Technology in School

Games, Standards, and Assessment: Staying out of the Toxic Mess

By James Paul Gee     Aug 20, 2013

Games, Standards, and Assessment: Staying out of the Toxic Mess

In many of our schools today thereis a very tight fit among standards, testing and punitive accountability forteachers and schools. This has turnedout to be a toxic mess leading to cheating and teaching to tests of largelyrote knowledge (Kohn 2000).

Recently two new panaceas have beendiscussed for our current assessment mess. First is Common Core Standards, which promise better standards thatmight be testable at least in part by performance factors. The other is video games and other digitalplatforms as Big Data assessment platforms. 

Video games can, I believe, give usnew and better ideas about how standards and assessment can and should work inschools and society. Nonetheless, theycan also be used as a platform for “Big Data” collection and deliver “drop outof the sky” tests to which we can teach and on which we can cheat.

There is real potential here, bothfor good and for another toxic mess, especially if punitive accountability andhigh levels of inequality (among people and schools) remain in place. Indeed, if we want to standardize atscale both assessment and testing, then the temptation will always be to teachand assess the commodified knowledge of facts, information and formulas, notinnovation, collaboration and genuine problem solving skills. It is just easier.

And that is the problem. In video games and in most of the world todaystandards are not standardized. In anyacademic field, no one writes down the standards. Rather, standards emerge indigenously throughpractice as paradigms emerge of what people in the field accept as “good work”. Others in the field seek to emulate andsometimes surpass these paradigms (Gee 2010). Paradigms change as knowledge advances and we move the goalposts. Good work is never meant to be a roteimitation, but always to put some innovative spin on the “standards” as theyare incorporated into paradigms of good work based on shared (but contestable)values.

Standards work the same way in videogames. No one reads the ten standardsfor being a good Halo player. Rather, a player looks at videos of what istaken to be good play, discusses play with others at various levels ofexpertise inside and outside the game and is normed during and after play byfellow players. Standards here are amatter of paradigm examples of good play (some of which are shown and contestedon the Internet these days) and of becoming a participating member of alearning community. This learningcommunity shares, contests and sometimes changes the standards as people movethe goalposts forward through innovation and knowledge building.

Standards--and judgments about howthey are being met--are indigenous to practice and participation. They are understood from the inside andinternalized, not applied top down from above. They vary among different groups seeking different forms of excellencein a market of ideas, just as they do in science.

In games at their best, as realplayers play them, learning and assessment mean different things than they doin public policy discussions of our schools (Gee & Shaffer 2010). In a game, assessment and learning arecompletely integrated. It is hard totell them apart. We players are alwaysgetting feedback and not allowed to move on to the next level until we havemastered the last one.

Finishing a well-designed andchallenging game is the test itself. You don’t need another test. No one gives someone who has finished Halo on the hard difficulty level a Halo test after they have won thegame. The game is well designed so thatyou cannot finish it without knowing how to play it (which means knowing how tosolve problems in the game). If wedesign algebra classes as well, we would need no tests. But note, too, that in good games and in goodschools, language, facts and formulas are used as tools to solve problems, notas lists to be remembered for no apparent reason.

Games collect lots of data to whichplayers can sometimes have access (Halois an example here as well). In terms ofthis data, assessment is based on multiple variables across long hours of playin comparison to a great many other players, which includes data about growth,development and different trajectories toward mastery. However, in the end,the data does not judge or evaluate players. What makes players “good” is ajudgment from a group of people whose values, practices and paradigms theplayer has come to accept and wants to join.

Unlike so much of the rest of oursociety today, games are not “winner take all” phenomena leading to greater andgreater inequality. They can’t be. We players needs others so we havesomething to belong to. 

In gaming, failure is courted as alearning tool. The cost of failure islowered so that innovation, exploration and trying new styles of play andlearning are encouraged. Games andgaming are devoted to making better players and better games. Schools should be devoted to making betterpeople and better societies (Gee 2013).

We can use games to make a new toxicmess if we use them merely as a shiny new delivery device for old, bad ideasabout teachers, testing and learning. Just like books, games are a technology that can be used for good orill. Textbooks are the least goodeducational tool ever made (VanLehn et al. 2007) because they seek to be aone-size-fits-all, standardized, single system, stand-alone delivery platformfor facts fit mostly for testing. Gamesshould, together with other tools and with good teaching, deliver customizedand collaborative problem solving for a complex, high-risk and fast-changingglobal world.

References

Gee,J. P. (2010).  New digital media and learning as an emerging area and "workedexamples" as one way forward. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gee,J. P. (2013).  The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digitallearning.  New York:Palgrave/Macmillan.

Gee,J. P. & Shaffer, D. W. (2010).  Lookingwhere the light is bad: Video games and the future of assessment.  EDge(Phi Delta Kappa International) 6.1: 2-19.

Kohn,A. (2000).  The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining theschools.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Partanen,A. (2011).  What Americans keep ignoring about Finland’s school successThe Atlantic.

VanLehn, K., Graesser, A. C., Jackson, G. T.,Jordan, P., Olney, A., & Rose, C. P. (2007). When are tutorial dialoguesmore effective than reading? Cognitive Science, 31, 3-62.

