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How can we engage all learners? Let students play

By Suzi Wilczynski
September 10th, 2014

When students are put in an environment in which they can learn their own way without fear, they become lifelong independent learners

engage-student-learnersFor most of us, the phrase “games in the classroom” evokes memories of well-used board games (often missing pieces), Jeopardy-style review games, chalkboard games like baseball and hangman, and games handcrafted by creative teachers using any materials at hand.

Some folks might remember playing computer games like Oregon Trail, Math Blasters, or Reader Rabbit. No matter what games you remember, chances are you have strong feelings about them: You either loved them or hated them.

Teachers have always known that games add depth to lessons by engaging students’ imaginations and allowing them to find answers on their own and in their own way. Until recently, however, even the best teachers have been limited by the kinds of games available to them, making it difficult to find games that engage specific types of learners. Whether in the classroom or on the back porch, we play games that appeal to the way we process information.

For every person who loves chess or Settlers of Catan, there is someone who hates them. Personally, I don’t care for first-person shooter games—not because of the content or the potential for violence, but simply because my brain doesn’t think that way. Does that mean the zombie-killing game my friend loves is a worthless time waster? Not at all. For him, that zombie game is creative puzzle solving. The value of a game lies in what we take away from it, not in the game itself.

All learning styles, all the time

It’s in this individual engagement where electronic games win out over traditional games in a classroom setting. The prevalence of computers, interactive whiteboards, and tablets in the classroom has led to the development of education-specific games for all types of learners.

No longer does the auditory learner have to struggle to process the written rules of the board game, the visual learner have to feel anxious when his classmates get excited about the oral test-review game, or the kinesthetic learner have to battle fidgeting while she waits her turn. With electronic games, kinesthetic learners can tap, swipe, and rotate their way to understanding—while auditory learners listen to the information that visual learners internalize through eye-catching graphics.

I’m sure some of you are thinking there are non-electronic games that are suitable for different types of learners, so why make the switch to electronic gaming? The answer is: Learning is not as clear-cut as these learning categories make it seem. People do not learn in only one way. We all share aspects of each of these kinds of learning, and that is where electronic gaming demonstrates its real strengths: electronic games combine the three main types of learning at all times.

(Next page: Understanding how games impact learning—and what research says on this topic)