Gaming Ed Reform?

This post originally appeared on the Education Nation Learning Curve Blog.

Last week, President Obama announced an innovation and competitiveness initiative designed to stimulate children’s interest in math and science careers. It was filled with solid ideas for engaging both struggling and advanced students in rigorous and relevant science and math study, but fell short in one arena that youth crave:  the use of digital technology.  In fact, a few weeks earlier the President asked parents to encourage kids to “turn off the video games and pick up a book.”   President Obama has a vital point—young people are consuming too much media these days, but in this instance he is missing something equally important.  Games, when well deployed, can be a powerful force for change in our nation’s education system.

The link between gaming and education is logical.  Today, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 46 million kids between the ages of 5 – 17 are gamers. In addition, 50% of parents play video games with their kids, 84% of parents think video games are “fun for the entire family,” and 66% think video games “provide mental stimulation or education” and “bring families closer together.”

To fully engage and inspire children on subjects like math and science, educators and parents should be taking advantage of kids’ natural affinity for video games. Most experts agree that our learning approaches are stuck in a time warp, but they often disagree on solutions.  Games and mobile media offer a new place to find common ground.  While traditional forms of information – including books – are still vital tools, it is folly not to recognize that teaching techniques must meet kids where they are today.  Reading is rapidly moving to digital formats – tablets, smartphones, and laptops. In response, we must use the broad array of digital tools – including video games and interactive learning – as an “anytime, anywhere” platform for teaching and learning.

Foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, combined with new digital literacy skills that evolve from interactive play, are now using gaming technology to drive change intended to help close stubborn achievement gaps.   For example, curriculum-based  games and electronic books such as those created for Sesame Workshop’s Sesame Street and The Electric Company and PBS’ Ready to Learn initiative are teaching kids to read.

Quest to Learn, in New York City, is the nation’s first public school grounded in principles of game design. Chicago Quest, following the Quest to Learn model, will open in the fall of 2011. The premise behind these schools is simple: allow young people, through gaming and game design, to construct their own learning environments. They will, in turn, develop the essential skills necessary to cooperate and problem-solve in the 21st century economy.

Interestingly, one need look no further than the White House for further examples of gaming as an educational tool.  Last year, the Obama Administration launched a national effort to develop educational video games – The National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Video Game Challenge – in cooperation with the MacArthur Foundation, AMD Foundation, Microsoft, the Electronic Software Association, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, E Line Media, Brain Pop, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the American Library Association and others. The effort encourages youth, grad students and professional developers to create their own game-based solutions to teach essential knowledge and skills.  Effective new applications and games are emerging from this effort.

Video games can promote skills needed to effectively operate in a global economy – systems thinking, critical analysis, strategic planning, large scale collaboration and creativity. They can help address a key challenge confronting our current education system – a lack of student engagement.  These benefits are the reason why over 300 colleges and universities across the United States now offer video game design and development as part of their curriculum, and why the industry and nonprofit community are working to teach teachers how to integrate gaming into their standards-based instruction.  Foundations such as the Gates Foundation and the Knight Foundation are also digging more deeply into the market and research trends to drive 21st Century Learning, including the creation of an inter-sector council intended to build the case for new investments in games and learning that the Cooney Center has convened.

The transition to a technology-rich education system that maps to the modern knowledge-based economy is happening. There is no putting the digital genie back into a bottle. It’s our job – from educators to game developers to the White House – to harness the creative potential of gaming to help schools excite a new generation of technologically-savvy learners. It is time to open a new chapter on video games.