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Learning through play is an effective and innovative method that can engage students in both the assimilation of content and the acquisition of 21st century skills. The popularity of video games is not the enemy of learning, but rather a model and a suggestion for improving teaching strategies.
This article presents some ways to adapt this model to current pedagogical practice.
Games make participants face feasible challenges and reward their efforts by confirming their objective and incremental progress (through methods such as accumulating points or images / sounds confirming the achievement of a target), so more is taken into account than just the final product. At the neurological level, the “fuel” for this is the pleasure experienced by the player and related to dopamine release. The games do not require mastery of all the tasks and completing the entire script before giving the brain feedback that stimulates satisfaction. The release of dopamine comes whenever feedback confirms that the player’s actions or responses are correct. The player gains points (or symbols) for small progress and, ultimately, gets a strong feedback of success by switching to the next level. This is when players seek a higher level of difficulty, because the brain needs a higher level of challenge to release dopamine.
Compared to an adult brain, a young brain needs more frequent releases of dopamine in order to support and stimulate the effort to persevere in the face of challenges and obstacles. In the classroom, the video model can be achieved for example using corrective feedback in a timely manner, so that students recognize the incorrect fundamental knowledge and then have the opportunities to strengthen the correct memory circuits through practice. What the teacher can do is to be aware of why the brain is so responsive to video games and to bear in mind the achievable challenges and incremental progress feedback when planning a learning unit.
Here are some ways to adapt these ideas to current teaching practice.
- A common myth about learning through play is that it requires high-level technology. Another aspect is that it is simply the use of games, either physically or on the Internet, in the classroom. These ideas are not entirely true. Learning through play can be more appealing when using technology, but it is not a requirement. It represents more than using games in the classroom, it refers to rigorously design a study unit, games being used to explore concepts and learning objectives in depth.
- The question is how to design engaging game-based learning units in order to assess the major learning objectives? A game-based learning unit should include both small workloads, as well as advanced tasks. As Mark Twain wrote, “The secret to a good start is to break complex and overwhelming tasks into small, easy to manage tasks, and then start with the first one of them.”. Small work tasks can be solved either individually or collaboratively within groups. They represent moments of the lesson where students are faced with challenges that will prepare them for advanced tasks. The objectives or standards for these workloads are usually specific, individual, reduced in number and variety, and belong to a single discipline.
- Advanced levels are more rigorous assignments that require students to synthesize the content and skills gained in previous steps. Students work with teachers to create a project or an outcome presenting everything they have learned through previous work tasks. Advanced problems can be defined by the teacher or co-defined by teacher and student. They cover many standards in many disciplines, and include all standards of the previous small work tasks. It is important to note that all workloads are circumscribed to a same theme, to a predefined scenario.
- Game-based learning requires a good knowledge of the learning content. In order to complete small work tasks, but also the advanced level ones, students will have to acquire content and skills. Instead of a prior teaching, the instructor presents his material and facilitates learning as students are involved in solving tasks. Students are forced to take risks, to learn from mistakes and persevere. During the game, the teacher will facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge or skills that are needed, while on the other hand, he will provide an immediate and useful feedback. Unlike traditional learning, mistakes and reversals are allowed and even required on the path to success. The methods by which students could be encouraged are diverse accumulation of progress points or badges, progress charts etc. Thus, short-term goals are recognized by students as steps toward long-term objectives. One way to help each pupil in maintaining motivation and effort is to transfer the task of recognizing students’ progress to themselves. This can be done by allowing students to use a variety of methods for recording their own progress toward the individualized goals mutually agreed upon.
- One attractive aspect of this method is role playing. Students love to take on a role, whether it’s the role of a detective, explorer, warrior or reporter, and this stimulates creativity, motivation and contribute to the internalization of learning. They don’t just fall into the “skin” of the character, but build a background story. Challenge is also a powerful motivator whenever students are faced with well tailored, achievable tasks and manage to carry them out due to their effort and perseverance. Students need challenges that are appropriate to their previous knowledge and skills to stay motivated to persevere and build fundamental knowledge.
The advancement of learning using new technologies will enhance opportunities for individualized learning using digital tools, videos and even virtual reality. For now, however, students need the efforts of educators to differentiate instruction based on the understanding of their differences as far as learning style, interests, skills, their strengths, and by the ability to promote their motivation, perseverance, resilience, by providing achievable and individual challenges.
Article written by: Irina Vasilescu, Scientix Ambassador