New Book Makes Case for the Educational Power of Computer Games

  • newswise-fullscreen New Book Makes Case for the Educational Power of Computer Games

    David Williamson Shaffer, associate professor of education science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Newswise — In a global economy where good jobs demand innovative thinking, American education must move beyond its "skill and drill" curriculum and embrace creative learning technologies, such as computer and video games, to prepare young people for the world of global competition.

So argues David Williamson Shaffer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison education science professor and author of the new book "How Computer Games Help Children Learn" (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

The push for more standardized testing has accelerated a crisis in American education, Shaffer says, because it fails to build the innovative skills that are essential to the new knowledge economy. Meanwhile, Shaffer says, the rest of the world is rapidly advancing on the United States in its high-tech science and engineering talent.

"Young people in the United States today are being prepared for standardized jobs in a world that will, very soon, punish those who can't innovate," he says. "We simply can't 'skill and drill' our way to innovation."

Shaffer's book draws from more than a decade of his work on "epistemic games" — games in which players learn to think in innovative and creative ways to solve complex problems. He draws strong conclusions about how the United States is missing out on a potentially transformational curriculum tool.

Last month, the National Center on Education and the Economy released "Tough Choices or Tough Times," a report on the future of U.S. education that recommends overhauling the education system to produce more workers who can think creatively. The report makes bold proposals to add depth and rigor to our schools and our standardized tests, to use school funding more effectively and improve our teaching force.

"But reports like these don't go far enough in rethinking our system of education," Shaffer argues, "because simply doing more of what we've been doing, only better, won't get us education for innovation and creativity in the 21st century.

"To cultivate creativity in our schools," he says, "we need to look to the same technologies that create global competition and place a premium on innovation in the first place." His book offers educators, policy makers and parents strategies on how computer games can be harnessed for educational value, both at home and in the classroom.

"Computer and video games can change education because computers now make it possible to learn on a massive scale by doing the things that people do in the real world," Shaffer says. "They make it possible for students to learn and think in innovative and creative ways, just as innovators in the real world learn to think creatively."

Shaffer advocates major changes in our educational system, using ways of learning that already have been proven successful. "We already know a lot about being creative and innovative," he says. As models, he points to various professions: "We know how to train doctors, lawyers, engineers, urban planners and journalists, for example, to be creative and innovative."

In his book, he explains, "If you want to learn how to do something interesting but hard, find out who in the world knows how to do it and learn to be like them." At UW-Madison, Shaffer has led a team that has been applying and studying professional learning models as alternative ways to engage children. These efforts have demonstrated the power and effectiveness of such an approach.

Shaffer points out that this approach is very different from many current uses of technology for learning. Although many classrooms today use computers, Shaffer argues, too many people think that we should be using new technology to carry out the same old standardized tasks.

That's why computer games are so important, Shaffer suggests.

"Games are not simply activities where you do as you please," Shaffer points out. They are governed by rules. They have what he calls "practical and intellectual discipline." Like professions or subjects in school, games can be ways of thinking and learning.

"Computers matter," Shaffer suggests, "because they make good games accessible to more people. Technology lets more people experience a wider range of powerful learning experiences."

Computer simulations allow learners to play with reality, create models and do things that otherwise would be too costly, too complicated or too dangerous to do, he explains. "With a computer, the kinds of things you can let kids play with — and learn from — are almost limitless," he says.

While the tools are new, the basic idea isn't. Shaffer traces the philosophical foundation of his work back a century, to John Dewey's progressive vision of "learning to solve real problems by working on real problems." That perspective has led to Shaffer's focus on how people who do things that matter in the world learn to think creatively about the things they do.

"We want to be able to think in innovative ways that matter in the world today," says Shaffer.

He is among a growing cadre of scholars who are exploring the educational potential of games and technology. At UW-Madison, Shaffer joined with several faculty colleagues, representing three School of Education departments, to form the Games and Professional Practice Simulations (GAPPS) Group. This group is part of the Advanced Digital Learning (ADL) Initiative to study and build learning systems that use digital game technologies to immerse learners in worlds where they use the skills and values of professionals to solve complex problems.

The GAPPS Group recently received $3 million in grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to design and develop innovative game modules, curriculum and tools to support young people's media literacy. Shaffer's efforts to create learning games are among the projects receiving MacArthur Foundation funding.

The MacArthur grant — part of a broad $50 million initiative — reinforces "the argument that games could be a good thing have been made and accepted," Shaffer says. "Parents and teachers need to understand that games are something we need to take seriously."

He wrote "How Computer Games Help Children Learn" in nonacademic language with the needs of those audiences in mind.

"Computer games can be good for kids," he explains. "However, there are bad games out there, just as there are bad books. So adults who care about what children learn have to educate themselves about games — and, more important, start to think about learning in new ways for the digital age of global competition. We have our work cut out for us."

With games, as with books, Shaffer urges parents and teachers to serve as models and guides. "We have an opportunity to engage with kids about the games they play," he says.

He notes that, despite the abundance on the market, relatively few games promote learning in ways that he advocates. Most of the simulations used in his studies are not commercially available. To help parents and teachers, he offers key messages and advice in each chapter of the book. By calling attention to the scarcity of good learning simulations, he also wants to prod designers to develop more serious games.

Despite the challenges he sees ahead, Shaffer remains hopeful about the future of computer games for learning. He notes that more and more adults, including newer teachers, have grown up with computers and are playing games.

"The tide is moving, and a shift is under way," he says. At the same time, the pace at which technology is advancing is so fast that it's difficult to keep up. "It is easy to forget that we have come a long way already," Shaffer says. "But to take the next steps, we need to question our assumptions about computers, about school, about games and about learning itself."

To learn more about Shaffer's work, visit

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