Friday, October 29, 2010

What video games can teach us about learning

This is my first post and I want to start it with the Town Crier Column. I am hoping that we can begin a conversation about learning and teaching based on the thoughts I expressed

Although our work at the Caine Learning Center is primarily with adult educators, we always have parents ask us how their children can do better in school.

Most recently a parent came to me hoping that I could help their son do better in his courses. His grades were low and his teachers were basically saying their son lacked focus and could not concentrate on schoolwork. Like most U.S. teens these days, this student spent hours playing video games, watching T.V., and playing DVD’s .

In this particular case our student was in a class “learning” about the Westward movement. I asked him what he was doing in class. He told me that they read their textbook and kept a journal of their readings. The journal was written in their own words.

I asked him if he had heard of the Louis and Clark expedition and he “sort of” remembered the names.

Knowing what we know about learning we asked him if he had ever been in a canoe filled with supplies and knew how such a canoe would react to a storm or freezing weather. He mouthed the words “no . . .” and his eyes became alert. I asked other questions like “Had he ever spent a night in the wilderness?” and “Do you have any questions about how you would survive if you had to do that?” “Where would he get food once supplies ran out? “ And I invited him to ask questions that surfaced for him when he thought about the West and the Indians. “What did Louis and Clark do when they got sick?” I also asked him if he would like to find out.

His eyes became larger and he was totally alert. This had the makings of a video game where challenges are everywhere and players have to resolve problems under pressure and master new skills in order to survive under tough circumstances.

Although many parents are leery of video games (I agree on the nature of the content) our own knowledge of learning gleaned from brain research and cognitive science tells us that video designers know a great deal about how to engage kids in life like learning situations that “teach”. And in the course of “playing” their games, students have the opportunity to master all kinds of things such as the names of characters, critical information about the nature of the game, basic rules, as well as how to cooperate with others, make critical decisions, keep their “cool”, and concentrate for long periods at a time.

So I have many questions when it comes to today’s schools and education. Mine goes something like this: How “real” is learning in school?

On the one hand we all have to learn how to write and spell for example, but I ask myself, how might these be learned better? If we take a lesson from video games and brain research, then the first thing that we understand is that kids need to be involved in something that matters to them. Taking spelling tests or writing sentences and paragraphs according to a formula directed by an adult agenda often lacks meaning for them. They just don’t care enough and have to be forced or coerced.

Would students learn these things faster if there were an opportunity to solve a problem they cared about? What if they had an opportunity to volunteer to write an article for the “Town Crier” or to design an ad for their aunt’s restaurant? Both of these would provide challenges that mattered if they themselves decided to do this and both situations would provide them with feedback on their spelling and grammar. Doing something “real” requires pretty high standards. Neither their aunt, nor the “Town Crier” would accept something spelled incorrectly or that lacked good sentence structure. Writing something that has real consequences and is meaningful to the student results in “feedback” that is pretty instant and real.

I have also watched discipline issues disappear when students are working on something they care about. We all learn better when we are interested in solving a problem that matters to us. And inevitably we work harder and longer.

Let her know what your thoughts are.


  1. I agree that we need to teach our children using all we know about brain science and with all the technological tools available to us.

    Most of us remember that one "great teacher" from our school days. That teacher was engaging and entertaining, capturing our imaginations in ways the other ordinary teachers couldn't, or wouldn't.

    Movies, TV, and video games are teaching are children very successfully. It could be that these mediums have become that one "great teacher". It's hard to imagine school being more compelling than a video game, but perhaps it could be. A worthy goal, I think.

    D. Edgar Lamp

  2. Thank you Don for your positive comments. I am looking forward to sharing ideas with readers. Renate