Game offers a sound basis for knowledge

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Education rocks as PlayStation 2's new music game takes the strain out of learning
Education rocks as PlayStation 2's new music game takes the strain out of learning

It must be the first rock band to have been inspired by the Curriculum for Excellence. When 12-year-old Blair Mackie was looking for a name for his band, he stared around the classroom for inspiration.

There it was up on the wall - Effective Contributors - one of the key objectives in the curriculum. Blair had a band, his teachers had a laugh - Effective Pain launched plans for a European tour.

Elrick Primary in Aberdeenshire has introduced rock music to the classroom using the PlayStation 2 game Guitar Hero II to inspire and motivate pupils. It's a bit like a karaoke competition for guitars, although the game's more about co-ordination skills than musicianship.

On Friday afternoons, Blair and his P6-7 classmates can be heard thrashing out rock classics by bands such as Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd. It's the kind of stuff their parents performed on air guitar in their teens and may still well do.

And it's all a far cry from their teacher Aloyise Mulligan's own schooldays with the nuns in Belfast in the 1970s. But she tells parents and colleagues: "We're not just playing games all day."

"I have a solid block of maths and language every day that is not linked to Guitar Hero," says Mrs Mulligan, who introduced games-based learning to her classes last year after attending Aberdeenshire Council's e-learning conference.

For the uninitiated, once you're plugged into Guitar Hero the idea is to hit the correct coloured button on your guitar as the corresponding symbols roll out onscreen and the music blasts out. You strum in time with the action, producing moments of brilliance helped by the whammy bar and your best rock-star attitude. Guitarists battle it out alongside each other as their scores tot up onscreen, monitoring their skill and any bum notes.

In class, this game is played just once a week, but it is the springboard for a range of interdisciplinary educational activities associated with life as a rock star. These Aberdeenshire pupils can't get enough, and neither, it seems, can their teacher.

"I can't wait to get here in the mornings," says Mrs Mulligan, "because I have a class that wants to be here with me." She says using the game has boosted confidence and attainment, particularly in writing.

The children write about the adventures of their virtual bands in postcards and blogs, and boys in particular have engaged more with creative writing since games-based learning was introduced.

Last year, Kim Aplin, depute head at Meldrum Primary, used this game with her P7 in a pilot run by Learning and Teaching Scotland. Now some of the strategies she developed are being used at Elrick.

Who could have thought a rock-star lifestyle could prove so educational? Pupils organise world tours for the bands, playing in cities such as Paris, Rome and Lisbon. They price flights and hire Hummers on the internet, write songs, design CD covers and make their own guitars in art class.

They have done science experiments to explore how sound travels; they learn about the geography and culture of the countries they visit and write enthusiastically about their bands on blogs and postcards home.

Teachers have been astonished by the impact on discipline, motivation and performance. Mrs Mulligan admits using games in this way may initially raise eyebrows among parents but, once they see the results, they tend to become converts.

Predictably, the children have skills beyond their teacher in some areas of technology, but Mrs Mulligan is comfortable with this. They give confident presentations about their bands, using digital photography creatively to provide illustrations. They seem pleased to pass on skills to adults and are patient when explaining how they've done things.

Ryan Clark, 11, is with Fire Angels: "This is more fun than doing a worksheet and it stays in your memory afterwards," he says.

The children don't seem to notice this is a virtual band and even take on some rock-star attributes as they travel the world. Blair says: "We weren't happy with the way people were running it, so we bought the hotel."

Two girls panicked when they thought they'd actually bought flights they were researching on the internet, until their teacher explained they would have needed a credit card.

"Everyone is engaged. I have no discipline problems whatsoever," says Mrs Mulligan, who agrees to take on The TESS in a performance of "Surrender", made famous by the rock band Cheap Trick. The title turns out to be apocryphal and teacher's verdict in this case would have to be: "must try harder".

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