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Can Classroom Games Improve Learning?

Guest post written by Nancy Cao. Nancy is an Associate at Mission Measurement, where she works with corporations and nonprofits to measure and create social impact.

Teachers have always sought new ways to make learning in the classroom more fun and more relevant to their students. However, once students move beyond elementary school, a lot of the "fun" tends to go away: no more Gold Rush simulations during history class, multiplication games during math, and certainly no more time set aside to play games in the computer lab. Too much fun is often perceived as empty calories: it gets students' attention, but doesn't have enough educational value.

With renewed emphasis on student engagement as a critical piece of academic success, that paradigm is now shifting. Games in the classroom are being explored again, and this time beyond elementary school. Knewton, an adaptive online learning company, has published an infographic that summarizes the gamification of education. It highlights three elements of game design that can be applied in the educational space: progression - visible, incremental success; investment - increasing stake in the activity through incentives and goal-setting; and cascading information theory - a cumulative gathering of information, skills, and knowledge. These "hooks" for students are already core principles of teaching, but are newly enabled by 21st century thinking and tools. It seems that fun is making a comeback.

Two middle schools are wholly embracing gamification in education and are staking the success of their students on its practice. Quest to Learn (Q2L), opened 2009 in New York City, and ChicagoQuest (opened 2011) are sister schools that that use games and game design in their curriculum and pedagogical approach. Students might dive into a virtual reality game where they identify artifacts from different civilizations, or be tasked to create a maze-based game that allows them to practice skills like iteration and writing critiques. This gamified approach extends to report cards: at Quest schools, students demonstrate progression not through A-F grades, but rather through levels of mastery, from "pre-novice" to "novice", "apprentice", "senior", and "master". School thus becomes a game to be mastered, which presumably increases excitement and engagement in learning.

Beyond student engagement, Quest schools explicitly aim to increase 21st century skills learning and academic achievement. Katie Salen, executive director of Institute of Play, the agency behind Quest schools, explains: "For each trimester, there's a master idea and then smaller quests within that mission. That's the way games work: they provide interesting problem spaces that are impossible to solve right away and you actually have to build skills and knowledge in order to figure them out." The logic model is as follows: engagement, then 21st century skills, and finally academic performance gains.

It sounds perfectly reasonable, but initial results from traditional metrics, such as statewide exams, have mixed results. Q2L 6th graders performed just above the New York state median in tests last year, but while English scores were above the median, Math scores were lower. ChicagoQuest has yet to achieve the same: in its first year, its 7th graders' average ISAT scores were lower than the state average across all three categories of English, Science, and Math. What about 21st century skills? There's some positive news: Florida State University is publishing a formative assessment in which they found that Quest to Learn students improved their systems thinking skills. However, they did not demonstrate improvement in teamwork or time management, the other core competencies targeted by Q2L. Additional 21st century skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and creativity, have not been evaluated.

Ultimately, the jury is still out about gamification in education and whether its application improves learning in the classroom. The Quest schools are young, but they must demonstrate in the next few years that their educational model can both increase student engagement and facilitate the development of 21st century skills. If they are able to achieve that, then we may judge them on their academic performance, and determine if this model can be adapted or scaled more broadly across middle schools.

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