily, this is the equivalent of 50 school days (more than a term) answering, competing, earning points and learning in one week. And did I mention this was just maths?

So, what do games help students learn?

According to research by Constance Steinkuehler, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, there is evidence that boys read above their year level if the text is part of online games. Her research found that if boys could choose what they read, which they can do with online games, they were more likely to extend themselves. I’m not suggesting to anyone reading this that the best thing to do to get your son to become a better reader is to throw him in front of the PlayStation, but it goes back to the question first posed in this piece- do we need to rethink the role of games in education and is there a place for it?

Research published recently in the journal npj Science of Learning suggests that a certain type of video game can play a role in the development of empathy and perspective taking, which both educators and parents, would agree is a skill that we would like to see more of among our young people. Being able to see something from another person’s perspective allows for intelligent and reasoned conversation while building a culture of connectedness and trust- the foundations of a successful society.

I think we’re all impressed by how stupid humans are. It reaches almost epic proportions. We’re stupid in dozens and dozens of ways. But human minds are plug-and-play devices; they’re not meant to be used alone. They’re meant to be used in networks.’

This quote from James Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University, goes on to say that games allows students to work in these networks and use what Gee (2013) refers to as ‘collective intelligence’ or the notion that ‘collectively, we’re not so stupid.’ And this, ladies and gentlemen, brings me back to Fortnite. Taking the perceived negatives out of the equation (see first paragraph), getting your squad together, teaming up with others and playing games like Fortnite and Minecraft can have a role to play in developing some pretty handy non-cognitive skills.

Creativity, decision making, problem- solving, communication, collaboration, risk-taking, teamwork, patience, critical thinking, discipline, flexibility, adaptability and planning are just a few of the non-cognitive skills which have in the past, correlated better with long term success and outcomes than IQ scores alone .

A Crosswalk of 21st Century Skills, is a meta-analysis of six major educational frameworks carried out in 2011. The Hanover Report identified different lists of ‘critical’ 21st Century Skills which students should focus on to enhance their chances post-school whether it is in the workforce or in tertiary education. Within each framework studied, different ‘critical skills’ were identified. Of the six frameworks analysed, there were four common critical areas: collaboration and teamwork; creativity and imagination; critical thinking and problem solving. Seem familiar? All the skills are a vital component for success in an entire back-catalogue’s worth of games including Fortnite and many others that have come before it and will continue to be released in the future.

In a sign of the changing times, every government school in Victoria has been granted new Licensing agreements with Minecraft: Education Edition, making that state the largest educational body in the world to give every school under its jurisdiction access to the software for free. According to the Victorian Government website, the holistic learning opportunities that Minecraft: Education Edition can provide include:

• allowing students to negotiate and take ownership of roles and responsibilities.
• an authentic environment for teaching and learning that supports students to become good digital citizens in a realistic way.
• a great platform for cross curricular learning.

The curriculum learning opportunities in Minecraft: EE are only limited by you and your students’ imaginations. This is paper and pen, virtual Lego type learning – where you can do pretty much anything you want. Using Minecraft: EE in your class will not be that different to any normal lesson as the software does not change the core job of teachers in their classroom – to support, design and assess the explicit learning outcomes that the teacher is targeting in their classrooms.’ Stephen Elford, Digital Learning Coach and Minecraft Global Mentor.

Video games have been part of the lives of many children (and many more middle-aged men born in the 1980s and earlier) for a long period of time. While the argument for prolonged exposure to video games and the effect they have on behaviour has drawn attention over the years and is valid in some cases, in my opinion, there is more than enough room to accommodate them and the notion of ‘gamification’ into the classroom.

The key objective is finding the balance between engaging the students and complementing the quality of learning that is happening in the classroom. Using games in moderation and setting the boundaries of when, where and why they are used is critical. Intentional use should be the objective and not an easy avenue for ‘padding out’ or ‘buying time’. Educators and parents alike must set the rules of the game and not let the game set the rules.

Patrick Behan
Middle School Faculty Coordinator – STEM
behanp@atc.qld.edu.au