Greg Toppo, USA Today’s national K-12 education writer, dispels old beliefs about, demystifies the mechanics of and decriminalizes the use of digital games in the classroom in his new book, “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.”
Educators traditionally hold new technology at arm’s length, and who can blame them? As far back as 100 years ago, Thomas Edison predicted silent movies in schools would make books obsolete. Teachers know new isn’t always better.
“How do you persuade someone to do something new and spend time doing it, even if they don’t believe it’s in their own best interest?” Toppo asks.
Toppo reports that learning theorists are discovering that well-made games “don’t reward casual effort, mindless repetition or rat-in-a-cage responses. Instead they reward practice, persistence and risk-taking. … They forge expertise.”
Students still need the foundations of reading, writing, mathematics and science, but Toppo says it’s just as essential that they know “why they’re doing what they’re doing, how well they’re doing it and what it all means. They need to learn how to experiment with ideas.”
He illustrates this importance by describing a modified basketball game he watched at one of the original Quest to Learn schools in New York. For their final project of the school year, a group of middle-schoolers created a game called Triple Turbo Ball, based on basketball. They had deconstructed the game, then reconstructed it to be what they wanted.
“How many games of basketball have we watched or played in our lives without ever thinking about the rules?” Toppo asks. Changing the game as we know it “was cracking the whip on our feeble imaginations and exercising our involuntary what-if muscles.”
Toppo acknowledges games are not a cure-all for education. The pros and the cons of video gaming in the classroom are thoughtfully and thoroughly researched. And despite his convictions, Toppo manages to avoid any preachiness.
Two hot-button issues are kids’ apparent growing disinterest in reading books and the violent behavior that games might incite. Toppo offers solace on each front.
Though his investigation bears out the struggle to keep books in the hands of teenagers — the U.S. Department of Education shows that “between 1984 and 2012, the proportion of seventeen-year-olds who said they ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’ read for fun had grown three-fold” — he simultaneously soothes with research that assures us that kids read, just not what we might want them to.
He writes of a literacy study in Finland that has shown that boys are well ahead of girls in English language proficiency solely due to their intense interest in American video games.
Another Department of Education study shows that the violent media most school shooters have in common is in the form of journal entries, poetry and essays. That and having watched extensive news coverage of other school shootings.
Toppo’s point is that education as we know it is failing our kids, largely because the model schools were built on is an old one from when “schools’ missions were to produce a better factory worker.”
We know from research and observation that video games are staying, that kids love them and learn from them, and that they present many potential learning tools.
This book is a great resource not only for educators and parents who have doubts about the merits of gaming but also for those who already champion it.
Reach Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter” by Greg Toppo (Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $26)