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    Learning Through Games... At Public School!
    By Alex "Sandy" Antunes | October 2nd 2009 10:03 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Ever play games in school?  Ever have the teacher suggest you play games?  Heck, ever had your entire middle and high school curricula be designed around games?   In a news piece titled "New York Launches Public School Curriculum on Playing Games", reporter Jeremy Hsu writes:

    Games have long played a role in classrooms, but next month marks the launch of the first U.S. public school curriculum based entirely on game-inspired learning. Select sixth graders can look forward to playing video games such as "Little Big Planet" and "Civilization," as well as non-digital games ranging from role-playing scenarios to board games and card games.

    And before we get the kneejerk response of "I can't believe they think playing video games is education!", note these people have thought this out a lot more than you might expect.

    In one sample curriculum, students create a graphic novel based on the epic Babylonian poem "Gilgamesh," record their understanding of ancient Mesopotamian culture though geographer and anthropologist journals, and play the strategic board game "Settlers of Catan." Google Earth comes into play as a tool to explore the regions of ancient Mesopotamia.
    As a long time advocate of gaming in the classroom, I can only hope this movement succeeds.  My own elementary school had games, and those were the parts that really hammered home the lessons.  They're often the only parts I remember at all-- them and creative writing.  And hey, it turns out the above curricula is also heavy on creative writing.

    Let's see, math, calculation, complex systems, creative writing, analytic reading and comprehension (them rules don't read themselves!), I can't see why a games-centered curricula can't meet or exceed current lecture-based studies.

    My only fear is, of course, the current NCLB ("No Child Left Behind") program with its emphasis on a specific series of standardized tests (e.g. the MSA, "Mass Science Achievement" tests), which tie school funding and teacher evaluations to the test scores.  This has the unfortunate effect of ensuring that the only teaching going on is 'how to take the test'.  Teach to the test, you get high test scores, keep your job, and create a bunch of students who know how to... take standardized tests.

    All the proficient teachers I know use games, minigames, and creative exercises to teach.   Usually they have to work these in and around the listed curricula.  My first introduction to the formalized (rather than per-teacher improvised) use of games in the classroom was back in the early nineties.  David Millian was at the forefront of the nascent Gaming and Education movement, and in my work with RPGnet we helped get his work onto the web.  From him, I learned this important lessons on how to deal with parents.

    If a parent had complaints about his teacher having the kdis 'playing games instead of studying', David would arrange a parent-teacher meeting as usual.  But he'd strew copies of his G&E newsletter, and the journal "Simulation&Gaming" on the table.  Being able to hold up a publication while describing what he was doing gave him authority.  Clearly it wasn't just some rogue teacher messing with kids, for there was a bonafide educator's newsletter advocating the practice!

    Going from grassroots movements to a full curricula is a welcome step.  Or put as a contrarian, of all the wacky education experiments and bizarre reforms I've seen, this is the only one I'm happy to fund as a tax-payer.

    The effort is by a group called Quest to Learn, whose mission includes "We believe that students today can and do learn in different ways, often through interaction with digital media and games".

    And given there's a little teacher in all of us, my other science blog talks about the ionosphere and How to Design a Detector.  It turns out science-technical-engineering-math (STEM) work is a lot more comprehensible when you actually build something, rather than just read.  Perhaps, if we can move away from testing and metrics and move back to hands-on learning, we just might get an education system we can be proud of.

    Alex, The Daytime Astronomer, Tues&Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday

    Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries


    Wow. It's enough to almost make me wish I were back in school. Looks like it'll be great for the students involved.

    Terrific article!

    We, too, believe in games in the classroom and host a website to promote them with research and examples from teachers, http://www.g4ed.com. Love to have articles and posts from teachers using games. We also have a Games in Education Forum at the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. Teachers can receive teaching credits (accredited in IL).

    Thank you!

