What place do video games have in a classroom? Aren’t they just a distracting waste of time for kids who should be memorizing multipication tables? Sara Corbett eloquently answers these questions in her illuminating article in the New York Times, which aptly sums up some of the controversies around bringing technology into the education system.

My favorite passage in the piece, which will appear in Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

What if teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon and reconfigured the foundation upon which a century of learning has been built? What if we blurred the lines between academic subjects and reimagined the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room or a child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket, circa 2010 — if, in other words, the slipstream of broadband and always-on technology that fuels our world became the source and organizing principle of our children’s learning?

Specifically, the article’s about Quest to Learn, a small school in New York City that’s been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, among others, and its mission is to teach students through interaction with digital media and games.

For example, whereas in a traditional school students would learn algebra, history, and English in separate classes with different teachers, kids at Quest to Learn blend the subjects into one class and collaborate on building a game based on those very subjects. And they use digital media as their tools: podcasts, video editing software, and blogs, among others.

From the article:

Students have been called upon to balance the budget and brainstorm business ideas for an imaginary community called Creepytown, for example, and to design architectural blueprints for a village of bumbling little creatures called the Troggles.

Corbett uses Quest to Learn to provide the big-picture conundrum surround this topic: Although kids are highly proficient at navigating the digital world, most schools do not incorporate the technology kids use outside the confines of the campus.

The issues are layered and complex. As Corbett points out …

Even the first family has sent mixed messages: President Obama has criticized video games for displacing family time and physical activity — urging parents, for example, to “turn off the TV, put away the video games and read to your child” — but he has also encouraged the development of new games to bolster the all-important science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills in young Americans.

… but the article does an excellent job of using research and real-life examples to illustrate the current thinking about the subject.

  • Andrew

    This would be nice to see, but I doubt it will happen. Video games have been around for decades, and have yet to be used much in the classroom. Heck, board games have been around for thousands of years, and are barely used in class, if at all.

    I have been playing a boardgame called “Cashflow” with my 8 & 14 year old nephews. It is a game designed to teach investing and money management principles. They love it. One day their father came home to the sounds of them “goofing off”, or so he thought. Turned out they had set up the game and were playing it on their own, for fun.

    These same kids are now able to analyze properties listed on the MLS, and determine what cash-on-cash return (CCR) they would get for each property, given different down payments and mortgage rates. Not only are they learning about investing, but they are also learning useful math skills that most adults do not have.

    For me, this illustrates the power of games/simulations as a learning tool. It shouldn’t be that surprising that learning by DOING is usually more effective then learning by reading or listening, but unfortunately the latter is how our schools tend to teach (which is why I, like many others, disliked school).

    This also illustrates how horrible our method of teaching math is. We separate math from all other subjects, and try to teach it as some kind of abstract skill. Math should be taught as a means to an end. It should be taught as a tool that you use in some kind of greater goal (like investing, building something out of wood, programming a computer, etc). Most adults have no idea how to use algebra in their daily lives. What is the point of teaching a kid algebra, if you don’t show him how it can make his everyday life better?

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