“I’ve always thought games were good models for everything—how to learn, but also how to be,” says Arana Shapiro.
She has dedicated much of her career to helping educators integrate technology with purpose into their curriculum. Now the Managing Director and Chief Learning Officer at Games for Change, Shapiro stands at the vanguard of a movement to both normalize and prioritize game-based instruction in schools.
Here, she discusses the challenges involved in getting adults to take play seriously, as well the many life lessons that may be imparted through effective educational gaming.
EdSurge: You’re a vocal proponent of gaming in the classroom. Can you share some of the obstacles you’ve faced promoting game-based learning?
Shapiro: Years ago, while working in a charter school in New York City focused on using technology in the classroom, I met Katie Salen Tekinbaş. She was opening a public school in the city, modeled on game-based learning. I didn’t have any background in games and learning, but I did have a background in curriculum design, school design and educational technology. So, I joined her team.
That school, Quest to Learn, was interesting because it was all about using games in the classroom, really thinking about why games are engaging. Sometimes, that meant playing a game in the classroom; other times, it meant redesigning the curriculum, working through problems in a different way.
Unfortunately, at the time, you couldn’t say “games” to a potential parent or funder. We would say “play” or “critical thinking” or “computer science.” There was a stigma around the word games that we had to overcome. One of the mandates of the school was to flip that and say, “Real, good, serious stuff can happen even inside of a playful ecosystem.”
“Can you take a game that was not designed as a learning game and tease the learning out of it?” We framed that idea as a competition and got a bunch of submissions. Two game ideas rose to the top with real potential.
It was interesting to see the ideas that came out of that challenge because you could argue that the approach was backwards—to take a game that already exists and try to fold the learning into it, rather than figure out what the learning is and then create the game.
It’s not unlike the way that we teach game design to kids, at the beginning: “How could you mod this game to be able to teach something?” But this isn’t how the game developer world goes about doing things. There’s a divide between learning games and entertainment games. One of the things that this challenge tried to do was bridge that divide.
Let’s talk more about that divide. What’s preventing game-based education from seeing the kind of success that game-based entertainment has enjoyed for years?
Learning games kind of mirror what happens in traditional school, where the teacher understands what they want the student to know, they ask something, and the student spits it back. In entertainment games, it’s not about that. Kids are able to get in and be a part of things. If learning games can break out of that question-answer mold and put the student more in the driver’s seat, the learning becomes more fun.
When I’m helping teachers design games, I always ask, “What do you want the kids to know and be able to do at the end of this game?” It’s the same way you would start any kind of curriculum design. “Where do you see, in the real world, these skills being used?” That’s really important and makes it interesting for the kids. Cast your players in that real-world role.
With those “Jeopardy!” style games, students may answer questions, but they’re not having to do anything that deepens the skills. I think that’s the problem with learning games—they don’t ask the players to do the thing that actually helps them learn. If learning game designers could think more about that, they would create more fun and engaging games. You want learners to be a part of the doing.
We also need to think about the things that games do really well and consider other ways to bring those into a classroom space. We could be designing curriculum in a game-like way, making sure that there’s some kind of a big challenge to solve. Kids learn facts and skills because they need to solve the challenge. It gives students buy-in, the same way a game does.
Speaking of buy-in, how might we encourage those educators who don’t feel especially comfortable with gaming to become involved in game-based instruction?
This is an age-old problem with anything new being introduced to the classroom. And the mindset that a teacher needs to know more than their kids for a lesson to be impactful must be debunked. When I’m working with teachers, I always tell them it’s okay if their kids know more about some of these tools than they do, and I explain how to use that to their advantage.
A lot of beautiful things can happen if a teacher steps back and says, “You’re probably going to know more about this than me, but let’s figure it out together.” It’s super uncomfortable, but it unlocks potential; it changes the dynamics of a classroom. Kids feel a lot more ownership over the work. They can be more of a participant because they have a little extra knowledge.
The more you build this kind of experience into a school’s culture, the easier it is for teachers to reimagine their role in the classroom. One of the core tenets of games is this idea of collaboration and communication, problem-solving in teams. If we could figure out ways for everyone to be more collaborative, this would all be easier for sure.