Digging Deeper

Cross-curricular learning using video games.

GUEST COLUMN | by Suzi Wilczynski

CREDIT Dig-It GamesFor thousands of years, excellent teachers have known that games and learning belong together. Today we have remarkable technology available to us that makes the game experience more comprehensive and interactive than ever before. Using this technology, gaming transforms from a fun distraction into an opportunity to create a cross-curricular approach to learning for students. Interactive, cross-curricular games allow for that magically immersive experience in education referred to as “deeper learning” where students are continually engaged and interacting with subjects they love, progressing to higher levels of understanding and ability in crucial areas.

Effective educational games bear certain hallmarks that should be known and considered. 

In school environments, math, science, social studies and language arts have traditionally been taught at different times of day, in different classrooms, and with different teachers. Game developers have the chance to break down these artificially-imposed barriers between subjects to create interdisciplinary learning. If one of the main objectives of the Common Core State Standards is to make college-ready students, then an interdisciplinary, cross-curricular approach is vital. Interdisciplinary studies that require students to use knowledge in a new way are powerful tools that help students achieve deeper learning.

Cross-curricular games provide students an opportunity to apply their skills outside the isolated environment of their math, science, social studies and language arts classrooms. When problem solving is put into a larger context with real-world applications, students internalize concepts and process them in a way that makes sense to them, leading to deeper understanding and better retention. Every good teacher knows that true learning comes from students finding the answers on their own and in their own way, an essential part of gaming and cross-curricular gaming in particular.

Whether or not you support the Common Core State Standards, we can all agree that the goal of education is to create “men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered” (Piaget). Cross-curricular gaming in the classroom is an important step in that process. Not all games are the same, however, so how do you know whether a game will successfully assist a student in accomplishing deeper learning, or any academic learning at all?

What to look for in a game

Effective educational games bear certain hallmarks that should be known and considered. Here are a few key elements to look for in a solid learning game experience:

Purpose-aligned learning. An effective game encourages a student use what they have learned for a future purpose. Inevitably, at some point, students will ask or wonder some variation of the famous phrase, ‘When am I ever going to need to know this?’ Learning games that clearly show a student that they can use what they learn for a future purpose instill a level of confidence and willingness in that student that makes teaching and learning look effortless. Such games are carefully developed; look for those clearly aligned to a future purpose for the student.

Content area knowledge. The gaming industry is crowded with games of every variety. While zombies and guns are popular, what you are looking for are those games that actually help a student along an academic course in science, social studies, music, art, etc., and that help them in these areas because ‘Zombie Hunter’ is not a real job listing. Scientist, educator, project manager, curator, artist are all real-world possibilities and while Common Core is a great guideline, more importantly, the future is what we make it.

Opportunities to explore. In educating a child, their self-determinism, the opportunity for them to look in wonder and to make a choice, one that they feel may be correct or interesting or one that merely satisfies their curiosity, is precious. Games provide a unique opportunity for children to explore and investigate things that are specifically of interest to them. There is a certain pleasure in learning new things, and even in going over the familiar, especially when one is in control of that learning. Look for games that provide the student situations in which they can choose a path forward and in which they control the level and pace of exposure to new information.

Multiple cognitive skills to problem solve. Even simple games engage multiple skills. Shooting zombies involves coordination, strategic thinking, and often collaboration with other players. Those skills are important, but literacy, mathematical knowledge, and comprehensive understanding of particular content are more useful in the long run. Good cross-curricular games are just that: they combine two or more curriculum areas into an engaging whole. They put students in situations where they must draw on information and skills learned in multiple classes, an ability that will serve them well in college and the job market.

What this means for the future

So, what does all this mean for the future? When it comes to learning and games, what should teachers look for? What should concerned parents look for? Games that enhance learning and develop knowledge come in many shapes and sizes. Teachers and parents should look for games that have at least one of the elements above, and the more they have the more the student will get out of the game. But the most educational game in the world is completely useless if it is lacking one key quality: fun. Fun is what sets games apart from other learning methods. Some people may think that “fun educational game” is an oxymoron, but the fact is, games that allow children to explore, use multiple cognitive skills, demonstrate content knowledge and provide them context for what they are learning are inherently fun. When we as educators, parents and even game developers accept the challenge to present knowledge in a clear, enticing and engaging way to our students, teaching and learning become not a challenge at all, but a true pleasure.

Suzi Wilczynski is the founder and CEO of Dig-It! Games, a company that believes in the power of games to promote critical thinking, independent learning, and cultural understanding. Their games incorporate age-appropriate content in math, science, social studies and language arts into fun, interactive and engaging learning experiences. 

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