Monday, July 16, 2012

The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning (A Report From The Classroom)

Let me start this series of posts by saying - unequivocally - I am a strong advocate of game-based learning.  It has worked for me personally, I have seen it work in the classroom and have read the research that, in general, suggests that game-based approaches can provide powerful new ways to learn.


As someone who has spent the last three years applying at least some of the theory of game-based learning in the classroom, I can tell you that it is...well...tricky.

Don't get me wrong.  My intent is not to lead you on and then ultimately come to the conclusion that it can't be done or that it doesn't work or, even, that it is hard to do.  It is just trickier than I expected due, I think, to the "myths" that have sprung up about games and learning.  My hope is that this series of posts will help other teachers (particularly other university professors teaching intelligence studies...) to have a more realistic view of both the difficulties and the rewards of incorporating games into their classes.

Where did these myths come from?  I believe that they are a natural consequence of the inevitable distance between theory and practice.  Any practitioner will tell you that theory only works theory.  Actually applying a pedagogical approach to a real world classroom with real world constraints and challenges is another thing entirely.

The broader conversation on game-based learning largely reflects this divide.  At one end of the spectrum there are the big picture thinkers, the evangelists, if you will, like Jane McGonigal.  McGonigal, a researcher and game designer (and one of my personal favorite experts on games and gaming), makes a strong case for games and game-based learning in her book, Reality is Broken.  If you don't have time to read her book, I highly recommend McGonigal's 2010 TED talk:

At the other end of the spectrum are the things that have actually been tried in class and have been shown to work at meaningful scales.  Here the pragmatists rule and the best statement of that position I have heard comes from Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, James Shelton, at last year's Games For Change Conference (Shelton's comments begin around minute 6 and some key takeaways are at minute 11 and 13):

Games for Change Festival 2011: James Shelton, U.S. Department of Education from Games for Change on Vimeo.

(Note:  While education has been kicked around like a political soccer ball for what seems like forever, Shelton's entire speech and comments are worth listening to by anyone interested in solving the difficult problem of innovation in education.  You get the sense that this is a guy in the trenches, who understands the reality of the problem, has no political axe to grind and is willing to listen to anyone who has a good idea that can work on a large scale.)

Shelton's speech was not much discussed during or after the conference but it is, for me, a good representation of the practitioner's plea:  "I'll try anything; just show me that it really works."

In the gap between these two extremes, between the heady optimism of McGonigal and the blunt practicality of Shelton, live the 5 myths I intend to talk about in this series of posts. 

Next:  Myth #1 -- Game-based Learning Is New

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