Aiden Alexander is stranded in the middle of nowhere and armed only with a few items, including a cinch sack and machete, after his car runs out of gas. The rain makes the situation more difficult — it’s a lot to handle for an eighth grader.
Luckily for Alexander, it’s just a game at a workshop meant to teach him how to think on his feet as a sticky situation changes.
Using games to teach students isn’t a new concept. But some hope this classroom technique can be revamped to focus on “21st century skills,” such as critical thinking and creativity, as Alexander learned about in his game.
Game-based learning might also soon make its most substantial debut in Colorado in the fall of 2016 as the basis of a new school in the Aurora Public Schools system.
Game-like learning is exactly what it sounds like: Teachers use games to teach. Engaging with hands-on activities allows students to learn both specific lesson and a broader concepts, like how to collaborate as a team or how to solve problems, simultaneously.
“Games are really good at helping players achieve a goal,” said Ilena Parker, senior communications manager for Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization that promotes using games to teach students. “They help you learn the skills you need to achieve that goal. They give you feedback on how you’re doing and they let you try again when you fail.”
Earlier this month, the institute held a workshop in Denver, where students and teachers could sample educational games. This was a joint event with William Smith High School and the Hive Denver learning community.
According to some research on game-based learning, students who use games to learn work harder voluntarily. Studies have also shown students who use games to learn will retain more factual knowledge and skill-based knowledge than their non-game playing peers.
While the games are fictional, the lessons are not, Parker said.
“Games are really awesome at developing 21st century skills, things like creativity, collaboration, communication, problem solving, critical thinking,” Parker said. “Teachers can kind of incorporate learning goals into a game and it makes it more engaging and more memorable for students.”
The Institute of Play, which also operates a school in New York City, is working with leaders at William Smith High School, an expeditionary learning school in Aurora, to give game-like learning a permanent home. If the district’s school board approves, The Studio School, as it’s being called, will open in the fall of 2016 and use game design and student input to shape curriculum.
“Educators spend so much time trying to develop ourselves and design curriculum, thinking about ‘what would be great for students to do? How do we want them to learn? Let’s create this amazing experience for students,'” said Jackson Westenskow, who is helping lead the push for The Studio School. “And the one group we never ask for help with that is the students.”
But introducing more games into classrooms does not come without its challenges. A 2014 survey of teachers found that finding money to pay for the game materials and technology, identifying games that fit with instruction, and creating professional development programs so teachers are trained to use games effectively in classrooms, are potential barriers.
Back at the institute’s summer workshop, Alexander said he wouldn’t mind learning this way regularly. While the game was mentally tough, he enjoyed the challenge.
“I liked the freedom it had. It helps with critical thinking because I had to think of a way to go along with the situation,” said Alexander, who attends Excel Academy in Denver. “I would love to play this in school.”