Playing It Smart: How and Why Game-Based Learning Delivers Academic Results

District Administration, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Playing It Smart: How and Why Game-Based Learning Delivers Academic Results


From testing problem-solving skills in the survivalist block-building adventure Minecraft to reinforcing science concepts in SimCityEDU, educators are integrating games in the classroom at an increasingly rapid rate. Game-Based Learning occurs when students play a game with defined learning outcomes.

In this special section, District Administration analyzes exactly what qualifies as Game-Based Learning, and identifies the broad categories most games fall under. For example, games that allow students to act out the role of a person from history are designated as interactive fiction games. The self-paced, building-block aspect of Minecraft makes it a sandbox type of game.

Our report also delves into the science behind Game-Based Learning: Why does the experiential part of games help students understand ideas? Why do successes feel better and failures feel less painful in a game environment than on paper tests?

Games on the market today apply to specific curriculum in STEAM, ELA and other classes. With such a wealth of games from which to choose, administrators need to know how to find the right games for their schools--and how to get educators on board with using those games effectively. DA offers practical advice on this and more for district leaders interested in the power of Game-Based Learning for rich learning.

Games reach, teach students in immersive ways

Players master concepts and collaboration using ideas ranging from trading cards to high-tech digital adventures.

Whether it's amassing property and related rights while playing Monopoly, or measuring area and perimeter to create a community in Minecraft, students are experiencing--and mastering--curriculum through increasingly popular Game-Based Learning.

Simply stated, Game-Based Learning occurs when students actually play a game, whether it's on a computer with exciting visuals and sound, or on a board with a spinner and tokens. GBL, as it's known, is different from Gamification of Education, which uses game elements such as points, stickers or a leaderboard to encourage students to progress in a given area.

Game-Based Learning is becoming more popular as teachers recognize its benefits and become more comfortable with its logistics, says Lucas Gillispie, director of Academic and Digital Learning at Surry County Schools in North Carolina, and a blogger at EduRealms.com.

"We don't have a problem using books and film in the classroom; I think games are that next big medium pushing into the classroom, and it's an interactive medium," Gillispie says. "I've seen burned-out teachers use games and fall back in love with the profession."

While Game-Based Learning is evolving every day, games typically fall into categories according to the platform on which they are played: mobile, console, website, computer, paper and pencil, and analog (board games, cards). Within those categories are many genres that span everything from trading cards--think Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering--to high-tech, such as World of Warcraft, in which players inhabit digital worlds where they must manage resources, create tools and outsmart creatures who would possibly do them harm.

"The best games balance challenge with capabilities," Gillispie says. "If I can create a learning environment where the challenge increases as the student's skill set increases, while keeping them engaged, then I've hit the sweet spot. Good games do that really well."

Professional educator organizations as well as gamer groups help implement, troubleshoot and even finance GBL in the classroom. [See sidebar on Resources.] And a number of Game Jams, Hackathons and other events support the move toward involving more teachers in the world of gaming. "The term 'gamer' is so off-putting, but the gaming industry is way beyond the basement dweller," Gillispie says.

According to a 2015 ThinkZone study, more than half of the 800 teachers and 350 administrators surveyed believe games can be used to teach complex and challenging ideas and topics. …

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