How video games can push the button on better learning

11th April 2014 at 01:00
They transport you to a different world, says US educator

Video games technology and a "pure science" approach to what works in education will be used to revolutionise schools, according to one of the world's most celebrated educators.

It is a futuristic vision that may not match what many would expect to hear from Geoffrey Canada. As president of education agency the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City he has become famous for tackling much grittier problems, such as keeping children away from local drug dealers and making sure that their parents know how to bring them up.

But asked what he thought would do most to change education in the next five to 10 years, Mr Canada instantly identified technology as a "huge educational tool". Like the ability to weed out "weak" teachers, he sees it as another way of fulfilling his central mission of ensuring that children from some of the most deprived backgrounds in the US have a chance to succeed.

"There is no way that you can substitute a mediocre teacher for a great teacher," he said. "There is just no way. But could you bring that great teacher into your school [through technology]? The answer is absolutely yes."

Mr Canada, who featured prominently in Waiting for Superman, a documentary film about US schools, told an audience at last month's Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai that it might be six years before "this thing can be really, really useful", owing to a lack of interactivity and education software programming that was still "pretty crappy".

But he had already identified the source of the solution. "The people who have really got the programming down are all the games people," he said. "Kids are playing video games.

"The folks that [programme them] are geniuses because they have tapped right into the main senses - it is visual, tactile, auditory - instantly, all at the same time. It actually transports you to a different world because all the senses are engaged. Someone mentioned that they didn't have the smell but they're going to get that."

Video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell - the man behind Atari, home of Space Invaders - is taking up the "gamification" of education. He believes that a games-based approach could make learning 10 times quicker than is currently possible in a traditional classroom.

The company behind the Angry Birds game, Rovio, has also developed a curriculum for schools. Angry Birds Playground aims to improve early years education by making learning fun, according to Peter Vesterbacka, the company's head of corporate affairs.

"An example I always use is that boys in Finland speak better English than girls, and the reason is because they play more games. They learn while they are having fun," he told TES last month. "We think there's no reason the same couldn't be true for maths, physics, geography or coding. We believe all learning can be made fun and if it is fun you will get better results."

Mr Canada was also convinced that the games industry could improve learning. "They are so far ahead of where I think education programming is right now, which is slow, it's clunky, it doesn't give you much satisfaction and it still feels a lot like school," he said.

"People have just started to figure out that there is a real market in this. I think all educators have to pay close attention to this because it could be a real game changer."

Miles Berry, a principal lecturer in computing education at the University of Roehampton in London, agreed, although he did not think it was the "sensory experience" that would necessarily make games programming important in education.

"With many of the good commercial games, what you are doing a lot of the time is discovering the rules," he said. "You are given an environment to explore and are learning through making your own meaning out of your interaction with the game. That is one of the big differences between so-called educational games and off-the-shelf games which these rock star developers have put together. A little more of that would be no bad thing."

But Mr Berry cautioned: "Let's not play games at the expense of discussing ideas with one another."

Mr Canada also told the Dubai conference that any innovation in education now needed scientific evidence to back it up. "A lot of education has been a hodgepodge of hopes and dreams," he said. "It hasn't worked and people have become frustrated and people have given up. I think we are at a place now where the science is getting clearer and clearer."

He pointed to the work of Roland Fryer, professor of economics at Harvard University, who has researched educational policies such as whether paying disadvantaged students for good exam results improved their achievement.

"Roland has been convinced that he can find the secret source," Mr Canada said. "He is just pure science - what works and what doesn't, where to place your a science experiment."

Mr Canada said that education was still "behind the science" and that an evidence-based approach to teaching had yet to transform what took place in the classroom. But he was convinced the sector would catch up. "People are stopping the fads," he said. "I think folks are now starting to really put together what it's going to take."

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