Games Are More Important Than You Think
As published in OnCUE Summer 2008 Volume 30 Number 3...
What is the first thing you think about when someone mentions the term “educational game”? Some, like me, immediately equate “game” to “computer game”, and think of any number of products that we have been exposed to in the past. Others may imagine what a futuristic educational video game could be like - something along the lines of virtual reality, science fiction style. I imagine many veteran teachers would think about the types of games, not necessarily computer related, that they use as devices to engage children in the learning process.
I’m a little ashamed to write that the very first thing that came to mind for me was the Reader Rabbit series of computer programs. Don’t get me wrong, these are fine products that accomplish a very specific set of goals with young children. I suppose, in retrospect, that I am a little disappointed in the smallness of my own initial thinking.
The fact is, an “educational game” can be all of the things I mentioned above, and much more. As educators continue to move toward the ultimate goal of preparing students for a competitive work life filled with problem solving, analyzing, and creativity, they will find that “educational games” will become critical to core instruction. To understand what I am referring to, try substituting the word “game” with the word “simulation”, and let me provide an example.
Ten years ago, I was part of a team of teachers and administrators in the Kern High School District that had the challenging but rewarding task of developing a state wide program called Virtual Enterprise (www.VirtualEnterprise.org). Many of you may be familiar with this program, since upwards of 200 high schools in California are involved with it today. The purpose of the program is to teach entrepreneurial skills, and we believed that the best way to do that would be to create a business simulation, in essence, a “game”!
Virtual Enterprise is a window into the future of what education must eventually become to teach what many have termed “21st Century Skills”. Is a simulation like this completely run on computers? No, but it is supported in critical ways by technology, which is really no different than the real world of business. Every class creates a website to sell and promote their virtual products. Every student uses e-mail and other productivity applications to run their business. The central office provides a sophisticated web-based banking system to facilitate the exchange of virtual money. All of these technologies come together to allow students in California to create a world wide virtual economy through communication with similar programs outside of the state.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It sounds like the kind of classroom that some educational dreamers have been blogging and speaking about. You know, those dreamers who really don’t live in the “real world” of education as we know it. The ones who can’t seem to understand that the politics, the financial constraints, and the established ideas of teaching will never allow this type of classroom to materialize. Strangely enough, it has materialized in the Virtual Enterprise program, and it started 10 years ago in California.
Virtual Enterprise is fairly unique, but it isn't the only program that seeks to use simulations to create a more powerful learning environment. However, all of these programs in general are still seen as “fringe” concepts that exist on the outside of core instruction. Therein lies the biggest obstacle to modernizing teaching and learning. Believe it or not, I predict that games or simulations will become central to modern instruction in public schools. With that major shift in pedagogy, we will usher out the static classroom along with state testing in its current form. With that major shift in pedagogy, we will usher in an environment where teachers facilitate learning, but students actually own it.