Help wanted – Using online games in K-12 classrooms

Each month, Cable in the Classroom Magazine has a page called InterActive that asks educators to answer a question related to the issue’s theme. The magazine usually prints at least five answers from readers.

The magazine editors have requested my help finding contributors for the February question:

How have you used an online game to enhance your students’ classroom experience?

If you’re a K-12 teacher to whom this question applies, please . If you know a teacher who’s done this, please pass this post along. Thanks!

Not so irrelevant 012

Three great questions

I especially like the last of these three questions from Rodney Trice. We should be asking teachers and principals that question more often (and just that directly).

  • How do you intend to bring the global community into your classroom?
  • How will you prepare students for a future that is relatively unknown?
  • How you will eliminate the racial predictability of achievement outcomes in your classroom?

This just in: Teenagers play video games!

All kidding aside, the latest report from the amazing Pew Internet & American Life Project confirms that kids – even girls! – are up to their eyeballs in video games.

We’ll stick to the tried and (not) true

Nope, sorry. iPods are not allowed. Back to the old way. Too bad it doesn’t work as well. Gotta do it anyway. Oh, and I love how the music players are categorically, by definition, a ‘distraction’ (if not in actuality). Who needs reality when we have these little educational policy fantasy worlds that we can create for ourselves?

Throw da bums out!

After attempts to bring in turnaround experts didn’t work, the state of Maryland is increasingly leaning toward completely restructuring schools that are academically unsuccessful. State schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick says:

We are very comfortable being more aggressive about this. We have seen much better results [when the staff is replaced].

Blog like a farmer

I ran across an old post by Mike Sansone, one of my Iowa blogging buddies. I really like his metaphor that blogging should be like farming.


I bet parents and community members would really like to see scorecards like this one (maybe with different data) for their local schools. I know some schools and districts already do this. Hopefully they use line graphs rather than tables of numbers. Could you tell the essential story of a school district with 10 key, well-done graphs? I bet you could!

No writing in journalism class?

Check out this excellent article about the NYU journalism student who got in trouble for blogging about her class. [hat tip to Tim Stahmer]

I got no money, honey

Did you catch Edutopia’s advice on how to innovate without extra money or support?

Spend hours on content you can find with Google in 3 seconds!

One of my favorite things about Wes Fryer is his ability to highlight the ridiculous. I also enjoy his irreverance (“Behold! I hold aloft the holy words!”), particularly when I have the same experience at my kids’ school.

Speaking of Google…

Finally, I’m digging Google Chrome. it’s now my default browser and I’m using Firefox less and less (and I love Firefox). Chrome is much faster. I also like that each tab is a separate process; I have yet to have a browser hang…

Recommended reading – Educational gaming

I often get asked by administrators for some recommended reading. Here are some of my favorite books on educational gaming. If the Amazon widget doesn’t load in a few seconds, here’s a static picture of the list.

[Transparency disclosure: If you buy a book using this list, CASTLE gets 4% of the proceeds. Your cost doesn’t go up any. Amazon just pays us a little for the referral through its Associates Program.]

Video games and learning: Individualization, simulation, and complexity

[cross-posted at

In my post for LeaderTalk this
month, I’m going to quickly address three ideas related to video games,
schools, and learning and offer a short wrap-up at the end…

1. Individualization of learning

The artificial intelligence engines that drive most video games are able to
customize the learning experience for each individual player. In other words,
the game you play is different than the game I play because we have different
skills and knowledge and because we make different choices during the game. The
gaming engine adjusts to our differences, providing each of us with a learning
experience that is both unique and optimally challenging for us as individuals.
That’s a pretty powerful argument for considering the use of video games in
education. As I said in a
post long ago

Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outer
edge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but the
challenges are not so difficult that learners believe they are undoable. [Dr.
James] Gee refers to this as the regime of competence principle. Lev Vygotsky, a famous
developmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximal
– the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games are
similar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the ‘more
knowledgeable other,’ the entity that helps students bridge the gap between
their current ability and new capabilities. In education, we often call this
scaffolding – the idea that learners can progress to new skill levels
with structured, individualized, just-in-time assistance. Video games are very
adept at scaffolding participants’ learning. One of the reasons that video games
are so compelling / engaging / ‘addictive’ is that participants are continually
faced with new challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. This
motivates them to move forward because the next step is always in sight and is
perceived as being achievable.

