5 Lessons Video Games Can Teach Us About Teaching

5 Lessons Video Games Can Teach Us About Teaching

Here is Robyn’s latest article from Mindsteps’ December Newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

Have you played a video game recently?  Maybe you play a little solitaire or free cell on your computer to unwind after a particularly stressful day, or you are addicted to bubble breaker and bejeweled on your mobile phone. Perhaps you were the PacMan champion in your day or you secretly rule in Guitar Hero or Halo. No matter how difficult, complex, challenging, or frustrating, there is something about video games that’s just plain addictive

Lately I have been wondering why we can’t seem to  make learning in school as addictive as video games. Why is it that students are willing to engage in complex and difficult tasks in a gaming environment but resist doing so in the classroom?  Why is failure motivating in a video game but devastating on a test?  Why is it that learning is fun during a game but boring in class?  What’s the secret?

I don’t know that I have “cracked the code” entirely here, but I do know that if we really want to make learning more addictive and our lessons more compelling, here are five things we should learn from video games:

1. Video games integrate a variety of skills. Students don’t learn one skill and then another until they have the repertoire of skills they need.  They are asked to synthesize a range of skills and use them to solve increasingly more complex problems.  School on the other hand teaches discrete skills and tests students on how well they have mastered an individual skill or small group of skills.  Rarely are students asked to synthesize their skills to solve problems.  If we want lessons that are more compelling, we have to stop focussing on merely teaching discrete skills and give students a opportunities to integrate and synthesize what they learn.

2.  Video games allow students to solve challenging and complex problems immediately. You learn how to play the video game by playing the game.  There is no passive sitting on the sidelines while you watch an expert perform.  In the game, you jump right in.  Gamers have to develop hypotheses for the best way to solve problems according to the game’s logic and rules and they have to test these hypotheses and develop new ones within the game space.  They don’t have to wait until they happen upon the right answer before they can play.  It is the act of playing that allows them to learn how to solve problems effectively.  All too often, the exact opposite happens in the classroom where students are asked to get good at something before they are allowed to do it.  Students might become more actively involved, more invested in their own learning, and develop better problem-solving skills that were transferable to other situations if they were allowed to develop and test their own hypotheses as they learned.

3.  Video Games allow customization. Players can create their own avatars, choose the attributes of their characters, and in some cases build their own environment.  They can decide where they want to go in the game space and how they want the game to proceed.  They can make decisions on how to play the game that are best for them within the parameters of the game.  All of these these choices mean that each person’s experience playing the game is unique.  In school, students are rarely offered the chance to make meaningful choices that influence how they will learn.  If we really want students to take ownership over their own learning, then we have to give them a sense of agency and shared control.  We have to structure the learning environment so that they can customize it to meet their own needs.

4.  Video games do an excellent job at scaffolding. Players can play a game before they are good at the game.  They don’t have to wait and practice drills and demonstrate competence before they begin playing.  They are thrown right in and learn the game as they are playing it.  When they get stuck, they can access the supports that are built right into the game or ask other, more experienced players. The more they play, the better they get.  Video games also have different levels and each level presents a challenge that is just beyond the skill of the player. At each level, players learn how to solve problems until they can do so routinely and automatically. As players get better at one level, they proceed to a new level with a new set of challenges that require them to integrate their old skills with new ones to reach a new and deeper level of mastery.  This cycle of repetition and new challenge helps players develop expertise rather quickly.  In school, the opposite often happens where struggling students have to languish at lower levels until they demonstrate competence.  School would be much more engaging for struggling students if they received the supports they needed during the learning process, in real time so that they could keep up with what was happening in the classroom and progress to the next level of learning.

5.  Finally, video games make failure motivating.  Learning a new game can be tough, but each time a player fails the player learns something that he can use to make his performance better next time.  Video games keep the play just outside of a player’s level of competence so that while they are challenging, they are also doable.  Video games take the stigma and sting out of failure.  Failure is an integral part of the learning process and everyone expects to fail several times before they succeed.  Each time you fail in a video game, you get immediate feedback that shows you how to learn from your failure and do things better the next round. Failure becomes just another event in the learning process rather than an evaluation of your learning process.  In school however, failure is not a part of a learning process; it is a signal that the learning process has gone wrong somehow.  Students don’t routinely get the opportunity to learn from their failures and try again in school.  While they often get feedback that tells them that they have failed, they don’t get immediate feedback from their failure that shows them how to do better next time.  In school, failure is not a natural part of the learning process; it is something to be avoided at all costs. Thus video games encourage risk taking in ways that school does not.

For ways to make your lessons as compelling as video games, check out the December TIP Sheet -Robyn R. Jackson

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  • Edward J. McGrath says:

    Another great newsletter!  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Steve Sassaman of Performance Learning Systems (if not, here’s some info:  http://www.plsweb.com/professional_development/workshops_keynotes/sassaman_s/)

    Steve was a consultant with out district with the new teacher mentoring program, and he used to talk about how video games create a continuum from boredom to frustration:

     Boredom          comfort zone            challenge zone                  frustration

     The really successful games (according to Steve) move the player back and forth between comfort and challenge.  The ones that don’t sell either spend too much of their time in the boredom zone (what’s the point of playing if you can’t lose?) or too much time in the frustration zone (what’s the point of playing if you can’t win?)

    How many of our schools fit this same paradigm?  This is what I thought of when I read this month’s installment!  I think you fleshed this out much more.

  • Frederika says:

    O.K.  How about someone developing video games that actually could be used in a classroom to teach or reinforce various concepts in math or science?  Games that could be played by an individual or a small grouop or by the class as a whole?  Games that are as engaging and stimulating as the best-selling popular games on the market.  I am not a gamer, but the possibilities must be there. 

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