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Shaping Your Instruction Around Principles of Playing Video Games

By Carla Viana Coscarelli
 | May 06, 2016

Girl at ComputerThere are many games students love to play, and in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy James Paul Gee reviews 36 learning principles found in games. Gee argues that good games captivate gamers’ attention and teach them how to play in an efficient way. In addition, he suggests the positive aspects of games in learning environments can empower students by engaging them as agents and making them feel like what they do matters.

To promote deep learning, Gee proposes that games should incorporate problem-based learning approaches emphasizing customization as an integral practice. To customize education means to consider there is not just one way to solve a problem. Accordingly, in school, learners should have the freedom to choose strategies they think will work in a particular situation. Customization also respects that students bring different skills and learning styles to each situation, as Howard Gardner proposes in his studies of multiple intelligence. Thus, students should be seen as agents who control their learning environment and learn by having both their bodies and minds fully engaged in the learning process.

A second principle of video games Gee proposes is that games require students to not only acquire information, but also learn how to use information to solve a problem. Moreover, Gee argues, students value and most efficiently learn information they use to solve a problem (on demand). Connecting meaning and learning how to apply knowledge in different situations can promote deep understanding and learning that endures. Associating meaning with actions, for instance, or information to specific practices, typically leads to deep understanding.

Third, games can make students feel challenged because they need to exert a great deal of effort to solve problems. Following that principle, challenging problems (not impossible ones!) help students become involved in generating strategies to accomplish the tasks. We also learn from games that accomplishing challenging tasks involves repeated practice. Notably, new tasks need to follow to help students generate different strategies to solve different kinds of problems.

In order for problem-solving approaches to be as successful as those in a gaming environment, Gee says, they should be sequenced from easier and less complex to harder and more complex. For example, instead of introducing students to an incredibly complex situation all at once, consider how to sequence parts of the problem in a leveled fashion, slowly adding elements to raise the complexity of the task.

Because of their rich and efficient way to teach and to gain students’ attention, Gee argues that games could—and should—be used in schools to help students learn new content as well as learn how to learn. Students should think critically while participating in games. Teachers can use games as a springboard for many activities such as teaching about facts and concepts and to improve students’ skills of writing, reading, and thinking.

Tom and Jerry in Rig a Bridge, for example, is a thought-provoking game that helps students consider and apply key principles of physics, including balance, reaction, traction, and sustainability, among others. Jerry, the mouse, is starving, but Tom, the cat, is anxiously waiting for him in the kitchen. Players need to build bridges using materials like matchsticks, rubber bands, and paper clips to help Jerry reach the cheese without being caught by Tom. In addition to game playing, the teacher can challenge students to build a manual or tutorial designed to help other players accomplish some levels of the game, or to describe in writing mistakes made while playing the game, why the bridge fell, and what they should have done instead to better support it.

Many other games like this one are available for free online. Playing them while discussing mistakes, problems, and solutions as well as exploring the game to raise problems and apply the knowledge to other similar contexts (What if instead of matchsticks, rubber bands, and paper clips, players used other materials?) and real-life circumstances can be interesting activities for students to enjoy and learn a lot from.

James Paul Gee presents and explains some of the main principles of gaming here. As a bonus, Gee outlines why video games make for better assessments than the high-stakes testing in this podcast.

Carla Viana Coscarelli is an associate professor in the School of Language Arts at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, and coordinator of Projeto Redigir/UFMG.

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