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How can the use of digital games in the classroom support children and young people’s learning?

As increasing numbers of 8-18-year-olds participate in gaming, so has interest in the identification and harnessing of its potential to support learning in schools. EDLounge takes a look at the key findings.

Digital natives

There’s no getting away from it – computers and consoles are a central part of pupils’ lives. Today’s young people have been described as ‘digital natives’, a phrase popularised by game-based learning guru, Marc Prensky.

Since their culture is embedded with technology, young people are happy to assimilate information at high speed and they thrive on regular rewards and instant gratification. Conversely, Prensky describes educators as ‘digital immigrants’ who’ve had to learn and adapt to this new technological language and environment.

National Curriculum

Developments in digital technology (especially mobile technologies) have thrust game-based learning debates into the limelight and helped to shape attitudes towards the use of technology within schools.

The re-launch of ‘ICT’ as the ‘Computing’ curriculum from 2014 has seen the embedding of gaming right across the curriculum. Indeed, a key purpose of the new computing programmes of study is to ensure that young people become “active participants in a digital world.” (Incidentally, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) argued for a subject name of “Computing and Communications Systems” since computers generally need communications systems to connect to the user or other remote systems, like the internet).

Educational value

Whilst detractors might argue that the ‘gamification’ of particular tasks (i.e. to incentivise them with rewards) can inhibit cognitive development and only offers the chance to foster ‘mindless’ hand-eye co-ordination skills, advocates can glean an impressive list of perceived educational benefits from the games-based learning literature, including:

  • Intrinsic motivation through progressive difficulty levels and unpredictability
  • Reinforcement and consolidation of knowledge through practice and reward
  • Immediate and constructive feedback
  • Safe environment in which pupils can be allowed to ‘fail’ and take risks
  • Self-esteem, self-determination and positive self-image are cultivated
  • Learners can work together to achieve clear but demanding goals
  • Teamwork and collaborative learning is facilitated, thereby providing a social element
  • Encourages lateral thinking and to periodically re-assess goals
  • Often customisable in some way to complement learning and playing styles
  • Games implicitly develop learners’ ability to observe, question, test and problem-solve

According to Education Scotland, “Computer games encourage self-reliance and self-determination in terms of a learner’s ability to make progress within a demanding but incrementally staged environment. They also help them to appreciate that the skills necessary for success in games, such as problem solving and critical thinking, can have relevance in other curricular areas and other social contexts such as study or work. They also create an implicit and explicit understanding that as a learner on our own we can be good but as a learner in a connected team we can be much better.”

Independent review

Helpfully, not-for-profit think tank, Futurelab, and the National Foundation for Education Research (NfER) have analysed the evidence (i.e. papers published since 2006 – most conducted in secondary schools) around game-based learning and its potential impact on learning and teaching. ‘Game-based learning: Latest evidence and future directions’ (April 2013) finds that the studies consistently concluded that video games can impact positively on problem solving skills, engagement and motivation.

However, the NfER notes that “researchers found it was unclear whether this impact could be sustained over time. The literature was split on the extent to which video games can impact upon overall academic performance.” In other words, whilst there is theoretical support for the benefits of games in learning, there is mixed empirical support.

The review also offers advice on integrating gaming into lessons, and recommendations for senior leaders keen to support their schools’ application of game-based learning in the classroom.

Futurelab’s 2010 review, ‘The impact of console games in the classroom: Evidence from schools in Scotland’ identified the educational benefits of game-based learning in schools. It concluded: “What is notable about using games for learning is the potential they have for allowing many children to bring their existing interests, skills and knowledge into the classroom and then use games as a hook or stimulus to build the activities for learning around them.”)

Your views

Is gaming an asset in schools? Does game-based learning raise questions about what we consider to be a ‘worthwhile’ educational pursuit? Should the digital habits of pupils be utilised within formal learning?

Share your views below.