Taking a Closer Look at Games in the Classroom

September 1, 2008

Over the last half decade, gaming has gone mainstream. Once confined to basements and bedrooms, games have become increasingly common in today's living room. Our thinking about games has also branched out beyond seeing them strictly as entertainment to something more.

What that more is remains an open question, however, subject to a substantial amount of hype and speculation. Many are embracing games whole cloth as the leading edge in a new era of teaching and learning. The excitement is palpable, permeating new investments in education and discussions throughout the field.

Cautious Optimism. At EDC's Center for Children and Technology, we are certainly excited about the potential for games to make contributions to student learning. But we remain cautious in our optimism. In nearly thirty years of educational technology research, we have seen a number of technologies struggle to meet very lofty goals. As a recently named National Research and Development Center on Instructional Technology, we are eager to investigate game-based activities as learning tools and literacy supports with the hope of creating a model that matches their unique affordances to the realities and needs of classroom practice.

Focus on Science Education. Rather than broadly investigate games as standalone immersive learning experiences, we are directing our attention more modestly to whether a game narrative and portable-game-based activities can be plugged into existing curricula and classroom practice. We are focusing on science education for this investigation, specifically a set of common challenges that hamper its instruction in the middle grades: scientific misconceptions, reading difficulties and a lack of motivation.

Seventh-grade science teachers are tasked with helping a heterogeneous group of 12- and 13-year-olds master the knowledge and skills of basic biology. However, their teaching tools for doing so are often timeworn: the textbook, the lecture and the lab.

These traditional supports can prove challenging for students who do not arrive highly motivated and prepared to read and comprehend academic language-written, oral and symbolic.

In fact, a substantial number of middle grades students lack grade-level reading ability-limiting their ability to handle the more text-intensive subject area content. These limited readers also tend to be uninterested in, or outright reject, the types of simplified texts (appropriate to their reading level) that are often key components of literacy interventions. As teachers work toward reaching critical content goals, these literacy needs cannot be overlooked.

In addition to reading difficulties, the background knowledge of middle grade students can also be problematic. Students often bring science knowledge riddled with misconceptions that cloud their ability to understand the world in which they live. For example, student are often unaware that organisms other than humans can have an effect on their environment.

For many seventh-grade teachers, this means that biology instruction can be as much about removing these learning roadblocks as it is about the life cycle of single-cell organisms. Using game-based learning activities to help address these constraints on science teaching. Our five-year research and development initiative centers on Super Sleuths (working title), a suite of digital games and learning tools that weave portable game technology into science and literacy learning-taking particular aim at the roadblocks confronting science instruction.

Our research is based on the assumption that relevant science can be taught using good, existing curricula. What game-based activities potentially add are scaffolds for teachers who want to engage their students more deeply in inquiry-based learning and supports for struggling readers who need additional help fully participate in science learning.

For SuperSleuths, we are working with students, teachers and game developers to construct a series of game modules that address core areas of life science in the middle grades. Each module is designed to supplement the kind of textbook-driven science instruction that students often experience by adding a motivating story-line (scientific mission) and hands-on, inquiry-based activities less common in today's classrooms.

The games translate key components of inquiry-based learning-such as posing questions, gathering and analyzing data, and representing findings-into interdependent challenges that help students learn the inquiry method as they work to complete the mission.

Plugging Games into a Classroom Narrative. Instead of building modules that exists as an immersive learning environment within a gaming device, we are focused on bringing the narrative qualities of a game to the entire classroom experience. In Super Sleuths, students participate in scientific missions that blend the use of textbooks, web research and ancillary materials with handheld games. The teacher directs groups of students to complete activities matched to their skill level and learning goals, ranging from highly scaffolded to more challenging. Along with their regular classroom research, student teams use handheld game devices (the Nintendo DS) as a combination portable lab, field notebook, scientific instrument and communicator. These devices enable student groups to collect and analyze evidence as well as build hypotheses for solving the challenges posed throughout the mission narrative. Each team and team member (regardless of skill level) contributes a unique piece to completing the mission. In addition to delivering science content, many of the skill-building activities within Super Sleuths have literacy as their focus. Mini-games will support an array of meaning-making strategies: reading backward and forward; asking one's self questions before, during and after reading a piece of text to check comprehension; making predictions about what comes next; discerning word meanings from the context of a passage; and looking up words in easily available digital reference materials.

While the focus of our research hovers on seventh-grade students who are struggling academically, especially those in urban schools, we anticipate that the game and supporting materials that we produce will have broad appeal throughout middle school science and language arts classes.

We are excited to be asking a new set of questions about how we can bridge the gap between modern technology, classroom practice, and instructional goals. We see this research as part of an ongoing conversation and invite educators to join us in this exploration. Our group has set up a blog to track progress and share ongoing developments and findings.