Games & The Common Core: Two Movements That Need Each Other

Recently in one day, I witnessed two expert panels discussing critical issues for our educational system: the first one was on implementing the Common Core for English-language learners, the second was on how games offer an exciting new frontier for student learning and engagement. In the morning, I listened in to an Alliance for Excellent Education panel including Stanford professor Kenji Hakuta and Carrie Heath Phillips, director of Common Core implementation at the Council of Chief State School Officers. That evening, I went to Stanford to hear a panel on Education’s Digital Future that included professors James Paul Gee of Arizona State and Constance Steinkuehler of Wisconsin.

I was struck by how neither community of experts mentioned the other, but how these two “movements” urgently need to work together. They need each other.  Twenty-first century implementation of the Common Core State Standards should strive for a much higher level of student engagement and choice. The best learning games can help accomplish this, whether it’s learning about proteins through Fold It, algebra with Dragon Box, programming and game design via GameStar Mechanic, or science, math, health and social studies with BrainPop.

And the games community needs to demonstrate how interest-driven and collaborative learning can accomplish the goals of the Common Core. Importantly, we should recognize that the Common Core Standards in language arts and math are outcomes, not subject areas, and that there should be multiple paths to achieving the higher and deeper Standards through, for instance, project-based learning, experiences in nature, integration of the arts, and the fast-moving world of games and simulations.

Dr. Steinkuehler described a finding from one of her studies, showing that adolescent boys often read above grade-level when playing games, where the text is written at the 12th-grade level, but average two grades below on standardized tests of their reading. How could this be? Her interpretation is that boys are highly motivated to read text in the context of games. But they are unmotivated­–flat out bored­–by the texts they are required to read in class or analyze on tests. One boy told her that his teacher’s approach taught The Diary of Anne Frank by having one student stand in front of the class and read aloud while others followed along in the book. He said, in an honest response to this form of mind-control: “I’d rather stand in the corner and hop on one foot.” Dr. Steinkuehler added, “So would I.”

A key to achieving higher levels of student learning, whether through the Common Core or any other hoped-for reform, is something our school system has generally ignored: student choice.  Our schools operate as an educational oligarchy where a small group of adults decides what, where, and how millions of children and teens will learn. This power has been tightly held, with adults fearing a loss of control if students are allowed greater choice and voice in their own educations. Some historians of education might note that this fear stems from a centuries-old belief in child-rearing that untamed children need discipline, not independent thinking.

If the Holy Grail of every educational reform, including the Common Core, is to raise a nation of readers, especially in this age when entire libraries are now at our students’ fingertips, isn’t the path to a love of reading illuminated by giving students more choice over what they read and when they read it? As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” I wonder whether Ms. Angelou would now include games and graphic novels. And whether the paths taken by those liberated readers might at some point travel through The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill A Mockingbird, or other classics.

I asked the Stanford panel about whether games could be integrated with the Common Core. Dr. Steinkuehler sounded an optimistic note. She said that if games can demonstrate their effectiveness in the Common Core, they will have a national market, improving their chances for distribution, profitability, and future development. Dr. Gee was more pessimistic, that “standards mixed with punitive accountability are toxic and will undermine those standards.” It reminded me of one of my favorite jokes: Question: What’s the difference between the optimist and the pessimist? Answer: The pessimist has more data. And Dr. Gee has history on his side.

Can that history of resistance to games and other learning technologies be changed? Whether games are creatively used to support Common Core standards is up to all of us to advance this burgeoning field of learning games, conduct research on their outcomes, and advocate “games that work” to the many stakeholders involved. I’m reminded of Alan Kay’s prescription: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”


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Milton ChenMilton Chen is chairman of the Games & Learning Publishing Council at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Panasonic Foundation, and a senior fellow at The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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