    Mary Couzin


    This title needs to be translated for British readers.  It is probably well known that over here, "Public Schools" are long-establised private schools, of which Eton and Harrow are perhaps the most widely known.

    But, gentle Transatlantic reader, "Games" will fill many who have been through that system with horror.  The term refers to the organized "rugger" and cricket especially, which were put in place by headmasters such as Thomas Arnold on a principle which could be called spiritus sanus in corpore sano, a sort of Christianized version of the old Roman mens sana in corpore sano

    Alas, it did not work out so well in practice.  Many will prefer not to look back to the days when they were sent onto a muddy field an expected to take part in a ritual whose rules had not even been properly explained to them (only after acquiring "telly" did I really understand the offside rule in any kind of football.)  Moreover, it tended to produce a divide between those who were good at "Games" and those who weren't.  Even worse, since the infestation of our body politic by 60's student radicals who have failed to pupate, some of these leftover larvae have tried to abolish competitive sports altogether in our state schools.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Danna Staaf
    Really fabulous stuff! It's so encouraging to see innovative teaching like this. I note that the curriculum may include
    the evolution-inspired video game "Spore"
    and if it does, I hope the students also read Science magazine's hilarious review:
    if Spore's biology is based on any theory, then--surely, by coincidence rather than scholarly effort--it is Lamarckian evolution.
    Great Points Alex!

    It is very exciting to realize where learning is going.

    Math games for example not only support mental arithmetic but also help kids to enjoy practicing quadratic equations and trigonometry. I’m sure we all have experienced the difference when it comes to learning while you are enjoying yourself vs trying to learn in a non captivating environment...lets bring on the enjoyment!

    There is a new site that just launched called www.MangaHigh.com which has developed the most sophisticated math games yet seen on the Internet, and both students and teachers are likely to enjoy playing Pyramid Panic (geometry) and Flower Power (fractions ordering). This site is even endorsed by well-known UK mathematician Marcus du Sautoy.

    The challenge for educators has been to find games that teach academic concepts in an entertaining way. Mangahigh.com looks to have been successful in balancing these two imperatives.

    I can see that students would enjoy playing these types of games in class or as homework. Perhaps some of them might even play of their own accord?

    Young people spend sooo much time online, yet it will be great if they can spend that time playing games that are really enhancing their math or other key subjects

    Hi Ila,

    While I could argue it needs more manga-style art, anything with "Save Our Dumb Planet" as a game is a keeper:  Thanks for the link to www.MangaHigh.com!
     "Defend Earth from deadly meteorites using the planetary missile defences. A team of dumb scientists are on hand to suggest possible trajectories and trash-talk. Quickly plot your waypoints or find a new planet!"
    I'm curious to know that, since it's a subscription site, how well it competes with the free educational gaming sites out there.  Hopefully being aimed at the GCSE makes it viable, but I still wonder about pay-to-play.  Here in the US, many sites are switching to micropayments (e.g. pay for elite items) or tiers (e.g. pay to enter specific regions or servers).  I'm not sure how you'd do micropayments for sci games... though you'd make a fortune from the 'bad at math' crowd.


    There are a slew of free math games at http://www.mangahigh.com that provide HOURS of gaming (LEARNING) for any student 10-16 years old.

    Cool Site of the Day

    And with the latest announcement of the Obama administration that school years need to run longer, we better have more games for students. In my years of teaching, those kids get burnt out from the same old. There's nothing like a couple game breaks a week to keep them pumped up.

    Heck, why not make the kiddos MAKE the games like this computer game camp http://www.internaldrive.com/courses-programs/id-tech-summer-computer-camps/3d-game-design-l-for-kids-and-teens/ If our school would adopt this kind of approach, kids would be way more into their learning.

    All very good, but let's not forget NCLB's major flaw was that there was absolutely no funding.

    I was trying to load that link to the computer camp--didn't work. Do you have another link perhpas? Very interested since I taught blogging/web development to a dozen 10-15 yr olds last summer.