Teachers using games like Portal and God of War to re-engage and help boys succeed in school

The current school system is alienating boys. Can using video games in the classroom bring them back into the fold?

In a TEDx talk from 2010 called "Gaming to re-engage boys in learning" Alison Carr-Chellman, department head and professor of instructional systems in Penn State's College of Education, argues that our current education system is alienating boys by rejecting "boy culture." Carr-Chellman cites some rather alarming statistics - courtesy of the 100 Girls Project - to support this conclusion, among them being:

  • For every 100 girls suspended from school, 250 boys are suspended
  • For every 100 girls expelled, 335 boys are expelled
  • For every 100 girls in special education, 217 boys are in special education
  • For every 100 girls with a learning disability, 276 boys have a learning disability
  • For every 100 girls diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, 324 boys are diagnosed with an emotional disturbance

Additionally, Carr-Chellman claims that boys are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and that 60% of the Bachelor's degrees in America are going to women.

While acknowledging the challenges also facing girls in the school environment, Carr-Chellman concludes that boys are "out of sync" with school culture for 3 major reasons: 1. zero tolerance policies, which restrict how they play and what they're allowed to write; 2. a decline in the number of male teachers who can serve as role models to young boys; 3. and a severe curriculum compression that expects too much of children who are too young to meet its demands.

Among the solutions she offers - alongside talking to those involved with the educational system about the system's shortcomings and trying to change teachers' attitudes towards video games and other elements of "boy culture" - is trying to integrate video games into the classroom by building better educational video games. She cites two major shortcomings of most educational games: low budgets and a lack of rich narrative to engage players.

Starting a conversation

In the years since 2010, much has been made of Carr-Chellman's talk, prompting discussions of whether her solutions are practical and, if so, how to implement them. One question that has come up again and again in this conversation is: can video games be implemented in the classroom in a way that meets current educational standards such as Common Core?

One question that has come up again and again in this conversation is: can video games be implemented in the classroom in a way that meets current educational standards such as
Common Core?

Carr-Chellman and three of her Penn State colleagues - Jason Engerman, Yelim Mun, and Shulong Yan - seem to think so. In their paper "Video Games to Engage Boys and Meet Common Core: A Teacher's Guide" they come to the conclusion that, in addition to allowing boys to "engage in activities that are normal and natural for them including aggressive play, violent fantasy and high levels of kinesthetic activity," gaming experiences can meet national education standards.

Interestingly, the games used in this study were specifically not "educational" games; instead, they cite titles such as Pokemon, God of War, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, and Portal. These "commercial-off-the-shelf" games, in spite of their supposed lack of educational value, are found to meet some of the standards for the Common Core State Standards and International Society for Technology in Education Standards.

Some titles are included for sharpening text analysis skills. When interviewed for the study, participant Hunter claimed that Pokemon helped his reading development:

You got to use context to understand what these words are telling….. I mean just based on where you are in a game, a word that I didn't know what it meant, I would have to think about where I am, what I am trying to do, what you need to do, you know what I mean. I would have to think where I was in the game, and how that worked, [ ], how this word relates to what I was supposed to do next. You just really had to think about it, and try to figure it out.

Unsurprisingly, Assassin's Creed was singled out for its historical content just as God of War was for deepening the participant's understanding of Greek mythology and the characters within it. Participants also reportedly "demonstrated communication and collaboration" while playing Call of Duty and Madden with others as a team. And, unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with it, Portal was cited as fostering "critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making" by offering players "opportunities to plan and manage activities, identify and develop solutions, collect and analyze data and make informed decisions."

So what was their ultimate takeaway from all this? That even "commercial-off-the-shelf" games can meet national educational standards, that educators should try to "make links between [boys'] interests and our goals," and that rejecting video games out of hand is tantamount to rejecting those interested in them:

Ultimately, the rejection of a tool with so much potential and power to draw learners into engaged learning experiences shows a clear rejection of a culture (gaming) that is linked by gender (boys) and may be said to be a rejection of a gender within our traditional school system. If we hope to re-engage the huge numbers of boys who are being identified as learning disabled, ADHD, delinquent, and at-risk, we will have to show a clear acceptance of a culture that may feel foreign to the traditional classroom — full of energy and movement and lack of interest in traditional goals. How will we do this? How can we engage our boys? Perhaps gaming is at least one small part of an overall strategy to re-engage our “lost boys.”

Outside perspectives

"Sure," you might be saying, "but Carr-Chellman was involved in that paper. Wouldn't she be just a little bit biased?" That's a valid concern. So, it's worth looking at what others have said about the potential role of video games in education.

When interviewed for an article at the Hechinger Report Daniel O'Keefe, North Carolina regional director at the Institute of Play, said that while games such as Minecraft can mesh well with the Common Core standards, not all games can "foster the same kind of exploration of abstract ideas that the standards try to foster." He especially warns against using trivia games that rely on memorization and information retrieval, saying that "In the best games, you are learning a subject like algebra in a way that you don’t really know you’re learning it. Students end up actually enjoying algebra because it’s like a puzzle."

In the same article James Gee, a professor at the Center for Games and Impact at Arizona State University’s education school, also says that teachers need to figure out how to integrate games into their teaching first:

The best games are all about solving problems and they can help move us away from just having kids know facts to pass tests. But games aren’t good for everything. Big publishers want to bring games to schools as a stand-alone product; just like that didn’t work for textbooks, games have to be just one part of a bigger learning system.

Of course, video games have other educational benefits outside the rigid Common Core standards. Among the ones Dr. Mark Griffiths examines in "The educational benefits of video games" is the fact that video games appear to be an especially good educational aid for "special need" children, helping them develop language skills, basic math skills, basic reading skills, and social skills, as well as improving attention and decreasing impulsivity. However, Griffiths also warns against using violent video games, which Carr-Chellman claimed were just as vital to boys' engagement as nonviolent games.

Are video games the answer?

While there do seem to be educational benefits to video games which should be studied further so they can be used as tools in a classroom setting and elsewhere, they are clearly not a solution in and of themselves.

This brings us back to Carr-Chellman's multi-pronged approach to the problem - that is, using video games in combination with changing zero tolerance policies and teacher's attitudes towards video games (and "boy culture" in general). Demonstrating the educational value of even "commercial-off-the-shelf" games may help to change teachers' attitudes, but there's little chance of implementing them in the classroom without first addressing the zero tolerance policies; no amount of historical accuracy or narrative depth will convince a teacher to push the boundaries of a zero tolerance policy by bringing a violent video game into the classroom. (Never mind how violent some high-school-level literature is; have school board members even read Macbeth?)

It is, of course, simplistic to assume that all boys are interested enough in video games that it will help them re-engage with school, but there are certainly enough boys interested in video games that it could have a noticeable impact. And really, wouldn't helping even one boy re-engage with school be a victory?

Published Feb. 29th 2016
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  • Jessa Rittenhouse
    While games aren't enough in and of themselves, they're a huge start. The problems with our public school standards in general were reason enough for me to choose homeschooling for my kids - not just the problems presented to boys (I've got two boys and one girl).

    The reasons games work - and work for girls as well as boys - is because they engage us and entertain us, so we're learning without thinking about learning as the intended outcome. Learning becomes fun again, and not a chore.

    Now, this is a concept that can be used to get children to learn from other interests and still get an enjoyable and multidisciplinary education - not just games. But games are a fantastic start, and one that often gets overlooked because we've been rewired via the public education system to think of learning as work. That's the key, really - take the drudgery out of learning and show kids how to really enjoy it, again. And for some kids - boys and girls alike - games are the best way to start that.

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