Tes talks to... Yasmin Kafai

Teachers need to not just tolerate gaming as hobby but embrace it in the classroom, too, the professor of learning sciences tells Simon Creasey
20th October 2017, 12:00am
Magazine Article Image


Tes talks to... Yasmin Kafai


Computer games and education do not mix. That’s what you hear time and time again in schools. Gaming stops children focusing on more important tasks like homework, it is claimed, and research appears to suggest there are links between gaming and anti-social behaviour in young people and that prolonged screen time potentially causes psychological problems in children.

Yasmin Kafai has little time for that narrative. As a professor of learning sciences at the Graduate School of Education, University of Philadelphia, she specialises in the field of digital media and learning and she thinks that anyone who believes that gaming is bad for children is stuck in the dark ages.

“There is now a lot of empirical evidence and there are studies that show that children playing games actually learn quite a range of skills, including problem solving, collaborating and reading and writing,” says Kafai.

The reason this is not recognised is that acquisition of those skills looks different to how they might look in a classroom.

“These are all things that we value in school settings, but children do this in a different way when they play games than they would in the classroom - it is contextualised differently,” she explains.

She’s not just talking about educational games bringing these benefits. She’s also keen to talk up ‘serious’ games, standard off the shelf consumer games and also games like Minecraft. A phonics-based tutorial game could be as useful as the latest iteration of FIFA.

That teachers should be more accepting of gaming as a hobby outside school may be controversial enough for some, but Kafai goes further and says they should be used in the classroom, too.

“If there is one piece of technology that children are familiar with before they even come into the classroom it is computer games, so for me if I want to introduce computing or technology it’s a natural connection point to build on something that children already know,” she says.

Making computer games

And this isn’t just about children playing computer games - it’s also about making games, which is a process that Kafai says children also love.

“It is a very rich experience to think about what it takes to make your own computer game,” she explains. “In terms of programming, storytelling and graphic design it requires a lot of sophistication, so for teachers it offers a lot of opportunities to come at this from a language perspective, from an arts point of view or from a computer science perspective.”

But before teachers can take advantage of gaming in the classroom, she says there are a number of common misconceptions that need to be overcome.

One recurring issue Kafai identifies is people often draw a distinction between playing and making games.

“This distinction is flawed,” she argues. “We should really think about it as one environment. Minecraft is a great illustration of a game where children can play, but they can also create and there are now tonnes of examples of how teachers have incorporated Minecraft into the curriculum.”

Another issue that many teachers grapple with is the difference between online and offline worlds, says Kafai.

“Children’s play is much more fluid when it comes to navigating between those environments,” she argues. “Children don’t draw a distinction between the two. It is us older people who look at things on the screen and off the screen as distinct.”

The good news for teachers who haven’t got the first clue where to start when it comes to using gaming as an educational tool, is that there is lots of helpful information out there and much of it is free.

Kafai’s own website contains information about projects that teachers can use and she was also involved in an initiative called “Scratch”, which was developed in conjunction with the MIT Media Laboratory (https://scratch.mit.edu).

On the Scratch website, which was designed to “enhance the development of technological fluency among children ages 8-18,” children can program their own interactive stories, games and animations, from scratch, completely free of charge, and share them with others in the online community.

There are millions of projects on the site that children can watch and be inspired by and there is also a host of information targeted at teachers explaining how they can take advantage of this resource.

“The great thing with Scratch is teachers can do this in the classroom, but children can also access this in the afternoon or on the weekend,” says Kafai. “They [the children] can build their own games on their own or they can work collaboratively on them.”

But while Kafai waxes lyrical about the numerous benefits gaming brings, she concedes that introducing children to online worlds isn’t without its issues. She co-wrote the book Connected Play: Tweens in a Virtual World, with Deborah Fields. The book looks at what happens when children play in virtual worlds and what impact this has on their offline lives.

“When we did research for the book we were working with a particular age group of ‘tweens’ who were moving out of childhood and into adolescence so there was a lot of boundary testing,” she explains. “They were trying to figure out what was ok and what was not. Educationally, it is really important that children begin to understand the effect they can have online and the difference between what is ok and what’s not.”

The other problem is making sure that children use gaming in moderation and that it doesn’t become too much of a distraction. But she argues that we need some cultural recalibration on this point.

“We need be aware of the cultural values,” says Kafai. “For instance, we are perfectly fine if a kid practices a piano for ten hours per day - nobody will say ‘that’s wrong’.”

While Kafai may be able to persuade a lot of teachers to re-evaluate their opinions of computer games with her arguments above, getting them to see piano practice and a Call of Duty marathon as equivalent might be pushing it. But she is confident the tide is turning and that soon, gaming will be part of education, not an irritant to it. After all, she says, computer gaming is now as mainstream as film and books.

“A lot of those negative perceptions about gaming being a distraction came out of a different time when it had a different status, but in the last 20 years the situation has changed,” she says. “Nowadays literally everybody is playing games. You’ve got young and old people playing and you’ve got people from all different economic strata.”

Few are playing them in the classroom at the moment, but if Kafai has her way, that’s all going to change soon.

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters
Most read
Most shared