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A student voice in game-based learning

Written by Chad Sansing
March 17, 2011

This #blog4nwp post is a direct result of the efforts of the National Writing Project (NWP) and its members to push writing instruction into the information age. The NWP’s willingness to take both a long view and immediate action to explore and record student and teacher work in digital media make the NWP’s Digital Is initiative one of our nation’s most important educational resources.

Since attending Troy Hicks, Bud Hunt, and Sara Kajder’s #NCTE10 session on digital literacy, I’ve been working with my students to figure out how to work gaming and programming into my language arts classroom as cognitive analogues to reading and writing, with all the reflection, design, revision, and iteration powerful reading and writing require.

I’d like to share some of that work, as well as a student’s voice from that work.

Enter Brendan ( whose name is used with permission), one of the students who has helped me realize the potential of games for learning.

I met Brendan a few years ago when he first visited out charter school for non-traditional learners as a prospective student. I remember his visit – he entered with iPod in hand and was showing off his games by lunchtime. He was one of my people. He was a gamer.

It took me a few years to find the right approaches to helping Brendan engage enthusiastically with printed text. He resists traditional work for a variety of reasons with which I mostly agree. I think Brendan is an ambassador of a new generation of students suffocating in information. He represents for me students who need more sensory experience from school and more active stimulation than that offered by printed text, whether it’s in a book or on a screen.

I do think Brendan needs and deserves healthy and useful print-based literacy skills; however, I’ve found that the most effective way to engage him with printed text is to frame it in project- and games-based learning.

Brendan loves games. I love games. He is willing to read, write, and learn in and around them. Therefore, I have become willing to teach with them and to trust him more and more with his learning.

As a result, Brendan has read and written about

Brendan has written multi-paragraph design documents or reports for each of those projects. Last year he seldom wrote more than a sentence or two per class that related neither to one another nor to what he’d written the day before. It wasn’t that Brendan couldn’t write or compose with any unity or elaboration; it was that his writing reflected what he saw as the value of the assignments I asked him to do. He was not willing to invest in them as my prompts showed little investment in him and his interests.

Brendan and I have worked together, as well as with his parents, who are active in monitoring his gaming life, to make sure he can transfer his knowledge, enjoyment, and mastery of games back and forth between home and school. We have worked with him to help him vend ways to engage both with traditional reading and writing skills and the skills required to master games.

In Minecraft, for example, Brendan can now customize texture packs with ease using image-editing applications and he can find, install, and use mods that alter the game’s geography. These tools are useful in the executing the design of Brendan’s projects – he can paint and position materials to look exactly like what it is he wants to create, albeit in a kind of cubist, building-block way. Recently Brendan discovered that he had built his Parthenon at too high an altitude to accommodate the scale he was using. He found and installed a mod that let him lower the Parthenon into the ground and then sculpted it out of the “earth” so he could complete its roof at the appropriate scale. He revised his instance of the game to save the work he’d already done in calculating his scale and sculpting his Parthenon.

I asked Brendan a few questions about our work together. His responses follow my questions below.

Chad: How do you feel about school?

Brendan: I like most of school right now, but [in some classes] it’s hard for me to stay in class. In normal school I would be in ISS all day and hate it. At [my school] I get time to work on my projects and take small breaks. In normal school I would have to work all the time.

What parts of school work for you?

Classes work well for me [when] I have more time to work on my projects.

What parts of school don’t work for you?

In normal school, I have problems writing and reading because I don’t like what I’m learning, but at [my school] I get to choose what I work on which makes school more fun.

When did you start gaming?

I started gaming when I was [very young] and got the original gameboy. My first console was an original XBox. The first two games I ever owned were the original Splinter Cell and Pokemon Red.

To borrow from the profile, what are some games you’ve played that have changed your life?

[…] Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was my first fighting game and it changed my life because it was the first multi-player game I ever played.

What have you learned from games outside school?

I’ve learned to be more patient and work with other people better[…]. The game that taught me how to work better with other people wasn’t really one game in particular. It was all my online games.

What games have you used for learning in school?

I mostly use Minecraft. The New Super Mario Bros. Wii taught me a little about teamwork. Do I Have a Right? taught me about the amendments.

How does game-based learning make you feel at school?

It makes me feel better about my work when I learn using games. When I have a project going, it actually makes me look forward to going to school.

What would you like to see in the future regarding games in school? How would your ideal class operate? What would the room and equipment be like?

It would be a class of 10 kids using sandbox games like Minecraft to show their learning[…]. There would be [a class set] of computers in the classroom, and there would be 12 bean bags and 12 little tables that are the height of the beanbags.

What’s your advice for teachers interested in games-based learning?

My advice is to use much more project-based learning with sandbox games. Also, be open-minded.

What problems does games-based learning gave that teachers and students should keep in mind?

Some problems [include] getting kids off the games and weaving in a lot of learning with the projects.

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