Do Games Teach?

I recently returned from the annual NAEA convention where I had the opportunity to lead a workshop for teachers and give a keynote talk. Reflecting on the event, there seemed to be a general consensus that games do, in fact, play an important role in the teaching process.

The workshop was attended by teachers from all across the U.S. as well as Singapore. In the workshop we explored a foundational approach to game-based learning (GBL), including the vocabulary of game design and the benefits of this modern approach. Having taught this workshop now several times to art teachers, I’d like to share some of the more thought provoking questions that I have been asked along the way and the insights I have discovered.

“Do games teach?”

When looking at the definition in the Oxford Dictionary of what teach and teaching mean, we discover the following: “Impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something” and “The occupation, profession, or work of a teacher.”

Yes, games can impart knowledge and show the user how to do something.  However, teaching only happens through a teacher. In my opinion, “Do games teach?” isn’t the right question to ask. Similarly, we don’t ask, “Does a book teach?”, yet you certainly can learn a lot from a book and a teacher can use a book to teach. The same holds true for games. You can learn a lot from games and a teacher can use games to teach.

Popular entertainment games show players, for example, how to kill aliens (HALO), how to command a civilization and advance it (Civilization), how new proteins are formed (Fold-It), and even a different perspective on the Iranian revolution of 1979 (1979 Revolution: Black Friday). However, games nor books nor any other medium for that matter are a substitute for a teacher and should never be seen as such. Great teachers inspire and educate students with or without any additional tools or media. A game is another tool in a teacher’s toolbox to be used when the teacher deems most appropriate in his or her way, just like a book. Books are used in different ways in a classroom and so are movies and other media. I believe the same holds true for games.

The workshop I ran showed teachers how they can make games with something as simple as paper and pencils and then turn those games into effective learning tools. Of course I have been extremely privileged to work with art teachers who are very creative, and in the matter of only a few hours, they developed games for their classrooms that were fun and could be used for teaching.

“What is the most challenging thing I have encountered when bringing games into classrooms?”

I had to think about this question for a minute. Unfortunately a common barrier is the teachers themselves. Many teachers have a full plate and don’t necessarily get the support they need to try new things. Others simply believe playing games is a waste of time. Many teachers don’t play a lot of games themselves and don’t know how to approach the subject or bring games into their classrooms.

When working with teachers, 90% of the time I find that if they are given the support from their administration, colleagues and parents, and given the time to learn how to bring games into the classroom, they never turn back. Once a teacher has experienced the power of games for teaching and learning, it is difficult to see education in the same light as before. This holds true for teachers across all grade levels and even universities. I have yet to meet a teacher who successfully implemented GBL in their class and saw the excitement, engagement and increase in mastery of their students, who then came and said, “No I will not use this again. I will go back to the way I have been taught how to teach.

It doesn’t matter if you use off the shelf entertainment games, learning games or make your own games (or even have your students participate in making them), the power of GBL is so overwhelming when done right, it is difficult to imagine a classroom without it.

Last year, my students (4F 2016-2017) learned limits in a traditional way, and they had an 80 percent success rate on the final test. This year, I introduced Variant: Limits to my students (4F 2017-2018) and they achieved a 100 percent success rate on the final exam. No one failed, and this year’s group of students even experienced an average grade growth rate of 10 percent compared to my students from a year ago.

What does this mean? To me, it means that not only did my students enjoy the subject matter more, they actually performed better. Since Variant: Limits doesn’t cover all of the calculus curriculum mandated in Italian schools, we have had to re-engage with other learning tools and traditional resources. Yet, my students keep thinking back to Variant: Limits. It’s like replaying a favorite movie clip or song in your head. The replay both the mathematical aspects and the story elements.

Variant truly changed their attitudes about math. They have become more deeply involved with the concepts, they retained the information, and they had fun. Now imagine if all learning tools resonated with students the way this game does?  Lucky for us there are three more games in the series on the horizon!

About Giulia Bini

Giulia Bini has master’s degrees in Mathematics and ICT in Education and is currently enrolled in the PhD program in Didactics of Mathematics of Turin University. She has been teaching Mathematics and Physics since 1993 in several secondary schools in Milan (Italy) and, since 2009, she has been a resident teacher at Liceo Scientifico Leonardo da Vinci. She develops innovative approaches to teaching including both CLIL and ICT based methodologies, collaborates with national and international publishers for evaluating textbooks and educational material, and is involved in teacher training regarding the usage of ICT in education.