Several years ago, I read about a teacher who had found a novel way of using Angry Birds and other mobile games to spark up learning in the classroom. What she’d do was to “bookend” a very normal class with gameplay.
For example, in a psychology class on emotions, kids could play Angry Birds for five minutes after the class had started. Then the kids would put the game away. The teacher would lead into the lecture with a discussion of: “Okay, so why do you think the birds are angry?” After the discussion she would launch into a very traditional classroom lecture about different theories of emotion and link the lecture to the game and the discussion. At the end of class, kids would get another play session to reinforce the context.
I see two big challenges in modern classroom where games can have a big impact. First of all, kids are used to being entertained on a personalized level unlike we’ve ever seen before. If your life consists of a constant bombardment of instant gratification, it is very hard to sit down and focus on something that’s not as fun off the bat. This problem I call the “attention gap” I’ve discussed at lenght previously.
But the second problem is what brought the above story to my mind. Namely, the other big problem in the classroom, one that I would venture to claim is not just a modern phenomenon, is the lack of context. If kids learn about math by abstract equations that have no real-life application, or even worse, by cringe-worthy examples of “Adam having two apples and Eve three, how many do they have together?”, they will often be bored witless. Only the math geeks will get a kick out of the abstractions, and I would venture to guess nobody will out of apples schmapples.
There was a concept we developed back in the Rovio days called “Billion Dollar School.” It was based on an article I read on the Business Insider about the so called Billion Dollar Problems, such as water and sanitation. The question was: what if we could link schoolwork not to apples and oranges, but to real world problems that kids really care about? (And trust me – kids really do care about these things much more than you’d believe.)
I hope one day we will see something akin to the Billion Dollar School in the world. Meanwhile, I think we should take the challenge of building context for learning more seriously. And here I think games can lend us a hand. Surprisingly enough, not just learning games, but any games, as was seen above.
Games root to the ground familiar to every modern kid, where you get instant satisfaction and achievement, intermingled with well balanced challenges. If we could use games to contextualize learning, it would likely make more sense to kids. Bear with me – I’m not saying every class should be about playing Angry Birds. But by tapping into the world these guys inhabit we can build a bridge to the actual world they will be launching into once they are through with school.
Using the bookending method is easy. You simply pick up a mobile game that somehow links into the topic you’re teaching. You’ll let the kids play for a while at the beginning and the end of class. And you’ll link the teaching content with the game. That’s all there is to it.
With a learning game I suspect the results will be even more exciting. Getting the kids to spend some of their playtime to with topics like physics, math, biology and so forth can have a tremendous effect on learning motivation and efficacy. To this end, just by using a learning game to bookend your class can have a big impact on changing how the kids feel about the topic.
At the end of the day, what really matters is that kids learn. And that they learn to love learning. For these goals, games will not solve the puzzle alone. But when used in the right way, they can be a tremendously useful addition to the teacher’s toolbox.