Video Games and Teaching

I recently spent the weekend finishing off the game the Last of Us for the Playstation 3.  I had been meaning to play it for a while but the fact is I never had the time.  After getting started I instantly got into the story and couldn’t stop thinking of ways to beat a certain level or even strategies to best use my player’s skills in the game play (I even asked my students for some hints as I was getting stuck).  The one thing that stuck out to me as I finished was “How can we compete at school with the stimulation that these games are providing our students?”

As a computer programming teacher I instantly saw the connections that could be made and how we could spin a lesson out of video game design and storytelling, and then go on to create our own games.  Unfortunately as a math teacher I was (and still am) stuck on the idea of how to get students into a subject that is often deemed one of the worst classes.  I often try to being humour into the course and try to connect what we are doing to real-life and even popular media (singing all about the bass when working on power laws), but I want to further inquire about gamifying my classroom.

I feel that with the amount of students that play games (girls as well as boys), we could all benefit from the power of gamifying classrooms.  Games provide that connection to our imagination and provide us with opportunities to try new things without being punished when failure occurs.  Although I strive to make the learning zone in my classroom a fail-safe zone where students feel comfortable in answering questions even without full certainty, it is not the same feeling as with a game.  Due to the fact the lives can come back and that you will not be judged on intelligence, failing in a game is much safer than failing in real life.  I have tried to make “games” that have helped the students get interested in tackling problems and being successful in their own learning, but it is not the same stimulation that a game provides.

I have often thought about making the MAP4C class into a game of life or the SIMS, because they learn about buying a house, saving money, and planning for their future.  I think the trouble lies in the delivery of content such as statistics (two-variable data sets, weighted averages, percentile ranks, etc.), exponent laws and exponential functions, and algebraic models (linear vs. quadratic vs. exponential graphs).  There are the trickier topics that can demotivate students and I want to further explore how to incorporate these into the ideas that we have for personal finance, trigonometry and geometry.  These are the questions that I have for myself and have for my colleagues who are further interested in making the courses more interactive like a game as that can help our students stay focused in this over-stimulated world.

It goes without saying that we will have to face the challenges of motivating students for a long period of time when they are developing shorter attentions spans.  With games, smartphones, and Netflix we are becoming the most boring and least controlled element in the students lives.  It is a difficult (but interesting) challenge although I am unsure of how we are able to compete or even teach the students content that they do not feel is applicable to their lives.  Reaching the students and getting them to see the application of content in their lives is one of the greatest accomplishments but is also the biggest obstacle.  We need to use the lesson of great video games: get them hooked to the story and the tasks at hand and they will want to continue attempting the work for hours (even days).

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