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6 minutes reading time (1249 words)

Learning Problem-solving Strategies by Using Games: A Guide for Educators and Parents

All the world’s a game,
And all the men and women active players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And all people in their time play many parts…
(Dave Moursund, adapted from Shakespeare)

The title of this IAE Blog entry is the same as the title for my newest free book, Learning Problem-solving Strategies by Using Games: A Guide for Educators and Parents (Moursund, January, 2016). Most of the content of this blog entry is from that book.

As suggested by the mangled Shakespeare quote given above, I sometimes look at various aspects of life as a game. I make a “move,” and people around me make countermoves. My move is designed to improve my “position” in the situation, and their moves are designed to improve their positions and/or to counter my moves.

This book is written for people who are interested in helping children learn through games and learn about games. The intended audience includes teachers, parents and grandparents, and all others who want to learn more about how games can be effectively used in education. Special emphasis is given to roles of games in a formal school setting.

As you know, education has many goals, and there is a huge amount of research and practitioner knowledge about teaching and learning. This book is well rooted in this research and practitioner knowledge. Four of the important ideas that are stressed include:

• Learning to learn. Through study and practice, a person can get better at learning.

• Learning about one’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner. Even a simple game can provide a good environment in which one can study their own learning processes and habits. Metacognition and reflection can be used to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner in this game environment. Specific instruction plus growing cognitive maturity help the learner to transfer learning from the game-learning environment to other learning environments.

• Becoming better at solving challenging problems and accomplishing challenging tasks. Learning some general strategies for problem solving is a unifying theme in this book.

• Intrinsic motivation—students being engaged because they want to be engaged. This idea is illustrated by the following quote from Yasmin Kafai, a world leader in uses of games in education:

If someone were to write the intellectual history of childhood—the ideas, the practices, and the activities that engage the minds of children—it is evident that the chapter on the late 20th century in America would give a prominent place to the phenomenon of the video game. The number of hours spent in front of these screens could surely reach the hundreds of billions. And what is remarkable about this time spent is much more than just quantity. Psychologists, sociologists, and parents are struck by a quality of engagement that stands in stark contrast to the half-bored watching of many television programs and the bored performance exhibited with school homework. Like it or not, the phenomenon of video games is clearly a highly significant component of contemporary American children's culture and a highly significant indicator of something (though we may not fully understand what this is) about its role in the energizing of behavior (Kafai, 2001). [Bold added for emphasis.]

A Few Tidbits from the Book

Quoting from the book:

We all make use of strategies as we attempt to solve problems and accomplish tasks. The research literature in problem solving indicates that most people have a relatively limited repertoire of general-purpose problem-solving strategies. This research also suggests that it is helpful to increase one’s repertoire. …

However, increasing the collection of one’s problem-solving strategies is only one part of increasing one’s level of expertise in solving problems. Problem solving in a particular domain requires knowledge that is specific to that domain. Therefore, increasing one’s expertise in problem solving in a domain requires substantial cognitive effort. It does little good to memorize a number of strategies. One must consciously practice using the strategies and reflect on the results over a large range of problems and a long period of time.

Here are a few examples of strategies and basic concepts that are illustrated in games and are applicable over a wide range of problem-solving situations. They are drawn from the 11-page Appendix 1 that summarizes the problem-solving strategies and a few of the key ideas covered in the book.

algorithm. A finite step-by-step set of instructions that is guaranteed to solve a specified problem or accomplish a specified task. In grade school, students are taught pencil and paper algorithms for adding and multiplying integers, as well as other mathematical algorithms. See also heuristic.

backtracking. Sometimes you recognize a mistake immediately after making it. Taking back or undoing one or more moves that one has made in playing a game or in attempting to solve a problem. This is especially easy to do when the steps being taken are “virtual” steps, working with a computer representation of the problem and the steps being taken. This is a useful aid to learning. See also learn from your mistakes.

bottleneck. Identify components of a problem-solving task that severely impede progress toward solving the problem. Particularly useful in problems where certain resources such as time or materials are severely restricted or a goal is to minimize their use. See also divide and conquer; don’t box yourself into a corner.

brain aids. Reading and writing are such important brain aids that they are considered basics of education. A computer program can be considered a brain aid. It is now commonplace for a problem solver or game player to think about having the computer aid in playing the solving of a problem or helping to determine good moves in a game. There are many articles about the nature and extent of the artificial intelligence (AI) built into various games. In some instances, such uses of AI as an aid to problem solving in games illustrate or are somewhat parallel to uses of AI to help solve non-game types of problems.

break a problem into smaller problems. Solving a complex problem often proceeds by breaking the original problem into smaller, less complex problems that are easier to solve and that perhaps one has solved before. Indeed, it is quite useful to have a repertoire of “smaller” problems that one knows how to solve and/or knows how to look up a solution process. See also create a simpler problem; divide and conquer.

build on previous work. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Stand on the shoulders of people who have come before you. Much of formal schooling emphasizes learning information that is considered to be especially important from the collected knowledge of the human race. See also look it up.

heuristic. A heuristic technique, often called simply a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect—and indeed, not guaranteed to be successful. A heuristic is sometimes called a rule of thumb. See also algorithm.

Appendix 2 lists the 50+ games mentioned in the book. Some are played online, some are played offline, and some are played in both environments. The book analyzes some of the games in considerable detail, while others are just mentioned in passing.


Kafai, Y.B. (October 27, 2001). The educational potential of electronic games: From games-to-teach to games-to-learn. Cultural Policy Center, University of Chicago. Retrieved 6/24/08 from See also:

Moursund, D. (January, 2016). Learning problem-solving by using games: A guide for educators and parents. Web address:

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