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