Search form

About The Blogger

Patrick R. Riccards's picture
For more than two decades, Patrick has worked at the intersection of education policy, research, and communications. He previously served as chief of staff to the National Reading Panel and as...
Back to Blog

There’s No Playing Around When It Comes to Class-Based Games

School has never been one of my son’s favorite activities. Even in kindergarten, he quickly determined there were other places and other things he would rather do. Then, he’d choose an afternoon of intense Lego-ing over a half-day of classroom reading and group activities.

Now in the fourth grade, he can spend hours watching videos so he can teach himself how to code to improve his experience with Minecraft. This is the same boy who will spend an hour and a half protesting the demand he spend 15 minutes on a math worksheet. A student who still hates free reading at school will now proactively read books at home about constructing his Minecraft world (after his screen time has been limited).

My son is like many learners in the information age. He has been able to channel his love for gaming into his needed academic studies. He worked on building his reading skills because the Minecraft books were written for more advanced readers. He’s more quickly picking up math concepts in class because it connects to the coding he is doing at home. His passions outside the classroom are now helping drive his work in it.

So I have to wonder why so many schools still believe in the need to have students unplug and deskill. Students in the digital age are still asked to check their technology to the door. Instead of using tablets, we look longingly at the days when our school paper still had chunks of wood floating in it. In doing so, we prepare 21st century kids for 19th century opportunities, failing to see that technology and all that comes with it is a medium for teaching, and not a replacement for instruction itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way, nor should it be. Recently, The New York Times Magazine published a fascinating piece on the power of Minecraft to teach “millions of children to master the digital world.” My son stands as exhibit A. So what can we do to ensure that teachers – those who will be entrusted with my son’s (and many, many others like him) education in future years – understand how to tap into that power and maximize the role of gaming in their instruction?

In his terrific book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, USA Today Education Writer Greg Toppo explores the success stories – and the future success stories – when it comes to gaming-based instruction. We also see it in the work of groups like Institute of Play, a not-for-profit committed to transforming curriculum, teaching, and learning around the game. So we know it is possible.

We see it in important initiatives such as iCivics, where Supreme Court Justice Emeritus Sandra Day O’Connor has led a national movement to use gaming to teach civics, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where simulations are demonstrating how role-playing games can bring the legislative process to life for kids. So we know it is actually happening and is happening across the nation.

Each of these is a strong example of what is possible, and there are many more like them. But they also bring resistance from educators who don’t necessarily see how they can bring gaming into their classrooms (or may be worried about their ability to do so in a strong and meaningful way).

To answer such concerns, there are now programs like the Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowships, designed specifically to teach teachers how to develop meaningful game for their classrooms and kids, with no coding experience required.

Classroom instruction has evolved a tremendous amount in a relatively short period of time. Educators today clearly recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to educate 21st century kids. As we learn more and more about how the human brain processes information, we knew more and more that kids learn in different ways, and instruction has to be tailored to address the learner.

Game-based instruction can be a strong approach to such tailored instruction. While delivering content in new and interesting ways – ways that today’s learners can relate to – it also teaches those 21st century skills we know our kids need to develop.

To do so, we need educators who both understand gaming and know how to put it to use in classes like theirs, with kids like theirs. We can’t just tell teachers to just game. From iCivics to HistoryQuest, we see that gaming only becomes a strong instructional tool when the teacher knows how to use it, to adjust it, and even to create it based on the real-time needs of the kids.

We shouldn’t play around when to game-based instruction. From pre-service teacher preparation to professional development to curriculum development to actual instruction, gaming needs to be a key component from the start.