I took a trip to the app store and window-shopped educational apps.  There’s good news and bad news.  You know this educational gap people complain about where the United States is falling behind other developed countries in math and science? Well, if the availability of educationally oriented video games on the AppStore is any indication, we are going to come out on top when it comes to addition, subtraction, multiplication, naming colors, states, flags and identifying animal sounds. We are going to kick ass.  We’ll probably do pretty well at word searches too. The bad news: there appears to be a scarcity of educational games oriented beyond preschool and early elementary education.

Certainly early education is important and lays a foundation for later learning.  No argument there.  But let’s face it, naming colors and animal sounds or learning times tables is probably not our fundamental difficulty.  The challenge arises in subsequent years: getting a greater proportion of students to understand algebra, calculus, chemistry and physics.  And we should not be techno-centric.  An understanding of the humanities and social sciences and a dash competence with written language couldn’t hurt anything either.  The challenge lies in advanced skills.

There are plenty of opinions on why education is ‘failing’– ranging from arguments about what and how we teach, to arguments about how we fund and organize schools– but the basic challenge remains the same as always: to engage students with a subject so that they acquire skills rather than sleep-walk through a course mindlessly parroting back answers to pass a test.  Can games help with this?

I have talked about how games can potentially be used to engage non-motivated players (aka students) and, over time, create motivation.  The development of skills represents a critical component of that process.  Although I have talked about approaches to creating motivation, I have not discussed pathways to skill acquisition, which will be the focus of the next few posts.

Surveying educational apps on the app store, most do not use the game format to introduce pedagogical innovations.   Instead, there is a surprising lack of imagination, with most games being no more than electronic versions of ‘the same old thing.’  For example, there are a surprising number of ‘flash card’ games, numerous electronic ‘hangman’, plenty of word searches:  the same tools that have been conventionally used for decades dressed up in an electronic game format.

Most of these educational games do not use the game to teach or develop skills but settle for practicing skills.  That is, they don’t teach at all: they drill.  Of course, sometimes rote learning is appropriate. Yellow is yellow is yellow. But even apps tackling more advanced subjects fail to teach.  I encountered an algebra app that simply puts up algebraic equations for the player to solve and awards points when they are correct; absolutely zero teaching– and an exceptionally tedious ‘game’.  I found an app about the periodic table where you click on an element and up pops an animated cartoon ‘element’ bouncing across the screen with a summary of the same information on the periodic table.  The animated atoms are merely cute, illustrating no meaningful information (ie., electrons, protons, etc.).  There is no way to combine elements and see how they do or do not go together, why/why not, and what they might form when they do bond.  In short, there is absolutely no teaching (though to be fair, this isn’t really a game at all but more of a pointless reference app).

So what is missing? The pathways of discovery.  Video games fundamentally provide a problem to be solved.  Skill at the game means learning ways to solve the problem better and more efficiently, whether this be killing a dragon or finding the Golden Chalice to save the Princess.  Even games of chance require a player to develop an implicit understanding of the probabilities involved to make better choices.  In an educational game, the problems in the game are designed so that the skills to be acquired happen to be, for example, algebra or chemistry.  This does not mean pitting the player against a dragon to solve a quadratic equation in order to cross the bridge– there’s no teaching there, just boring practice.  And if the player doesn’t understand quadratics in the first place, they simply become more frustrated.  An educational game, like the Legend of Zelda, has to contain pathways of discovery that, through twists and turns, trial and error, eventually lead to winning the game. And like Zelda, these discoveries often have an order and build upon each other.  These pathways are the curriculum of the game and their discovery the acquisition of skills. And winning is effectively learning, not merely practice.  In the next post, I will develop the idea of pathways of learning, eventually relating this back to Mr. Basal Ganglia, reinforcement learning and motivation.  For skill learning, it always comes back to the basal ganglia (never mind all that wriggly cortical stuff).

PS- I should note, this was not a comprehensive survey of the state of the educational game industry, but a casual stroll through the Apple app store. I am in search of excellent educational games and companies, particularly targeting post-elementary school curricula. If you know of something, let me know.

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