Future of Learning

What if they made learning – gasp! – fun?

As schools invest more money and time on high-tech tools, a new book offers a roadmap for how digital games can change teaching and learning

The cover of the book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

The cover of the book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

In his new book, “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter,” Greg Toppo, the national education and demographics writer at USA Today, pulls back the curtain on the history and promise of educational games.

Toppo takes readers inside classrooms, labs and startup companies to meet the people who are the driving forces behind the movement to bring digital games into our schools. The book comes at a time when school leaders are spending more money on high-tech tools, and more teachers say they believe that games are effective tools for teaching and learning.

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Along with many scenes that are amusing and illuminating, Toppo also weaves in meaty bites of public policy and academic research. The book provides an accessible account that policymakers, teachers, parents and students can all use for an informed – and lively – conversation about digital games in the classroom.

The Hechinger Report caught up with Toppo recently to talk about games and learning.

Q: When you started this book you didn’t set out to write about games. Can you tell us a little more about that back story?

A. I had actually planned to write about what was happening to reading in America. I’m a parent and a former teacher, and I’d become fascinated with research by folks like Northwestern University sociologist Wendy Griswold, who was seeing the emergence of a small, elite “reading class,” similar to a leisure class, that still reads books even as the rest of us reject them. What I found, ultimately, was that while reading was taking a hit from other media, research showed that even heavy media users still read a lot. And of course, Harry Potter happened. It all led me to a broader exploration of media in kids’ lives, and ultimately to an inquiry about video games, which were becoming a huge cultural force. Almost as soon as I began looking into games, I met teachers and developers who were pushing to use them in a whole new way, to deliver a more rigorous kind of classroom experience that was also more immersive and inclusive.

Q: Your book tells the story of educational games in a very human way. I laughed out loud several times while reading it, and your narration helped me see and hear what it looked like inside the classroom. Whom do you view as the main audience for the book?

A. Everyone, actually. The book is aimed at parents and teachers because they are the ones who need to come to a deeper understanding of games and the role they play in kids’ lives. But I’m actually hoping that teenagers will find the book, read it, mark up the pages and hand it to adults. Ultimately, I hope gamers can start a very high-level conversation with the gatekeepers in their lives.

Related: Is “making a game out of learning” bad for learning?

Q: You devote two chapters to the alleged games-and-violence connection, as well as the topic of games and addiction. These have nothing to do with school. How did you stumble upon these topics?

A. As I was reporting the book, I found that whenever I talked to parents, they wanted to talk about one thing: violence. Well, two things: violence and Minecraft. They wanted to know if they were being bad parents by indulging their kids’ love of games, some of them violent. And they were wrestling with what looked to them like their kids’ addiction to games. So I dove into the research and found that, for the most part, everything we know about games is wrong. For the vast, vast majority of kids, violent games simply don’t make them violent – in fact, some evidence shows just the opposite. And our ideas about games and addiction, it turns out, are pretty simplistic. In the end, I decided that these were vital pieces of the puzzle. As adults, we totally misunderstand what’s going on in kids’ heads as they’re playing games, and we need to fix that immediately.

Q: You describe several games you played — educational and not — to help illustrate larger points in the book. Sometimes I feel like I’m not working when I test-drive games that I might write about in a news story. It can’t be work! It is fun. But maybe that’s the whole point, right?

A. Exactly. In the prologue, I mention a scene that took place 25 years ago, at an afterschool program at MIT’s Media Lab. An eight-year-old boy was showing off a bit of handiwork he’d created with LEGOs and a computer program. Asked about the usefulness of the project, he said, “Yes, this is fun, but it’s hard fun.” I think this field holds great promise for bringing together rigor and engagement in a way that we haven’t seen before. One of my favorite quotes during my reporting came from an astrophysicist whose team is developing math and science games. She said, “We’re not trying to turn your students into gamers – we’re trying to turn your gamers into students.”

Related: Using robots, two-way mirrors and more in blended learning

Greg Toppo, national education writer at USA Today.

Greg Toppo, national education writer at USA Today.

Q: I enjoyed the scene you described when you were immersed in a game about Thoreau and Walden Pond. Did you find many unexpected, really creative games like this? Do you think many will make it into schools?

A. Yes! Everywhere I turned, it seemed, someone was creating something amazing. Many game designers, I learned, were very smart people who didn’t do well in school, so they felt a duty to rescue the next generation! Eventually I simply had to draw the line and stop reporting because the manuscript was due. But every day, it seemed, I was learning about some crazy history game or genius way to teach fractions. And to me, the most exciting thing is that brave teachers are adopting these tools without fanfare or, in many cases, permission. It’s a really exciting, bottom-up way to create change.

Related: A quest for a different learning model: Playing games in school

Q: Is there anything that worries you about the growing acceptance of technology and games in the classroom?

A. I worry that administrators will be impatient, that they’ll skim a book like this, try out a game or two and decide that it’s all a waste of time because test scores don’t massively improve overnight. In the book, I come back again and again to the metaphor of the piano: Imagine if, instead of rolling computers into every classroom, we rolled pianos into every classroom, then left teachers to fend for themselves. We wouldn’t be surprised to get what computer pioneer Alan Kay called “a Chopsticks culture.” Thankfully, computers these days are more user-friendly than ever. Even toddlers can make an iPad work. So perhaps we can move beyond Chopsticks and start playing Chopin. But like anything great, that takes time.

Q: In a column last fall for The Hechinger Report you suggested that education technology “might make learning a little more dangerous” — and that’s a good thing. Do you find many educators who feel it’s OK to take risks?

A. Yes. Great teachers are always willing to do just about anything to get their students excited about a topic. They just need better tools.

Q: For teachers and parents the choices for “educational” games online and for mobile devices can be overwhelming. Do you have any tips on resources to help them find effective games?

A. The bad news is that the term “educational” has nearly lost its meaning when it comes to apps. Type the term into the search window on the iTunes App Store, for instance, and you’ll get thousands of results, many of them dreadful. But a few curated sites have sifted through the mountain of content and found a handful of truly worthwhile products. I would suggest: Common Sense Media’s Graphite platform; The Mind/Shift Guide to Digital Games and Learning; Educade, a curriculum and games platform created by the Los Angeles developer Gamedesk.

This interview was conducted via email and lightly edited for length.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update about blended learning delivered straight to your inbox for free.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior engagement editor and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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