Teachers Needed! Why the Generalization of Game-based Learning Requires Teachers

Kids learn from games. No one can deny that games are great teachers. But just because games are “teachers” does NOT mean that we don’t need the real-deal classroom teachers. In fact, if we want our students to learn applied, real world executive functioning, decision making, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills from games, teachers are the key ingredient. The generalization of game-based learning requires teachers.

Generalization is the process through which individuals apply the skills they have learned in one environment in other settings, with other people, or with different materials. Research demonstrates that games can improve visual attention and absorption of specific academic content. They require the use of complex problem-solving skills in order for players to be successful. But generalization is a difficult process to measure, and there is not a lot of data regarding the generalization of these thinking skills from the game to the real world. Transforming game-based learning (GBL) into real-world skills is most efficient when mediators (i.e. classroom teachers) help kids make the connections. This is why the generalization of game-based learning requires teachers.

A recent study conducted by Joseph Kable, Caryn Lerman and colleagues examined the impact of brain training games on specific executive functioning skills. This study compared the popular brain-training system, Lumosity, and video games as tools to help in healthy decision making. The researchers looked at two types of decision-making: “delay discounting,” where individuals choose between obtaining small rewards now and larger rewards in the future, and “risk sensitivity,” in which the certainty of rewards — large, risky rewards or smaller, certain rewards — was contrasted. They found that both Lumosity training and video game play improved these skills during “game” play, but not in the real world.

Again, we see the problem of generalization; how do we make game-based learning into real world skills? This of course, is the mission of LearningWorks for Kids. And it’s why we need teachers and parents to help kids make the transfer of executive functioning and thinking skills they learn in games to their world. Eventually, we hope that game publishers will embed these strategies into their game mechanics, but for now we need real-world adult mediators to help kids.

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The good news is that many popular, mainstream, off-the-shelf video games require the use of decision-making, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in the game. These are core skills for 21st century children — planning, organization, social thinking, cognitive flexibility, and task persistence. This is what makes popular video games fantastic tools for practicing these important skills. The core aspect of traditional video games is increased complexity requiring these skills. While we can question how effective these games are for transferring these skills outside of the game, there is concrete data that other game-based skills do transfer.

For example, there is  compelling data that video game play can result in real-world learning in areas such as visual attention, attention span, working-memory capacities, and learning specific academic content. Recent neuroscientific research indicates that playing video games may result in structural brain changes (plasticity) and changes in cortical activity and brain biochemistry.

There are also many prominent game and digital-media theorists who posit that video games can lead to direct improvement in problem solving and critical-thinking skills. Yet even these prominent researchers acknowledge that there is so much more we can do to transfer game-based learning into functional skills. Generalization is often difficult to accomplish with traditional teaching tools. Generalization of an ambiguously-defined competence, such as executive functioning skills, is even more difficult to transfer from one situation to another. Generalization of skills occurs when opportunities arise for repeated practice and then self-initiated or guided application (one of a teacher’s roles) to a new situation. While many 21st century teachers are using games and apps in the classroom, most do not even consider how their students may be practicing executive functioning and social emotional learning skills in their technology use.

There are excellent classroom approaches to psychological and strategic-thinking strategies that improve generalization skills from one setting to another. While these strategies have been utilized in the classroom or on a one-to-one basis, there are methods by which they can be applied within video games and while using video games as a tool for teaching. Approaches such as previewing strategies; peer, parent, and teacher mediation; making goals explicit; engagement and participation; and others are important for the development of generalization skills. Educators are encouraged to explore strategic teaching strategies designed for kids with learning disabilities to learn more about generalizing game-based learning into real classroom problem solving skills.

Here are a few suggestions:

Real Life, Real Progress for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders by Christina Whalen, Ph.D. An excellent book that describes the use of technology to teach real world problem solving skills to kids affected by autism.

Introducing Academic Strategies to Students Great article on how to introduce and then apply a new skill. Good for students of all ages.

Strategic Thinking with Video Games. Excellent article on how strategic teaching principles, designed for helping special needs kids, can be applied to make game-based learning into real world skills.


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