Game on

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
History games covering QCA schemes of work

KS2: Henry VIII; The Tudors; World War Two

KS3: The French Revolution; The Industrial Revolution; The Middle Ages

Caspian Learning, site licence pound;399 per game; annual renewable licence pound;225

Technically, this software is impressive. It's like playing Harry Potter, but instead of seeking wizards in Hogwarts, students can explore 3D period settings and seek out clues to help answer puzzles from the past.

Students guide a selected character through a historic location, such as the streets of revolutionary France. On the way, they meet historical figures who pass on facts that enable the character to complete a task.

Clear learning objectives are set out at the start of each game, and students can pause to check instructions at any time.

There are a few glitches - my character occasionally glided through solid walls. Some of the environments, such as the Victorian cotton mill, would benefit from extra period detail, and more figures in setting would give them the feel of bustling communities.

Many incentives ensure that the software is enjoyable to use. At the end of each task students accrue bonus points for answering questions correctly.

These can be cashed in to acquire items, such as skateboards, for use on the next task.

The arcade-style appearance of the animations will attract pupils who are less willing to learn using traditional methods, and lets them discover at their own pace. Characters can also hop on vehicles - my son enjoyed racing across streets on his virtual skateboard and riding on a Victorian steam-engine footplate.

My scepticism about using games-based learning to teach complex historical events gradually eroded. Topics are broken into mini-enquiries, such as the causes of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille. Each enquiry is then reduced to tasks targeting cognitive skills, such as comprehension. After each session the software records performance, so progress can be monitored and evaluated. This data could be entered into a spreadsheet to identify areas of poor understanding across a class.

I would use this software to reinforce learning or use tasks as extension exercises, rather than as a stand-alone product with which to deliver an entire QCA unit. Although Caspian Learning is keen to promote the academic rigour behind the software, kinaesthetic learners may be tempted to click through the more text-heavy sections in the hope of guessing their way to bonus-point success.

My students enjoyed the challenge of improving their understanding while having fun, and liked the clear feedback they received after completing each task.

More research is needed to explore the effectiveness of this style of learning, compared with teacher-led or textbook approaches.

Many teachers may feel squeamish about using arcade games to achieve serious learning outcomes. However, when they see how the software makes learning enjoyable and accessible to students who have grown up with multimedia interactivity, I think even the most traditional teachers will change their minds.

Chris Higgins teaches history at Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone, Kent

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