Why schools should be like video games

Welcome to Part 2 of our series on how games can be used in education. Last week we talked about how games can free us from a fear of failure and make homework a learning opportunity rather than just an assessment by giving students the instantaneous feedback they need to freely discover and explore. This week, we’re going to talk about what that instantaneous feedback does for teachers and how games can help us give each student the lessons they need.

One of the biggest problems with schooling is that classrooms are simply too big to give each student the personalized attention they need. This is true of almost all modern classrooms, not just the overcrowded 60-person classes we sometimes think of when people talk about our educational crisis. Now, many of you who are watching this are probably much better, more experienced teachers than James but when he talks about it, he feels pretty strongly that it’s very hard to give 100% to more than 10, maybe 12 students at a time. Any more than that, and it gets difficult to understand where each student is struggling and to craft lessons for each of them on a personalized basis. Yet, this is what games let us do.

You see, one of the great struggles in trying to educate a nation whose population numbers in the hundreds of millions is that we have to create a standard curriculum for everyone. This is in many ways fantastic. It helps ensure that all schools are teaching up to a baseline level. It allows teachers to share ideas about curriculum nationwide. It creates a standard set of knowledge that colleges and universities can then build from, but it’s not right for everyone.

“They can allow us to serve the needs of each and every school child individually rather than having to hope that our universal standard works for them.”

In fact, you can pretty much guarantee that it’s not perfectly right for anyone, and this is especially important in education as often when you hear someone say something like, “I’m not good at math.” It’s not that they aren’t good at math but rather that at some point in their education, some part of the curriculum didn’t make sense to them and they got left behind. That small gap in their understanding just compounding over time as the class had to move ahead.

This problem could, of course, be corrected if teachers had both the information they needed to identify where each student was struggling, and the ability to tailor their assignments to each individual student’s needs. Clearly, that’s ludicrous in the context of modern schooling. No teacher will ever have time in the classroom to make specialized assignments for each student, and often they don’t even have the data they need to pinpoint what tiny sub-concept a student is struggling with.

Not so with games. Think about games as they stand today. Think about how many metrics games already take. We know wherever you click. We know how long you stood waiting to make a jump or how many people died on that one ledge. We can take in vast amounts of data and if we want, dynamically alter the experience based on that data. At the simplest level, we’ve all played games whether or not we realized it at the time, where they adjusted the difficulty on the fly based on our performance.

On the slightly more sophisticated level, we have things like the director in “Left 4 Dead.” Now think about using that for education. Imagine a child going home each night and the game being able to feedback massive amounts of data to their teacher, automatically calling out anywhere the child is struggling or highlighting places where they excel. Imagine it doing more than that. Imagine the game they play actually choosing challenges for the child based on this data. Imagine one child being assigned something that helps shore up their understanding of cross-cancelling fractions while another gets a little more time focusing on the order of operations.

Imagine the game actually being able to send the child through micro-tutorials on that subject if changing the play by itself wasn’t enough. Finally, imagine the game being able to put a special flag on the assignment so it immediately got noticed by the teacher if the systems within the game weren’t enough to help the student through whatever they might be struggling with. Games could automatically tailor assignments for us based on our needs without overburdening teachers who are already stretched to the limit, and it could give teachers so many more tools to understand where their charges may have misunderstood a lesson or missed a fundamental concept.

This may sound wild, like it would take an incredibly extensive games system, and it would but nothing beyond what we’re already capable of. In fact, when you consider that every student in America would be playing the thing, immediately making it the most played game of all time, producing a game like this suddenly sounds incredibly economically efficient. When we stop thinking on the scale of entertainment and start considering the size of the public school system, an endeavor like this, while by no means trivial, becomes completely reasonable. It would take a great deal of time and effort. It would require an incredible amount of work with teachers and subject matter experts, and even when, would probably need some trial-and-error before we got it right, but it’s no means outside what we’re already capable of.

When someone asks you why we should have games in school, beyond making them more engaging, you can tell your interlocutor that games allow us to provide teachers with incredible amounts of data to work with to better understand the learning needs of the children in their care, and that games, if we were willing to push for doing it, could allow us to automatically adjust assignments on the fly. They can allow us to serve the needs of each and every school child individually rather than having to hope that our universal standard works for them.