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It is all a bit of a game

A computer game a day keeps pupils alert and improves their maths, a pilot project shows.Dundee children who played a computer game at the start of every school day have shown "dramatic" improvements in maths, concentration and how they get on with each other.

Their rate of progress has caused a stir internationally and has contributed to Scotland's fast-growing reputation for innovative games-based learning.

A pilot project at St Columba's Primary in Dundee saw a composite class of P5-6 pupils playing More Brain Training from Dr Kawashima for 15 to 20 minutes at the start of each school day for 10 weeks.

The "game" for the hand-held Nintendo DS console is a collection of mini-games, such as number challenges, reading tests, problem-solving exercises and memory puzzles. They are designed to "exercise the brain" by increasing blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex.

The 30 pupils, who each played on an individual console, took a maths test before and after the project. Progress over 10 weeks was compared to a school where pupils were given the existing educational movement-based programme Brain Gym, while a third group was used as a control.

All three groups had better scores after 10 weeks, but the biggest improvement was in the Kawashima group, where the average score went up 10 points to 86100. Children who had low scores in the first test did particularly well, and one learning support pupil jumped from 25 to 68100.

Both the Kawashima and the Brain Gym groups showed statistically significant gains in time taken to complete maths tests, but the improvement by St Columba's pupils were "particularly significant", according to a Learning and Teaching Scotland expert who reported on the initiative.

The average time for completion of the test by the Nintendo group dropped from 17mins, 1sec to 13mins, 19secs. Some of the children halved the time it took to complete the test, while maintaining or improving their score.

Derek Robertson, Learning and Teaching Scotland's new technology for learning development officer, was struck by the "dramatic enhancement in their mental maths ability in such a short period of time - I didn't expect that to be the case".

He was also impressed that the game appeared to have "pulled everybody up" - the whole class was showing an improvement, rather than pupils of particular abilities.

There was also a dramatic impact on behaviour, which he had not anticipated and which has lasted beyond the project. "It seemed to have a settling effect," he said.

The pupils, now in P6 and 7, no longer use the consoles in school, but they are more "cohesive, comfortable with each other and supportive" than equivalent pupils in previous years.

Mr Robertson concedes that the project was not big enough for firm conclusions to be drawn, and he is hopeful of conducting a similar work on a larger scale early next year. He wants to involve a number of local authorities and will also seek support from Nintendo and ELSPA, the organisation that represents the British computer game industry.

The project's success has grabbed the attention of Stephen Heppell, a world-renowned authority on technology and education, who invited Mr Robertson, St Columba's headteacher Stella Andrews and two pupils to speak to delegates at the London Games Festival this week.

Mr Robertson also hosted a seminar at which he talked about the Dundee project. It was attended by Tanya Byron, the psychologist who hosted television parenting programmes "Little Angels" and "The House of Tiny Tearaways", who has been asked by the UK Government to report on the use of technology for learning.

Mr Robertson - who is looking at learning opportunities provided by a number of computer games through his work at Consolarium, the Scottish centre for games earning - has also been asked to present his findings at events in Singapore and Germany.

"Learning and Teaching Scotland is in some quarters becoming synonymous with games-based learning - we took a chance with this and we are really creating a bit of a stir," he said.

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