Posted by: Dave Moursund
Tagged in: Improving Education
This past Thanksgiving my older daughter introduced me to the game DragonVale. See http://dragonvale.wikia.com/wiki/DragonVale_Wiki. She got me started in using this free game on my iPad. This is a non-violent game suitable for a very broad range of children and adults. There are a great many people who play this game. After nearly three weeks of “study” and practice, there are still more than 500,000 players who are ranked above me. Indeed, I am ranked in the bottom third of players.
There are several parts to this story:
- As far back as I can remember, I have been somewhat addicted to games. Perhaps this addiction is expressed in a gene that runs in my family. In any case, from time to time over the years I have struggled with this addiction. In some games there is something inherently and intrinsically motivating—along with both instant and longer term gratification—that is hard to control. It is like getting engrossed in reading a very good novel, but even more so. Indeed, I tend to think of playing a solitaire game on a computer as sort of an equivalent to reading a good short story. The familiarity I have with the “characters and plot” in the solitaire game make it easier to play than reading a new short story. I particularly like games that require thinking and planning ahead.
- I am a slow learner. As my daughter was showing me how to play DragonVale, she commented that she knew six-year-olds who were faster and more venturesome in learning the game. In learning new things, I spend a lot of time thinking and trying to understand, rather than just “doing.” This learning for understanding approach has served me well for many years. Today’s parents and teachers are faced by a new kind of learners who tend to be “fearless” in the type of trial and error learning that computer games provide. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/a-new-kind-of-learner.html. It is not clear how our educational system should make use of this innate learning ability.
- As I learn a new game, I reflect on my own learning. What am I learning about learning and to what extent am I able to transfer learning from my previous learning experiences to this new challenge? I think about what I am learning that will be of use to me outside the world of gaming. For example, what am I learning about people? What am I learning about the design of intrinsically motivating learning environments? Am I gaining new insights into these new games as competition for the minds and time of students? Will computer games deal a major blow to our educational system, family values, and long-existing cultures?
- What can I learn from the game design about education and improving educational systems?
In the remainder of this IAE Blog entry I will address the last of these topics. In DragonVale, one earns dragon money (gold coins), buys food, hatches and raises dragons, builds buildings and habitats, participates in dragon races, and acquires gems. A successful player gains experience points and moves up to higher levels in the game. Playing the game requires making numerous decisions. However, none cause the player to "lose" the game.
A player can have other players of the game as “friends.” Friends can give friends a limited number of gems.
All of the parts of the game described above contribute to both instant gratification and longer-term gratification. For each action that I take, I get immediate feedback.
However, it takes time for a dragon to be hatched or a building to be built. A player can speed up the time it takes by paying extra using gems. But, gems are in very short supply. A good player quickly decides that delayed gratification—not spending the gems—is a good strategy.
As I play, I can see increases in my game level and in my number of dragons, buildings, habitats, and so on. I get instant feedback in many situations. For example, if I try to do something that violates the rules, I get instant feedback that helps me learn the rules.
One distinguishing feature of the game is that actions occur in "real time." If I am building a new building and the game tells me it will take three hours, this means three "real" hours whether I am logged in to the game or not. I can shut the game down, go do something else for three hours, come back, and the building will be completed. I view this as an excellent aid to young children learning about time.
The game is cleverly designed so that there are barriers to moving up in the levels and acquiring some of the “really neat” dragons. Players who want to spend real money, not the “play money” of the game, can use a real credit card to buy food and gems. That is how the company that owns the game makes money. For many players, the need for still more instant and longer term gratification leads to spending real money. I find this to be quite an interesting business design!
Progress toward achieving a good education is not easily measured in terms of gaining an increased number of dragons, gold coins, food, gems, buildings, and so on.
Our measures of student progress in learning are neither so fine-grained nor so immediate. Sure, we can use computer-assisted learning materials that provide students with instant feedback on their answers to various types of problems and questions related to the material. However, take the examples of reading and mathing. How can a student tell from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, and day-to-day how much progress he or she is making in learning to read and learning to do math?
In all curriculum areas, how can a student get up-to-date measures that reflect “forgetting” and declines in performance through lack of practice and routine use? How do students learn about progress they may be making in becoming a faster, better, more mature learner? How can a student gain relevant information about how well he or she is doing in transfer of learning and applying new knowledge and skills to solving novel problems and answering novel questions?
Schooling focuses on a very broad range of knowledge and skills, and student success is measured in many ways ranging from daily quizzes to semester or quarter grades. Unfortunately for today’s students, who are becoming accustomed to instant feedback and gratification, their school successes often do not receive feedback that they find to be timely and useful.
PS Added 1/14/2013
One of the DragonVale game features allows players to participate in dragon races. This requires relatively fast reaction time and good hand-eye coordination. There is a practice feature in which a player can run races at no cost—and, of course no gold, gems, or experience points for doing for doing well.
My first attempts in using this feature of the game convinced me I would never win a race. My six year old grand daughter is far better at in these races than I am.
However, just for the fun of it, I practiced a lot, letting my mind and body "learn" how to work together in the event. I found it interesting to watch my progress. Although my progress was slow, I eventually got quite good and now compete quite successfully in these races.
This type of learning, learning about oneself and learning about learning is an important potential in most computer games. Introspection and metacognition can be taught in game environments. If properly taught, learners will be able to transfer their introspection and metacognitive skills to other game and non-game situations. In addition, they can gain confidence in their abilities to learn.
What You Can Do
Here are two suggestions for parents and teachers:
- Familiarize yourself with computer-based learning materials in which children and adults play together, learn together. I suggest that you examine the free book Play together, learn together (Moursund, 2011). Have children teach you the types of games they play, and actively participate with them in playing with and talking about these games. Participating with children in such game playing and learning situations can help you to better understand how their minds work. In addition, children can have the pleasure being “teacher” at something they probably are better at than you.
- Think about what you can do to provide more feedback to the children you interact with. For example, suppose you have a child in school and you ask your child, “What did you learn in school today?” Facilitate and encourage a “deep” answer that allows you to learn, allows you to provide feedback, and allows your child to make active use of the knowledge and skills that are being taught.
Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.
Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.
Declining level of student creativity. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/video-games-problem-solving-and-james-gee.html.
Education for increasing expertise. See http://iae-pedia.org/Education_for_Increasing_Expertise.
Some underlying theory about electronic games in education. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/some-underlying-theory-about-electronic-games-in-education.html.
Transfer of learning. See http://iae-pedia.org/Transfer_of_Learning.
Video games, problem solving, and James Gee. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/video-games-problem-solving-and-james-gee.html.
Moursund, D. (2011). Play together, learn together. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Access at http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/213-play-together-learn-together-stem.html.