We can foresee a day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future when all
students have laptops and teachers, rather than seeing video games as
competitors for their students’ attention, will instead have a wide variety of
powerful educational video games available to them. Teachers then will be able
to work individually with one group of students while other student groups move
forward with the help of meaningful, substantive (not simplistic drill-and-kill)
gaming software. Voila! The age-old dilemma of effective classroom
differentiation just got a huge boost of assistance!

2. Simulation of authentic experience

The sight and sound capabilities of today’s video games are increasingly
realistic. Video game designers are getting better and better at reproducing
reality through the use of sounds, images, and videos. Corporations,
governments, and the military all are using video gaming engines to produce
simulations for employee training. As I said in another
post from my gaming series
a while back:

As the educational and/or ‘serious’ games movement grows, we will begin to
see complex, realistic, accurate simulations of ancient civilizations (e.g.,
Colonial Williamsburg, the Maya, Great Zimbabwe), historical events (e.g., the
Pelopponesian War, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Long March), scientific and
mathematical processes (e.g., space exploration, Archimedean physics, Euclidean
geometry), and the like. I am looking forward to this day. Right now even the
most popular education-oriented games (e.g., Reader Rabbit, JumpStart, Oregon
Trail, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) have been notably simplistic
compared to commercial virtual worlds such as Second Life, EverQuest, and World
of Warcraft. I believe that education-oriented simulations will be much better
at stimulating deeper, richer learning than the textbooks, videos, and learning
games of today. It’s hard to argue that making authentic decisions in the role
of a pharaoh or a slave or a farmer, while immersed in the realistic sights,
sounds, and activities of ancient Egypt, wouldn’t be a better, more meaningful,
and more permanent learning experience than merely reading a few textbook pages,
seeing a few pictures, answering some “drill-and-kill” multiple choice questions
on the computer, or watching a short video on the subject.

Reframing video gaming technologies as productive simulations rather
than time-wasting games will go a long way toward fostering acceptance
among educators. Simulations have a long history of use in K-12 classrooms. What
today’s gaming technologies allow us to do is to create simulations that enable
learners to do the actual work – and make the actual decisions – of whatever
profession or society we wish (past, present, or future). This, of course, makes
them incredibly authentic learning experiences and is why their use is
skyrocketing in the professional world.

3. Intellectual complexity

Many advocates of video games in education focus on the fact that children
find them engaging. They’re fun and they take advantage of powerful learning
principles as described above. But one aspect that often gets neglected, I
believe, is the fact that most good video games are pretty complex. As The
New Yorker noted in its review
of Steven Johnson’s book, Everything
Bad Is Good For You

Most of the people who denounce video games … haven’t actually played them –
at least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or Pac-Man were
simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern recognition. Today’s games
belong to another realm. Johnson points out that one of the “walk-throughs” for
“Grand Theft Auto III” – that is, the informal guides that break down the games
and help players navigate their complexities – is fifty-three thousand words
long, about the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully
realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes – like
Monopoly or gin rummy or chess – which most of us grew up with. They don’t have
a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the
course of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we’re
not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We
think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these games
withhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sort
through hypotheses in order to make sense of the game’s environment, which is
why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines
of instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually,
Johnson writes, “all about delayed gratification – sometimes so long delayed
that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show.”

At the same time, players are required to manage a dizzying array of
information and options. The game presents the player with a series of puzzles,
and you can’t succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time.
You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and coordinate
competing interests. In denigrating the video game, Johnson argues, we have
confused it with other phenomena in teen-age life, like multitasking –
simultaneously e-mailing and listening to music and talking on the telephone and
surfing the Internet. Playing a video game is, in fact, an exercise in
“constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the tasks in the
correct sequence,” he writes. “It’s about finding order and meaning in the
world, and making decisions that help create that order.”

