How Video Games In The Classroom Will Make Students Smarter

How Video Games In The Classroom Will Make Students Smarter

Jordan Shapiro has written a wonderful post at Forbes identifying video games as wonderful tools for deep and immersive learning. Many game designers and educational advocates are crafting games to play in school. Games provide a natural space for rewarding metacognitive skills – the more the gamer plays and reflects, the more the gamer learns through experience and failure.

posted by Ryan Schaaf

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Around a billion and a half people all play video games of some sort. That’s more than 20% of the world’s population. Video games have become a part of life. They are now more than just leisure and entertainment. They are mainstream media, an everyday method of storytelling and representation. Games have become a common form of rhetoric for the 21st century.

Therefore, it is not surprising that educators, policy makers, investors, and developers are trying to build games for schools. However, the real reason game-based learning is so popular is not only because video games are extremely effective teaching tools; they are also relatively inexpensive to build and to distribute. In other words, they’re scalable, and replicable, and extensible, and all those other buzzwords that philanthropists, and venture capitalists, and policy makers like to hear. Video games have a lot going for them in a world that loves digital technologies and worships the concept of innovation.

Source: Forbes

Source: Forbes

Luckily, it is not all about semantics. Using video games as classroom tools that help teachers do their jobs with more impact is also good pedagogy. Video games can be exceptional teaching tools. To understand why, you don’t need any fancy education or psychology terms. All have to do is think about the avatar…the game character. In video games there are almost always two “I”s. There’s the “I” who holds the controller and the “I” that’s within the bezel of the monitor. Gamers are distanced from their avatar and are accustomed to thinking about their actions like an outsider looking in.

The fancy way to say that is: there is a metacognitive distance built right in. The term metacognition is a key term in educational psychology. It describes the ability to think about your own thinking. Strong metacognitive functions give students an awareness, or an understanding, of their own thought processes. Metacognitive functions provide one with autonomy or control of one’s own intellectual capacity. This matters in education because strong metacognitive functions lead to good academic skills. Through metacognitive functions, learners recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and adapt or iterate their performance accordingly.

In other words, academia can be understood like a video game: something students play again and again, practicing and improving with each new attempt. But what about the digital divide? If video games are so great, doesn’t that mean equal access to educational technologies is even more important? Certainly. But in an imperfect world, it is also important to remember that you don’t need fancy laptops or tablets to implement game-based learning. It is really just about imaginative play.

In his excellent soon to be released book (April 21), “The Game Believes In You: How Games Can Make Our Kids Smarter,” Greg Toppo writes: “Kids make mud pies and paper airplanes, they climb trees and play the piano. The entire time they’re exploring and learning about the world.”

This is why folks have been using play therapy with children for more than a century. Both the Kleinians and the Jungians fill their consultation rooms with toy menageries and mandalas and sandboxes. They’ve always known that games and play strengthen metacognitive functions. They’ve always known that along with the guidance of a mentor–a great teacher–games and play can help individuals learn to recognize their own context. Play helps one recognize the structures, the systems, and the economies in which one participates.

Toppo continues:

What looks like escapist fun is actually deep concentration. What looks like instant gratification is, in fact, delayed gratification in clever disguise. What looks like spectacle is a system that’s training players to ignore the spectacle and focus on the real work at hand. What looks like anything-goes freedom is submission to strict rules. What looks like a twenty-first-century, flashy, high-tech way to keep kids entertained is in fact a tool that taps into an ancient way to process, explore, and understand the world.

In the presentation that I gave at the 2015 Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, I explain how and why learning games and game-design-thinking can help to develop students’ metacognitive skills. I also explain why this is an essential part of creating innovative citizens. What’s more, I make a philosophical argument that this kind of thinking is an foundational component of basic human dignity.


Jordan Shapiro is the author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide To Maximum Euphoric Bliss and The Mindshift Guide To Digital Games and Learning.

April 2015

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