When I have discussed with other teachers, our plans for using computer games as a means to approach learning goals, I have often received a response along the lines of: “Kids play these games more than enough at home. Shouldn’t we be doing something different in school?”
I believe this question is built upon a faulty premise. It is true that kids spend a lot of time playing computer games at home. However, there are plenty of activities kids do for leisure, that we also want them to spend time on for school. The fact that many spend a lot of their spare time reading literature or watching movies, causes few educators to believe that spending school time on these activities is, by definition, wasteful. The important questions when deciding on which learning materials to bring into the classroom are: “Does this have educational value?” and “How can this best be used to assist in students’ learning?” These questions are equally applicable regardless of whether one plans to introduce a textbook text, a play, an episode of the Simpsons, or a computer game.
In order for any medium to facilitate students’ learning, it must be used in a well thought-out pedagogical context. When a class is assigned to read a novel, the educator’s role is to put in place activities that will maximize students’ learning output. Before a class starts reading, students might spend time examining the historical and cultural context in which it was written. While they read and after they have completed the novel, the class may do research, partake in discussions, write essays, give presentations, or any number of other activities.
When using computer games, the same principles apply. Civilization IV is not an exceptionally educational game, just like The Catcher in the Rye is not an exceptionally educational novel. The lesson plan surrounding the game or the novel, is far more important than which game, novel or other medium is used.
We expect to spend 4 weeks where Civilization IV will be a central tool in Social Science, English and Norwegian classes. That’s 12 x 45 minutes a week. 40-50% of this time will be spent actually playing the game. While playing the game, we expect students to keep meticulous logs of their progress (Technologies researched, cities built, civics chosen, diplomatic relations etc). Students will be using the game to explore concepts like resource distribution, encounters between colonizers and aboriginal peoples, globalization etc. In addition to the game itself, they will also be utilizing a variety of different sources to shed light on these concepts.
Regardless of which subjects you teach, and what your learning goals are, a teacher has an arsenal of different tools and methods at his disposal. Over the next couple of months we will build the case that using computer games, is a very viable option.