More than Fun and Games at the NSVF Summit

by Jessica Millstone
May 10, 2012

“Radical change” and “storm the Bastille” were the rallying cries of the inspirational opening keynote of the 2nd Annual New School Venture Fund Summit, held on May 2, 2012 in San Francisco, CA.   This invite-only conference attracts big names from the education reform movement, including:  school chancellors from Newark and Washington DC, representatives from the US Department of Education, charter school network leaders, educational technology entrepreneurs and of course the venture capital managers who invest in them.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center was invited to put together a breakout session called “Fun and Games – and Real Learning: Game-based Learning in the Classroom” to discuss the role digital games can play in student learning and reshaping schools for the 21st century.  We had the privilege of releasing new research from the Games and Learning Publishing Council’s slate of products at the NSVF Summit, including the findings from a new survey of 500 teachers who use digital games in the classroom and three video case studies of teachers using games in a variety of classroom settings and student demographics.  We asked GLPC members John Richards of C4Ed Research, Michael Angst of E-Line Media, Robert Torres of the Gates Foundation, and Rocketship Education’s Aylon Samouha to be our panel participants to discuss the new research findings and offer thoughts on the state of game-based learning in K-12 education.

After a brief overview (PDF) of the Teachers’ Attitudes about Digital Games in the Classroom survey and a screening of one video case studyfeaturing NYC teacher Joel Levin using the commercial videogame Minecraft with his 2nd grade students, Virginia Edwards, editor-in-chief ofEducation Week , engaged the panel and standing-room only audience in a lively discussion.  Some of the topics covered: the market for games in education, what funders like the Gates Foundation are investing in to create truly educational (and fun) games, and the tension educators face when mandated with teaching basic skills to lower-performing students, yet yearn to engage these same students in higher-level conceptual thinking through digital games.  Michael Angst cleverly summed up where we are with integrating games into the curriculum with a food analogy:  he believes that “games are nutritious and part of a students healthy diet of learning,” but we just don’t have enough top chefs and recipes out there to make it work in all classroom environments.

It was especially exciting to meet the people who came to our panel through their questions and their interactions with each other.  We had members of the press, game developers and ed-tech entrepreneurs (including our research partners at BrainPOP!), a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins, charter school leaders, and at least one veteran of the Chicago Public School system weigh on the state of game-based learning.   One expert from our audience noted that today’s parents have real power to influence a school’s curriculum, and their recognition of the range of learning opportunities children experience through video game play might pressure teachers and administrators to integrate digital games sooner than we think. Everyone at the New School Venture Fund Summit was able to experience a bit of what we discussed through their “Please Touch” exhibit near the registration desk. This area was filled with examples of digital games from BrainPOPMinecraftSifteoMotion Math, and others that we could all play at our leisure. Two of our case studies were on continuous play throughout the conference, which garnered lots of great feedback about our work with teachers.

Throughout the day, we met and spoke with technology entrepreneurs, New School Venture Fund investors, school leaders, and political activists from across the country — many of whom are seeking to disrupt education by creating truly innovative learning environments and experiences for children. The excitement around this cycle of investment in education reform was contagious.  The day ended with a conversation between Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Laurene Powell Jobs, Director of the Emerson Collective (and Steve Jobs’ widow) about the kinds of reforms we will be seeing in education over the next several years — particularly as they relate to underserved, low-income, and disfranchised populations.

Based on our research and the response we’ve received in the press and at the New School Venture Fund Summit, we know there are still many more questions to ask teachers about how to integrate digital games successfully into the curriculum. We see this research as the beginning of a deeper investigation into how to define “games” for educational use, and what kinds of school or home environments support game play that gets to deeper learning. But we are encouraged by these teachers’ attention to how digital games can better engage, motivate and assess lower-performing students.  We look forward to presenting this new research at conferences throughout May and June, and delving into the questions it raises from researchers, journalists, educators and game developers further through the year.  Let the games begin!