By Rachel Bolstad
It’s winter in New Zealand. Here in Wellington we’ve had a wonderfully crisp and sunny winter except for a few days recently where the city disappeared under a thick grey blanket for a day or two. I think it lends the city a certain air of mystery. Is the city still there? If we can’t see it, how can we be sure? Isn’t it strange when you can only make out little bits and pieces?
Imagine if, when it rolled back, some of the things we knew from before were gone, and some other new things were suddenly visible?
Fanciful ideas, yes. But gazing into the fog got me thinking about the fog of confusion that seems to surround the role of games and game design in school education. If you read over some of the previous posts on this blog, you might know what I’m talking about. It’s the mixture of different ideas, opinions, and anecdotes, both positive and negative, that different people express about games, learning, and learners. Like a city partly shrouded in fog, it’s as though different people looking at games in education are seeing different pieces of the whole picture.
For example, here are a few ideas that we’ve encountered. Perhaps they’re the sorts of things you’ve seen or heard in your schools too.
There are other quite different ideas or experiences that pop out of that fog as well. The examples below illustrate some of the experiences we have seen and heard from game-using teachers in our project.
And there’s more yet. Here are some of the questions or challenges we’ve heard from teachers who are wondering where to even begin with games, or who want to get something going with games in their classrooms but encounter various barriers along the way.
All of these different ideas - and more - are part of the bigger picture when it comes to understanding games and their role and potential in education. What’s interesting to me is how persistently that foggy cloud of different ideas and experiences clings to the landscape of games for learning. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If none of us can yet see the full big picture with complete clarity, it means we all need to keep thinking, exploring, learning and sharing the bits we can see. One day when I was feeling particularly foggy in my own thinking, I hunted around for some great quotes, and felt instantly better when I found this one:
From fog to soup...
For the last two years, we’ve interviewed dozens of teachers and students in game-using classrooms. For them, games are exciting, interesting, packed with cognitive challenges, easily linked within and across the curriculum, and densely packed with rich opportunities for learning. But we’ve also had lots of encounters with people outside the research project who ask “So, games for learning...What’s that all about?”. Usually this question comes from a place of curiosity, but sometimes there’s a facial expression that suggests a different subtext: “Games? Seriously? Please convince me that this is not just a waste of time”.
Those who are puzzled or unconvinced may be looking to our research for “boiled-down” answers, and our research on games for learning does feel a little bit like a slow-bubbling pot of soup, packed full of different tasty morsels. (Soup and fog, yes, perhaps the winter is getting to me). In this research-as-soup analogy, the tasty morsels include all the different kinds of games teachers and students are using, and all the different forms of engagement with games (playing them, making them, hacking them, critically analysing them, poaching ideas from games to “gamify” learning, etc.). The liquidy part of the soup is the wider educational context in which these game-based learning opportunities take place. This includes the classroom culture, the nature of curriculum and pedagogy within the school, the structures and expectations that shape our current systems for school learning, teaching, and assessment, and so on.
What makes the soup delicious is the way all these things blend together in the pot. If classroom-based games for learning practice is what’s happening in the bubbling pot, some people are close enough to actually see (and taste) what’s cooking. These are the people engaged with the practice. You could even say that they are the ones making the soup, by selecting what games go into their practice, thinking about how they blend game-use into their school or classroom culture and it with their curriculum and pedagogy. Many of them are making up the recipe as they go along, or working with their students to create a flavour that they are all happy with. Others people may have started to catch a whiff of the vapour, and want to get close enough to see and taste what someone else has cooked up in their school or classroom. Still other people may be outside the kitchen, only seeing the steam (fog?).
The conclusion I’m coming to, based on what I have seen, read, and done in the games for learning project over these past two years, is that the key to developing and spreading effective and meaningful game-based learning practice in New Zealand will probably not come through boiling down research findings to a few simple answers. It’s come from letting the different ingredients of education practice bubble away together. The examples of game-based practice we have seen are so diverse, complex, interesting, and contextualised that they are better understood as rich cases that can speak to different audiences who may be interested in different facets of game-based learning. And to really understand it, you have to get close and get involved.
If boiling down is not the answer, I think keeping the soup simmering is the way forward. Why? Because it brings more people into the kitchen. It gets more people tasting the soup, sharing, modifying, and adapting recipes, and it generates more flavours of game-based learning practice that we can all keep learning from. A ready-made tin of soup for one is never as good as the one you make fresh yourself and that you share around.
Between now and the end of this year, we’ll begin publishing some key case studies and analyses from our research. And to keep the pot simmering, we’ll be bring together a community of game-curious educators, school leaders, policymakers, game designers, and researchers to share ideas and experiences at the NZCER games for learning conference. The programme of featured talks and breakout sessions is pretty amazing, and there’s still time to register!
We’re also thinking about ways to share the ideas and experiences that bubble up through that conference with a wider audience, beyond the conference.
Stay tuned! And stay warm.