If you talk to gamers, they will tell you that one of the key attractions of
their video games is the complexity of their activities. Dr.
Henry Jenkins at MIT has said

The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The
worst thing a kid can say about a video game is that it’s too


When our students, nearly all of whom have grown up immersed in video game
experiences, complain about school not being interesting or engaging,
they’re not just looking to be entertained (as many teachers claim).
They’re looking for learning experiences like they have at home that are
individualized, authentic, and intellectually complex.
out how to make that happen in our K-12 classrooms is the challenge for us as
leaders as we consider what forms 21st-century learning environments need to

Productive and powerful

[cross-posted at the TechLearning

I’m in the midst of reading Clark Aldrich’s Simulations
and the Future of Learning
. As Aldrich walks me through the process of
developing a leadership simulation, he has a number of interesting things to say
about video game and simulation design. Thanks to Aldrich’s clear and engaging
prose, I’m finding myself unexpectedly captivated by the nitty-gritty of the
workflow of simulation production.

So far the statement that has resonated with me the most, however,
pertains as much to education as it does to the gaming industry. Aldrich

The goal of learning in any organization (business, educational,
governmental) should be to make its members more productive (p.

I’ll agree with that. And I probably would add to the end of that statement
… and more powerful.” I think that additional phrase takes the edge
off what might be construed as a focus solely on preparation for work and
expands it to include personal empowerment.

Productive and powerful. Isn’t that what we want
for the children in our schools? Isn’t that we want for the educators with whom
we work? Productive and powerful. I like it.

We have 50 million public school
in the United States. Are the thousands of worksheets that they
will complete in their lifetime making them more productive? Are their countless
hours of individual seat work going to lead to greater personal empowerment? Are
they getting opportunities to be both productive and powerful on a regular

What about our subpopulations? Are socioeconomically-disadvantaged students
often getting the chance to be powerful? Do our students with disabilities or
our students whose primary language is not English have multiple, ongoing
opportunities to feel like they are productive, contributing members of our

What about our 3 million public
school teachers
? Are the tens of millions of hours that they spend in staff
development and training each year actually making them more productive? Do you
think the bulk of them feel empowered by their ‘learning opportunities?’

Do we regularly ask ourselves these kinds of questions in our school
organizations? As educators, should we?

I have some hard thinking to do about my own graduate classes and degree
programs here at Iowa State

Compare and contrast – Video games as educational tools

Dr. Jim Gee notes:

If learning always operates well within the learner’s resources, then all that happens is that the learner’s behaviors get more and more routinized, as the learner continues to experience success by doing the same things. This is good … for learning and practicing fluent and masterful performance … but is not good for developing newer and higher skills. However, if learning operates outside one’s resources, the learner is simply frustrated and gives up.

Good video games … build in many opportunities for learners to operate at the outer edge of their regime of competence, thereby causing them to rethink their routinized mastery and move, within the game and themselves, to a new level. Indeed, for many learners it is these times … when learning is most exciting and rewarding. Sadly in school, many so-called advantaged learners rarely get to operate at the edge of their regime of competence as they coast along in a curriculum that makes few real demands on them. At the same time, less advantaged learners are repeatedly asked to operate outside their regime of competence.

[Video games] build into their designs and encourage good principles of learning … that are better than those in many of our skill-and-drill, back-to-basics, test-them-until-they-drop schools.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [pp. 70, 205]

In contrast, here are current teachers’ beliefs (click on graph for full report):

Thoughts on Gaming Block Grid

Violent video games as exemplary teachers of aggression

Iowa State University researcher Dr. Doug Gentile studied 2,500
children and adolescents and found that violent video games do indeed foster
hostile actions and aggressive behaviors. Here’s the money quote:

We know a lot about how to be an effective teacher, and we know a lot
about how to use technology to teach. Video games use many of these techniques
and are highly effective teachers. So we shouldn’t be surprised that violent
video games can teach aggression.

Get the full
story at the ISU News Service

Game mods for the elementary crowd

Many gaming-savvy teenagers and adults create modifications, or mods, of the video games that they play. By doing this, they transcend from mere players into virtual world creators. Conceptualizing, designing, building, testing, revising – these are all complex cognitive skills that go far beyond the relatively simplistic skills required by many educational software programs.

So I was delighted to see my 2nd-grade son and 4th-grade daughter breathlessly rush up to me today to show me the levels that they created for their newest Nintendo DS game, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis. At ages 7 and 9, they’re already engaging in complex world creation on their little Nintendo just like they can with SimCity, The Sims, Zoo Tycoon, and RollerCoaster Tycoon. Best of all, they are finding that creating new worlds may be more fun than just playing the game.

Elementary kids as world builders. Very cool…

[image credit:]