I have long been a believer in the value of games as educational tools. Now, I’m not referring to video games here. I’m also not referring to the gamification of traditional education. I’m speaking directly of the value of games to enhance traditional learning.
I love games. It doesn’t matter. I’m perfectly happy playing Risk, Settlers of Catan, Battlefield 3 on the X-box, Mass Effect on the PC, or whatever. There is a book written by Ian Banks called The Player of Games. The main character is a high expert at all games, not a specialist like most. I can identify with that. I’m not that good at all games, but I’m competitive at most games.
Let me talk a minute about ‘gamification’. Many of the games that kids (school age people) are used to today have levels, advancements, badges, and a variety of achievements. This is a common way of judging skill and ability (and general tenaciousness) in that game. A lot of people propose doing the same thing in classrooms and subject areas. “Congratulations Fred, you’ve earned the Balancing Equations Achievement.” “Good job Suzy, you’re now a 8th level Algebra master.” or such as that.
In concept, I think this is a good idea. But the way I think it would be most useful is also the way it would be disallowed in classrooms. I think that if students were allowed to work at their own pace, with peer tutoring, then the achievement system would be beneficial. Theoretically, a student who just isn’t understand balancing equations could look at the chart of people in the classroom and see who has earned the ‘balancing equations’ achievement and then ask them for help.
Anyone who has been in a modern classroom will tell you that this isn’t happening. There are a few, very few schools that this would work in (certainly none I’ve taught in) and few students who would use this system. The mindset of the vast majority of students is not into self-motivation and learning.
The gamification I describe would also run into some issues with privacy. “Look, stupid Bill is still on the first level. He’s so dumb.” and that’s the end of the levels and gamification in that classroom.
There are some classrooms that are using peer-tutoring successfully. I’m familiar with several programs that do work. However, most of the programs are teaching high school students how to learn. They spend 3-5 years teaching the students how to take notes, how to ask questions, how to use what is known to figure out what isn’t known. Basically, how to learn. It’s one of the great failures of our educational system, that we have to teach high school students how to learn.
Personally, I think that from about the 4th grade on, every student should have several years of critical thinking and learning skills. Right now, we’re basically sending students to college without any idea of the proper way to take notes, how to identify important information from non-important information, or even how to even figure out what they don’t know.
Now, that’s where games come in. Again, not video games. I think of same games as ‘gateway games’. These are simple, but fun games that lead players into the ‘harder’ games. Gateway games are like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Ticket to Ride is extremely simple. Every turn, each player can do one of three things; draw 2 cards, play a train, or draw tickets. The object is to connect the cities shown on the tickets with trains. The cards give you train pieces you can play. That’s the whole game. The rules encompass a whole 4 page rule book (including a cute story about why the game exists). Even my 5-year-old (wait, he’s six now, happy birthday buddy!) can play Ticket to Ride.
What the game teaches though is advanced planning. You have to plot a route through several cities. Sometimes other players block your route and you have to revise your plan. You might not get the particular train pieces you need for a route either. It really involves a lot of pre-planning and considering moves. But that skill is critically important… in other games and in life. Sometimes you don’t get that promotion or that job or that touchdown.
We just started playing Settlers of Catan with the boy. He’s learning how to add numbers, how to judge ‘prices’ for things that he wants, how to get the resources he needs for those things and trading/negotiation skills. These are also critical skills. It’s best to learn negotiation in a game, than when one is sitting in an important meeting that isn’t going one’s way.
Again, then we get into that harder games like Car Wars, Axis and Allies, and Magic: The Gathering. These games require some pretty advanced thinking and planning, including lots of math that is done in the head. “My heavy machine gun has a base chance of 6 to hit, +2 for range, +1 head on shot, +2 for obstructed, -2 for targeting computer, -1 for skill, so that’s a 8 or better to hit.” Or “OK, I’ve got 6 tanks with 3s or lower to hit, 4 infantry with 1s to hit, what are my odds of winning against 2 infantry, two tanks, and two plane with 4 or better to hit?”
While this isn’t calculating the volume of a sphere in your head, I know plenty of adults who can’t do that level of math in their head. I have seen a high school student who could not add up a meal check without a calculator. I’ve actually had a student ask me when dividing with a calculator does the big number go first or the little number. That’s not even a lack of ability to do math in one’s head, that’s fundamental misunderstanding about how math works.
Games, playing games, can correct things like that.
I don’t know if it’s because smarter people tend to be drawn to games or games tend to make people smarter, but in my experience (highly anecdotal) and some research on the subject, there seems to be a correlation between gaming and intelligence… or at least skills in math and logic.