So What? How Will This Help Me Teach Better Today?

Lead Features February / February 16, 2019

-by Terra Graves-

In January, I gave you my answer to the “so what” question I asked when looking at one of the research articles shared in Jon Bergmann’s Top 10. Here’s the link in case you missed it. The goal here is to provide K-12 teachers with a practical application for what the research has found. Otherwise, what is the point of research?

The Research

A study published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning examined if using commercial video games in a flipped class would improve student outcomes. Results indicate that the digital games exerted a positive effect on preclass learning outcomes and that FGBL [Flipped Game Based Learning]‐strategy students achieved better overall learning outcomes than their lecture‐based peers.

The Big Idea

First, let’s clarify what is meant by game-based learning. In this article, “Why Game-Based Learning” by Gavin Cahill for The Learning Counsel, GBL is described in this way:

The core concept behind game-based learning is teaching through repetition, failure and the accomplishment of goals. Video games are built on this principle. The player starts off slow and gains in skill until they’re able to skillfully navigate the most difficult levels. Games that are planned and designed well will offer enough difficulty to keep it challenging while still being easy enough for the player to win.

Game-based learning takes this same concept and applies it to teaching a curriculum. Students work toward a goal, choosing actions and experiencing the consequences of those actions. They actively learn and practice the right way to do things. The result is active learning instead of passive learning.

Learning objectives built around required content are embedded within the structure of the game. This is different from learning-as-a-byproduct of playing a game. For example, here are life lessons that I can extrapolate from playing that highly cerebral game, “Candy Crush”.  

— Success criteria leads to strategy. First, you need to figure out what needs to be done to win; then you need to select a strategy.

— Some levels are harder than others. Persistence is key. Remember that other level that took forever to pass? You got it eventually! Keep trying! Success could be one more try away!

— Ask for help when you need it and use available resources. If you have boosters sitting there, you’re an idiot not to use them.

— Always give your friends another life whenever you can. Karma man.

— And the most important one…. CHOCOLATE is EVIL.

Fortnite, the latest addictive game for kids of all ages, also produces similar byproducts, according to this article by Sarah Schwartz for EdWeek. Stanford experts are quoted in this article as saying that games like Fortnite require students to practice teamwork, collaboration, strategic thinking, spatial understanding, and imagination. Some teachers use games as simulations. Ask a physics teacher how Angry Birds and Rollercoaster Tycoon helps students understand kinetic energy, force, and angles. These types of games allow for enjoyable trial and error as they explore how subtle changes can have major effects on the outcome. (And it’s really fun to crash into those darn pigs!)

Game-based learning, on the other hand, embeds content standards and learning objectives within the structure of the game. Tasks, missions, and challenges of the game require students to learn concepts and apply their learning within the context of the game. Many students live for playing video games. They experience some of those same things I expressed above, but also they have control over what they do in the game: they make choices, they build and create, they work with other players to complete missions, they immediately try again when they fail at a level. They earn points which can then be used to purchase accessories and tools for use throughout their play. It makes sense for teachers to infiltrate and leverage this medium for learning purposes! It’s like sneaking vegetables into their brownies! (It’s real: See Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious brownie recipe.)

Gamification is not the same as game-based learning. In this article, “The Difference Between Gamification and Game-Based Learning” by TeachThought, gamification is defined as the application of game-like mechanics to non-game entities to encourage specific behavior. Basically, this is any system used to promote either better behavior, recognition, motivation, completion of tasks, etc.  

The Action

Think about your content. What units or topics might fit nicely into a game format? By the way, the game does not necessarily have to be a digital game. Think about board games like Monopoly, Candyland, Life, etc. Any clever teacher could use those game structures to create a content-rich version of the original games. Better yet, have students create the games as a project.

Do some research (see below) and find what will work best for your situation. Start small. You don’t need to turn every unit into a game. This might just be your saving grace as you roll into the 3rd quarter or mid-semester. Students are getting tired and so are you.

The Resources

    • Minecraft Education Edition (formerly known as Minecraft EDU before Microsoft bought them)
      • This surprisingly captivating game that kids started playing about ten years ago is smartly assimilated into the world of learning. Genius!
      • https://education.minecraft.net/ This link takes you to the portal for tutorials, lesson plans, downloadable worlds, etc. Amazing resources here! You can either use existing worlds or create your own based on your specific content.  
      • Cost: It depends. See this article for more information.
    • 31 GBL Resources for Educators Legends of Learning
    • Simulations

“Want to launch a business without the risk and hard work? Play a business simulation game. These apps can help your strut your skills without all the drama that comes with a real business. You can manage an amusement park, head a gaming development company or start a farm. Here are the best business simulation games of 2019.”

“iCivics exists to engage students in meaningful civic learning. We provide teachers effective, innovative, freely accessible resources that enhance their practice and inspire their classrooms. Our mission is to ensure every student receives a high-quality civic education and becomes engaged in — and beyond — the classroom.”

“PhET provides fun, free, interactive, research-based science and mathematics simulations. We extensively test and evaluate each simulation to ensure educational effectiveness. These tests include student interviews and observation of simulation use in classrooms. The simulations are written in Java, Flash or HTML5, and can be run online or downloaded to your computer. All simulations are open source (see our source code). Multiple sponsors support the PhET project, enabling these resources to be free to all students and teachers.”

In his article, ‘Toward a theory of game based pedagogy,’ Russell Francis, points out that there is a growing consensus that educational designers and instructional technologists can stand to learn from professional game designers in terms of their educational designs for the purposes of pedagogy. In this article, Francis describes an initiative that he designed in a course length history class that he taught at MIT. The experience was conducted in collaboration with the Educational Arcade Initiative at MIT. The game that was used to engage students, Revolution, was ‘purposefully designed as a platform for assisting teaching and learning about aspects of social history.’”

How GBL Fits into the Flipped Classroom

Thinking about how you might use this with students, I can picture several different scenarios:

  • Individual space
    • Students are assigned tasks to complete within the game world, or required to complete a simulation before coming to class.
    • Students work together within the game world to collaborate on assigned tasks.
  • Group space
    • Small group discussion regarding game play/simulation and where they succeeded/failed. Sharing strategies for success and going back into the game/simulation together to test them out would strengthen everyone’s problem-solving skills.
    • Advanced: Students design learning activities for each other within the game (if applicable).  

After reading this column, I hope that the “so what?” you might be feeling after reading research studies becomes a “Now what?” feeling and that innovative research becomes a call to action. And when you hear that call to action, it very well might be the sound of Fortnite’s shrinking storm calling even you into the game world.  






Terra Graves
Terra Graves
Terra has been an educator for over twenty years. She is the Project Coordinator/Administrator for the 21st Century Learning Department in Washoe County School District, NV. Prior to this position, she taught elementary and middle school, supported novice teachers as a full-time mentor, served as an Ed Tech Specialist, and a Program Specialist in the 21st Century Learning Department. Terra is Flipped Learning 3.0 Level-II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.




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