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How can we engage all learners? Let students play

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)

Games on mobile devices, computers, and interactive whiteboards combine graphics, audio, and movement into a coherent whole.  These games are interactive and immersive, forcing the player to be truly invested in the outcome. Players are encouraged to strengthen weaker skills while simultaneously taking advantage of their proficiencies. Electronic games level the playing field, allowing all learners to engage deeply and internalize ideas in the way that suits them best. So regardless of how a student best processes information, he or she will be able to learn the same thing as someone who operates differently.

Creating individualized engagement

In addition, the increasingly large spectrum of electronic educational games allows teachers to tailor learning to their students’ individual needs. Howard Gardner talks about the need to “individualize and pluralize” learning to maximize a lesson’s reach while taking full advantage of each student’s inherent abilities (Frames Of Mind, 2011). That’s a tall order, especially considering the strains our teachers are under: crowded classrooms, limited resources, emphasis on testing, time constraints, and more.

Our educational system is, unfortunately, not designed for individualized teaching. The cycle of lectures, mass-produced textbooks, and standardized tests emphasizes consistency and conformity. Teachers know that one size does not fit all in teaching, and yet that’s the environment most prevalent in our schools. Digital gaming can change that.

Just as we all learn and process information differently, students have different behaviors in the classroom that can be addressed through games. In a digital gaming environment, shy kids are free to experiment without fear of judgment or ridicule. It’s much easier to admit strengths and weaknesses when no one is watching. Games are especially powerful in this way for math topics. Many students find math intimidating but are too embarrassed to stand up in class and admit they don’t understand something. What they often don’t realize, however, is that each math topic builds on the previous one, so not understanding something now means they won’t understand even more things later.

Students take control

The inherent features of digital games provide a solution to this common issue: Games track progress and give instant feedback, allowing the student to take control of the learning process privately.  Many education-specific games also allow teachers to see the student’s progress so they can tailor lessons or extra work to specific needs.  A recent report from the Games and Learning Publishing Council shows that teachers are doing just that, and students are benefiting. Another study from NYU indicates that the built-in competitive aspect of digital gaming has measurable benefits for student performance.

For students who struggle in a standard learning environment, teachers report that digital games help low-performing students catch up and motivate them to learn more. Digital games not only improve student performance, but positively impact student behavior and attendance.

Digital games provide an environment where kids can learn at their own pace and in their own way. Games encourage players to explore and personalize their learning environment, whether it is controlling sound, selecting an avatar, or choosing the method in which to approach a problem. Games are inherently flexible; they encourage experimentation, trial and error, and failure.

In no other learning environment are kids encouraged to fail and learn from their mistakes, even though every teacher knows the best way to learn something is by doing it (and failing a few times). The immediate feedback in games lets players determine for themselves what they need to do differently, allowing them to internalize the lesson. Students can practice skills they feel uncertain about, or move ahead to new things while the teacher focuses on students who are struggling with a topic. When students are put in an environment in which they can learn their way without fear of judgment or penalty, they become what every teacher strives for: independent learners.

Suzi Wilczynski, a former archaeologist and middle school teacher, is the founder and CEO of Dig-It! Games, an independent developer of interactive educational games for kids. Through a seamless blend of fun and learning, Dig-It! Games believes in the power of games to change the way kids learn. 

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