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Game-Based Learning: Lessons from Nintendo

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In the late 1980s, I remember playing the original Mario Brothers for hours on end, trying desperately to save the princess. I ducked, dodged, and jumped to complete levels of increasing difficulty, all while learning something new with each new life.

Failure—or in this case dying from an annoying, little cloud-like creature throwing spikey things at me—carried no consequences. I could try as often as I wanted to, with the resolve to figure out the timing of each projectile thrown at me. In a very real sense, I eventually learned how to be successful on my own terms and at my own pace. I learned from failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Mario Brothers may be fun to play, but it has no direct educational value. Today, I’m thrilled with videogames that not only motivate and excite, but also teach. More still, I admire how game-based learning champions self-directed learning, with students progressing at their own pace. As one example, DragonBox teaches basic algebraic operations in the same way that one learns to play Mario Brothers. Here too, players gain experience and face greater challenges as they advance through the levels.

Few understand the benefits and potentials of game-based learning as well as Prof. Jordan Shapiro, a leading authority on the subject, who has written extensively about education technology for Forbes magazine.

Earlier this month, at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai, he spoke to a packed room about game-based learning—not just as instructional aids, but also as essential tools to fundamentally change how we approach and perceive education. “Imagine classrooms of students around the world intrinsically motivated to learn reading, writing, science, art, mathematics, economics and marketing not because they want a good grade, not because they want a diploma, not because they want a better job, but rather because they want to understand how things work,” he said.

Too often, students are more concerned with the grade than any meaningful and lasting learning. Much of this is our fault as educators, especially in how we demonize failure, pressuring students to master increasingly complex ideas and material in shorter and shorter intervals. Of course, all of this runs counter to how most human beings learn. Deep, lasting mastery takes time. If I were to play Mario Brothers again today, some twenty years after my last power-up, I’m sure I would still have a terrific familiarity with the controls—and save at least a few princesses. How many people can say as much about solving a calculus problem, or about explaining the importance of 1812 in our history?

To gain deeper insight into the dynamics of game-based learning, earlier this week I spoke with Shapiro, who says that game-based learning will lead the way in making failure and asynchronous learning acceptable again. “I wish I was my students’ only teacher,” he says. “I could say, ‘you’re going to write this essay all year until you get it perfect, because this is what I want to teach.’ We don’t go, ‘Oh, well, you can’t learn that. Now, move on to the next level, even though you never learned this level.’”

Along those lines, I remember begging my parents to buy me a Nintendo Game Genie, a cheating device that, among other things, allowed players to skip levels on certain games. All of this didn’t improve my skill, even as I spent days trying to defeat final levels I had no business playing. I grew increasingly frustrated, resorting once again to entering more cheating codes into the Game Genie, such as invulnerability, flight, and enhanced strength. I could only “win” by cheating.

Of course, as a teacher I have a clear no-cheating policy. I take infractions seriously, and I don’t hesitate to submit serious cases to the student honor council. Still, I understand why some students are tempted to cheat. In most cases, they feel helpless in the face of  the fast pace of a course, or the rigorous demands of an assignment. In a hyper-competitive academic environment, we have made cheating an alluring option—however risky.

In a game-based learning environment (in contrast to my Nintendo environment), this allure of cheating fades almost completely. According to Shapiro, in the near future, teachers will rely on even more advanced adaptive learning software, so advanced that it isolates precise areas of difficulties.

“Everybody doesn’t have to be on the same pacing because the computer can adjust,” Shapiro says. “Every time you fail, all it does is tell the computer, ‘Oh, we should try a different way of presenting this problem.’”

As a result, Shapiro tells me, videogames can isolate distinct learning styles to teach content faster. But there’s still one thing that they can’t do, no matter how advanced technology becomes. “What a videogame can’t do is put that content in context faster, in world context,” he says. Only teachers can accomplish this task.

All the same, Shapiro is quick to point out another important fact. “There’s a lot more happening here than just checker games,” he says, adding that the way we think about knowledge and how it’s used is shifting.

How we teach should shift as well.

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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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