Technology in School

Games, Standards, and Assessment: Staying out of the Toxic Mess

By James Paul Gee     Aug 20, 2013

Games, Standards, and Assessment: Staying out of the Toxic Mess

In many of our schools today thereis a very tight fit among standards, testing and punitive accountability forteachers and schools. This has turnedout to be a toxic mess leading to cheating and teaching to tests of largelyrote knowledge (Kohn 2000).

Recently two new panaceas have beendiscussed for our current assessment mess. First is Common Core Standards, which promise better standards thatmight be testable at least in part by performance factors. The other is video games and other digitalplatforms as Big Data assessment platforms. 

Video games can, I believe, give usnew and better ideas about how standards and assessment can and should work inschools and society. Nonetheless, theycan also be used as a platform for “Big Data” collection and deliver “drop outof the sky” tests to which we can teach and on which we can cheat.

There is real potential here, bothfor good and for another toxic mess, especially if punitive accountability andhigh levels of inequality (among people and schools) remain in place. Indeed, if we want to standardize atscale both assessment and testing, then the temptation will always be to teachand assess the commodified knowledge of facts, information and formulas, notinnovation, collaboration and genuine problem solving skills. It is just easier.

And that is the problem. In video games and in most of the world todaystandards are not standardized. In anyacademic field, no one writes down the standards. Rather, standards emerge indigenously throughpractice as paradigms emerge of what people in the field accept as “good work”. Others in the field seek to emulate andsometimes surpass these paradigms (Gee 2010). Paradigms change as knowledge advances and we move the goalposts. Good work is never meant to be a roteimitation, but always to put some innovative spin on the “standards” as theyare incorporated into paradigms of good work based on shared (but contestable)values.

Standards work the same way in videogames. No one reads the ten standardsfor being a good Halo player. Rather, a player looks at videos of what istaken to be good play, discusses play with others at various levels ofexpertise inside and outside the game and is normed during and after play byfellow players. Standards here are amatter of paradigm examples of good play (some of which are shown and contestedon the Internet these days) and of becoming a participating member of alearning community. This learningcommunity shares, contests and sometimes changes the standards as people movethe goalposts forward through innovation and knowledge building.

Standards--and judgments about howthey are being met--are indigenous to practice and participation. They are understood from the inside andinternalized, not applied top down from above. They vary among different groups seeking different forms of excellencein a market of ideas, just as they do in science.

In games at their best, as realplayers play them, learning and assessment mean different things than they doin public policy discussions of our schools (Gee & Shaffer 2010). In a game, assessment and learning arecompletely integrated. It is hard totell them apart. We players are alwaysgetting feedback and not allowed to move on to the next level until we havemastered the last one.

Finishing a well-designed andchallenging game is the test itself. You don’t need another test. No one gives someone who has finished Halo on the hard difficulty level a Halo test after they have won thegame. The game is well designed so thatyou cannot finish it without knowing how to play it (which means knowing how tosolve problems in the game). If wedesign algebra classes as well, we would need no tests. But note, too, that in good games and in goodschools, language, facts and formulas are used as tools to solve problems, notas lists to be remembered for no apparent reason.

Games collect lots of data to whichplayers can sometimes have access (Halois an example here as well). In terms ofthis data, assessment is based on multiple variables across long hours of playin comparison to a great many other players, which includes data about growth,development and different trajectories toward mastery. However, in the end,the data does not judge or evaluate players. What makes players “good” is ajudgment from a group of people whose values, practices and paradigms theplayer has come to accept and wants to join.

Unlike so much of the rest of oursociety today, games are not “winner take all” phenomena leading to greater andgreater inequality. They can’t be. We players needs others so we havesomething to belong to. 

In gaming, failure is courted as alearning tool. The cost of failure islowered so that innovation, exploration and trying new styles of play andlearning are encouraged. Games andgaming are devoted to making better players and better games. Schools should be devoted to making betterpeople and better societies (Gee 2013).

We can use games to make a new toxicmess if we use them merely as a shiny new delivery device for old, bad ideasabout teachers, testing and learning. Just like books, games are a technology that can be used for good orill. Textbooks are the least goodeducational tool ever made (VanLehn et al. 2007) because they seek to be aone-size-fits-all, standardized, single system, stand-alone delivery platformfor facts fit mostly for testing. Gamesshould, together with other tools and with good teaching, deliver customizedand collaborative problem solving for a complex, high-risk and fast-changingglobal world.

References

Gee,J. P. (2010).  New digital media and learning as an emerging area and "workedexamples" as one way forward. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gee,J. P. (2013).  The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digitallearning.  New York:Palgrave/Macmillan.

Gee,J. P. & Shaffer, D. W. (2010).  Lookingwhere the light is bad: Video games and the future of assessment.  EDge(Phi Delta Kappa International) 6.1: 2-19.

Kohn,A. (2000).  The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining theschools.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Partanen,A. (2011).  What Americans keep ignoring about Finland’s school successThe Atlantic.

VanLehn, K., Graesser, A. C., Jackson, G. T.,Jordan, P., Olney, A., & Rose, C. P. (2007). When are tutorial dialoguesmore effective than reading? Cognitive Science, 31, 3-62.

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