Most of Michelle Russell's Year 6 class at St Stephens Primary School in Bath gave up their lunch hour to do extra work - not once, but every day for six weeks during summer term. Working in mixed-ability groups of four, they tackled a range of challenging tasks that required co-operation, concentration, serious thought and critical decision-making. And Russell says they would have worked even longer. It seems too good to be true until you discover the lunchtime sessions were spent engrossed in Blue Byte's simulation, Settlers IV.
As a rule, the games that children are allowed to play in class fall into the category of "edutainment" - they have educational content geared to national curriculum that is helped down with spoonfuls of arcade-style fun. Settlers IV, on the other hand, was designed purely as entertainment and is pitched at the leisure market.
But does it deserves a place in the classroom? That's the question Russell and her volunteers were trying to answer.
With teachers and pupils in 11 other primary and secondary schools, they were participating in a research project to assess the educational potential of commercial simulation and quest games. Their findings and recommendations to software houses are included in their report, Games In Education, which can be downloaded from the website of Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia (www.teem.org.uk) - the independent group that conducted the study.
The report confirms what most of us know: when children play games they shift into top gear. The teachers, and the children and parents interviewed, say games develop skills at problem solving, sequencing and reasoning and when they are involved in a game, pupils concentrate, co-operate and make a sustained effort. If they approached lessons with the same commitment, every classroom in the UK would be a little heaven on Earth.
But before you race off to requisition a class set of Xboxes, read the whole of the report, which highlights the many - and possibly insurmountable - problems involved in playing games in lessons.
To use a game effectively with pupils, teachers must know it inside-out. That means they have to burn the midnight oil playing the game themselves: time might be better spent getting up-to-date with the marking - or getting a life. The report suggests that the manufacturers could provide teachers with support materials which might help to make this preparatory work a little easier.
It also suggests games should be designed so that teachers could pick relevant sequences for lessons. As things stand, teachers have no alternative but to allow children to play the whole game. And the better the game, the longer it takes to play. That's fine for the aficionado on his home computer, but can be disastrous in the classroom where time is always at a premium. To make matters worse, most games do not have a Save function so every time children abandon a session they are left frustrated by a job unfinished, and when they return to it they have to start at square one again.
Teachers were also worried that some games did not meet the high standards of accuracy they expected in educational software. So, for example, a fantasy set in the past must accord with historical facts. As the report observes: "Relying on magic spells as a way out of a dangerous situation is not appropriate in a factual learning context."
Despite universal agreement that games have a beneficial effect on learning skills, the acid test is whether their content helps to deliver the national curriculum. None of the packages studied by the project did and it seems unlikely that developers, with their sights set on a global market, will pay too much attention to the requirements of whatever curriculum is being championed by the DFES.
TEEM, 46 Whittlesford Road, Little Shelford, Cambridge CB2 5EW
Educational use of games:
* motivates pupils
* improves sequencing, problem-solving, deductive reasoning, memorisation, co-operation and teamwork
* stimulates creative work in: English, science, art and design and technology Iand the bad
* Completing a game takes up far too much lesson time
* There is "a mis-match between games content and curriculum content"
* Teachers have to spend too long time familiarising with a game Bookmarks
The full TEEM report is available at: www.teem.org.ukhowtouseresourcesteem_gamesined_full.pdfFurther information: www.becta.org.uk technologysoftwarecurriculumcomputergames context.html
Tweenies, Bob the Builder (BBC Multimedia); Formula One Racing (Videosystem); Worms United (Microprose); Age of Empires (Microsoft); Championship Manager (Eldos Interactive); Sim City 3000 (Electronic Arts); Settlers IV (Blue Byte)