In a new book, an education writer argues that computer games can bring learning gains in the classroom.
Gaming is good for you.
That message might not come easily to parents struggling to pry their kids away from televisions and computer screens. But author Greg Toppo believes kids can benefit from playing more digital games — and they should do so at school.
Toppo, an education reporter for USA Today, has written a new book called “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.” He is in Seattle this week to address a private gathering at Microsoft and the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, he answered some questions about the ways in which computer games can have useful classroom applications. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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Could you share a successful example or two of incorporating digital play into a classroom?
There’s a math game called DragonBox. It’s a really unusual, kind of weirdly conceived game that teaches kids, sometimes very young kids, algebraic thinking. It takes them by the hand and shows them what algebraic thinking is. It teaches how symbols can mean one thing or another, and shows them how you solve for X. And the miracle of the game is, you can be 4 or 5 years old, download this thing, and maybe in an hour or two go from playing with shapes and colors and pictures to solving a pretty advanced algebra equation. That’s one of my favorite ones, mostly because it’s so weird and wonderful.
Another one that I really like is a series of games called Mission US. It’s a really interesting series of history role-playing games made for kids in middle school. The game invites the player to play out different periods in American history from the point of view of a young person. In the first one, you’re in the middle of the American Revolution. In another, you play as a young female slave in Kentucky. The game asks you to escape, and it takes you through all the harrowing experiences that that entails. It’s really interesting, and historically accurate, down to the smallest detail.
Do you think Americans are comfortable with the simple premise that learning should be fun?
No, I think they are incredibly uncomfortable with it. We’ve got this Puritan attitude that learning has got to be suffering. And I think that is totally, totally inane. It’s really backwards. In the book, I talk about “Hard Fun.” The idea is, ‘fun’ isn’t all laughs, all the time. Fun is a sense of engagement, a sense of being fully involved in what you are doing. You’re working hard. You’re challenged. You are fully alive in the enterprise. Kids like games because they are hard. They’re challenging. They’re testing you.
Do you think that school districts – and parents – are ready to incorporate gaming into the classroom?
This can be a very bottom-up reform. As a teacher, you can use a game in your classroom, and nobody needs to know. Think about the havoc you can wreak with one iPad and a really good game, just passing it around and giving every kid a chance to do something like Dragonbox or Mission US. The technology has gotten to the point where a teacher can take this thing out of her purse, and by the end of the day, everybody has had an experience with it. That is kind of remarkable. Are school districts ready? I don’t think they have to be ready. I think teachers get this at a very basic level. I’ve talked to so many teachers who have seen the power of games to really turn things around in their classrooms.
Are there many Washington districts that have been especially receptive to this approach?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. But some folks at the University of Washington have been very engaged with digital play and learning. They adapted DragongBox for something they called the Algebra Challenge. They got thousands and thousands of kids doing algebra in a sort of a Math-a-thon. They saw the possibility of making algebra something fun to do. Kids challenged each other to do a lot of algebra over the course of a week. They did a ton of algebra.
Many parents think of screen time of any variety as a distraction with a very destructive impact on their kid’s ability to concentrate. Yet you found that gaming, in some forms, can actually enhance a child’s ability to concentrate. Tell us about that.
A really good game is basically like a focus machine – it’s teaching kids to really focus on the problem at hand. I wouldn’t deny that there are some ways of using screens that aren’t really good for kids. The screen time that we had as kids was TV, and it wasn’t a very productive use of our time. It wasn’t creative. It was very isolating. We weren’t making anything and we weren’t solving problems. We weren’t thinking. We weren’t working together, certainly. But screen time isn’t just TV anymore. This generation watches less TV than any previous generation. Things like games and social networking have taken away from TV watching. Spending two hours in front of Gilligan’s Island is very different than spending to hours in front of a really amazing math game or history game, or for that matter, Google Earth.