Posted in Education, Gaming, Teaching

Can Computer Games Serve an Educational Purpose?

Computer and video games were just starting to take off when I was growing up.  The big deal for me in the fourth grade was learning to make the turtle move around the screen by typing in simple commands.  I’m not really sure I learned anything by doing that, but it sure was fun.  As technology has evolved, so have the games.  We live in a world where almost everything has been turned into a computer game.  There is a game where you pretend to use a fingerboard to do tricks.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to just get a fingerboard and do tricks in reality?  To each their own I guess.  Due to this switch in how our students learn, live, and think, we as teachers need to adapt.  Lecture-based classes are becoming a thing of the past.  Our students struggle to stay focused for long periods of time due to the way they live their lives.  We need to account for that and mix things up in our classes.  We also need to utilize the games they play for educational purposes.  Like Ani DiFranco states in one of her songs, “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”  We need to change the way we think about the games and technology our students live and play with.  If we don’t accept and embrace the change happening to our students, then are we really helping prepare them for the 21st century?

Today in my STEM Class, the students began working on the final phase of the Geology Unit.  Using the computer program Minecraft, they have to create a model showcasing at least five major, historically accurate geological changes Earth’s surface has undergone in its past.  They are pumped for this project because they already love Minecraft.  They get to demonstrate their understanding of the content using a game they enjoy.  It’s like their parents told them they were having ice cream for dinner.

Of course, the explanation and purpose for the use of Minecraft is crucial for a project like this.  The students need to understand exactly how they must use Minecraft.  They need to know that this isn’t an opportunity to just play around and create whatever they want in their Minecraft world.  We reviewed and discussed the purpose and expectations as well as the due date.  The students understand what to do, how to do it, and when to have it done by.  If clear parameters aren’t placed on a project like this, it could easily turn into free computer play time quickly.  Preparation is key when using computer games in the classroom.  But so is risk.  Sometimes, you just have to jump and hope for the best.

As I observed my students today, I was impressed and amazed by the ways they challenged themselves.  Some students are creating a floating Earth to show the layers of the planet and the changes it underwent as it evolved while other students are creating separate areas of their world to show the changes.  A few students are making interactive models that will change as the users move about them.  So cool!  I made sure to check in with each student by the end of the period to be sure I knew what he was doing.  I asked them, “Tell me what I’m looking at.”  Every student was able to scientifically explain how their world displayed Earth’s formation.  Amazing!

Now, realizing that all students are different, those students who were not inclined to use Minecraft, could brainstorm another way to demonstrate their understanding of the content.  Two students chose to use Play-Doh to create the various stages of Earth’s development.  One student wanted to make a papier mache model of Earth.  Providing the students with options and choice allows for creativity to be fostered and developed as well.  The students feel heard and respected this way.  It also awakens the inner artist within the students.

So, while this is the second year I’ve done this project, I still have many colleagues that question its validity.  They say, “Why do you let your students play games in class?” or “How are they learning anything?”  To them I say, “Please, come, observe my class and find out for yourself.”  Of course, no one comes, but the door is always open.  It’s frustrating that despite all the current research on games, student engagement, and learning, many teachers still have a fixed mindset about games in the classroom.  They think games have no place in school.  Then why is it that the students from my previous class last year still talk about how much fun and learning took place during this project?  Why is it that some teachers are stuck in the way they feel education should be delivered?  We are not living in a factory model society any longer.  We need to prepare our students to think critically and creatively and solve problems in new and unique ways.  We need our students to learn to persevere through struggles and overcome adversity.  How can they do all of this if we never give them a chance to play and DO the learning?  Games like Minecraft are an easy way to get kids learning, thinking creatively, and having fun.