Game-Based Learning Is Changing How We Teach. Here's Why.

Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning Is Changing How We Teach. Here's Why.

from Minecraft Education

By Kelli Anderson     Feb 4, 2019

Game-Based Learning Is Changing How We Teach. Here's Why.

This article is part of the collection: Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.

Dan White, the co-founder and CEO of Filament Games, an educational video game developer based in Madison, WI, knows from personal experience that kids can get a lot more out of video games than entertainment, sharpened reflexes and enviable manual dexterity. Back in the '90s he was a devotee of Civilization, a game where players run an empire from the dawn of time to the Space Age. “Along that timeline you make all sorts of interesting strategic decisions about your empire,” says White. “Now I run a 40-person ‘empire’ at Filament. I have to do a lot of the same strategic thinking that I enjoyed doing in that game.”

EdSurge recently caught up with White to talk about how game-based learning (GBL) can help children develop the skills that will be essential in their future jobs, and how Minecraft, specifically, has influenced classroom education and the learning game industry. He also ponders whether games can both teach and measure 21st-century skills, considers the barriers to a broader use of GBL in schools and discusses the not-so-mysterious motivational power of Pokemon.

EdSurge: First things first. Why is game-based learning so relevant for students today?

Dan White: I recently saw an EdSurge Q&A where the former chief of Google China was quoted saying that within 15 years, nearly 50 percent of jobs in the U.S. will be done by machines with artificial intelligence. So it is going to be essential for students to have skills that are unique to the human brain. You often hear these skills—such as collaboration, problem solving, communication and critical thinking—referred to as higher-order thinking skills or 21st-century skills or future-ready skills. The exciting thing about game-based learning is that students are practicing these types of skills all the time when they play games. Even a game like Candy Crush is hitting some of these skills. And the more complex and challenging a game is, the more skills it’s going to hit.

What do these skills look like within an actual game?

Let’s say you are trying to teach your students about how stellar systems work. How do eclipses happen and why are there seasons? How does the earth move around the sun?

If you are teaching with Minecraft, for example, you can have students build their own models and come up with theories based on their understanding of how stellar systems work. Then they can have conversations about those models within the game space, and students can learn from each other. It matters less if they get the model right or wrong. What's important is that they are developing problem solving and communication skills as they try to represent their thinking in an immersive, three-dimensional space. That’s really powerful.

Teachers can create almost any type of experience they want in Minecraft because it is such a malleable space.

This may seem like an obvious question, but why do games engage kids more than traditional teaching methods that emphasize content?

Not for the reasons people usually point to, which are high-production value graphics and reward systems. Neither has much lasting engagement value. One big thing that does is agency—this idea that the player gets to make decisions. People love feeling empowered to make decisions; kids, especially, don’t get many opportunities to be in charge.

Having to master the system is another thing that hooks people. Take a classic game like chess: you can play it your entire life and never perfect it. A third reason is the opportunity to experiment with different identities in a safe environment where failure doesn’t matter. Instead of being a 12-year-old in Brooklyn, you get to be an astronaut or somebody who has abilities and masteries that are far beyond what you actually possess. And that’s particularly compelling for learning games because you can put students in roles that they would otherwise never be able to inhabit. And they can try on those roles and see what it feels like.

You hear people say, “I’m no good at math” or “I’m no good at science.” But you rarely hear someone say, “I’m no good at this game.” It’s usually, “This game is hard. I need to try again until I win.” Games encourage a growth mindset.

So, are there collateral effects where kids are motivated to read, write, learn math—so they get better at the game?

Absolutely. Linguistics expert Jim Gee used to talk about how the Pokemon card game was an extremely effective tool for helping kids get past the so-called fourth-grade slump, which is when many students begin to struggle with advanced reading challenges and testing. He said students want so badly to get good at Pokemon that they will figure out how to read text that is far above their reading level—just so that they can figure out what abilities their game characters have. That’s really the beauty of a system that creates compelling mastery goals. Students will go to great lengths to get good at the system.

How widespread are learning games in America’s classrooms right now?

A lot of people who say they are using games are basically using quiz games. If the question is how many are using true game-based learning with problems spaces—frameworks for defining a problem and finding a solution—I’d say probably 10 percent or less of teachers use those games.

The thing that’s unique about Minecraft is that it was a runaway success on the consumer side first, and you sort of had this critical mass of people outside of school who were talking about it 24/7. It got to the point where the education community had to go, 'Wow, this platform really resonates with the people we are trying to reach. So why don’t we try to use it as a vehicle to reach them?'

Want to give Minecraft a whirl in your classroom? Try Minecraft: Education Edition for free!

What are the barriers to getting true game-based learning into the classroom?

My perspective is that most of it comes back to time and curriculum. In the education community, we pay lip service to 21st-century skills, but they aren’t really on the high-stakes test at the end of the semester. Now if the test changed and you saw an emphasis on those skills—and if you could demonstrate that games were a more effective way to teach them than a lecture or a reading—then I think you’d see the adoption skyrocket. But it’s very hard to create tests that measure 21st-century skills.

There are a lot of people, myself included, who believe games can be used both to teach and measure those skills. Most game spaces are by design complex problem spaces. The game is collecting all the data you need based on the player’s input. If you know what to look for, you can see whether a player is getting better at a skill vs. not. I think there is a ton of promise that is still yet to be fully understood.

You’ve said that Minecraft has had a big influence on the learning-game industry. How so?

The most obvious takeaway for the learning game community is that one path to get a learning game adopted in schools is to first be really successful on the consumer side; but that’s not exactly the path of least resistance. Minecraft made the learning game community think about how it can leverage what’s already popular and interesting to kids outside of school in order to create more quality opportunities for learning inside of school. And it’s been really cool to see how teachers use Minecraft, given that it is a totally open-ended sandbox space where students A, B and C are going to have completely different experiences. For the learning game community, the platform has been a very positive thing; it has introduced a lot of teachers to this genre of play and made the education community more receptive to it. Without Minecraft, that might have taken longer and been more difficult.

Filament is right now working on a robotics game, where students in this sandbox space can build pretty much any robot they can imagine to solve specific challenges. It will be really interesting to see how receptive teachers are, because we’ve never created a sandbox style game like this specifically for the classroom. Because Minecraft broke a lot of ice, my hope is that this idea will be less foreign to that community than it might have otherwise been.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up