Gamer teachers

I currently have in my possession the book ‘Games and Simulations in Online Learning‘, edited by David Gibson, Clark Aldrich and Marc Prensky. Not got very far with it yet, but have taken note of the very well put foreword from Chris Dede and some issues with the chapter ‘Gamer Teachers’…

I think Chris Dede’s short yet apposite foreword can be concentrated down to one key sentence:

No educational design is always powerful for all participants, because learning strengths and styles, as well as sources of engagement, vary greatly among people.

And it is clear that Chris is including game-based learning in this, particularly when we add his statement that:

… today’s hype will inevitably turn into tomorrow’s disillusionment unless designers and scholars think deeply about these issues, are principled in their studies, and are cautious in their claims.

After this, I’ve only read one chapter so far, and purely because it happened to catch my eye: Gamer Teachers, by David Gibson, William Halverson and Eric Riedel (p. 175 – 188). On the first page proper of the chapter (p. 176), the authors write:

“Is it possible that, like technology in general, games can not only help children learn things better;…”

And almost immediately I am troubled. While I certainly hope that appropriate use of technology can help students learn better (else I am wasting a lot of my time), to say that technology in general helps people learn better is a very broad, grand and unsubstantiated claim. Evidence is much more mixed than this statement takes as its starting position (see here, for example). And then it continues… To give the sentence in full:

“Is it possible that, like technology in general, games can not only help children learn things better; they can help them learn better things?” (emphasis in original)

I choked on this.

My other current reading just now is Neil Postman’s The End of Education which is all about the search for purpose in schooling; the search for better things to teach children to give meaning to formal education. Postman’s text is not perfect, but I note the irony here – Postman taking some time to explain why technology is a false god in education; the chapter authors casually noting that technology might help children learn better things. The authors do not expand on what better things they are thinking of, which is certainly a shame.

I inserted a post-it sticky note at this point, with a scribbled comment on it then carried on. Another sticky got added each time I came across a point or issue I felt needing attention, comment or clarification – the dozen pages attracting around 20 such notes. Rather than cover them all, some of the more interesting observations and comments:

The Elephant in the Room

There is one finding in the study that is not really addressed in the paper, although it is clearly evident in the presentation of results throughout – beginning with Table 3. The authors split respondents into gamers and non-gamers and also into those belonging to the Gamer Generation and those who belong to the Boomer generation. This obvious but unmentioned finding is that almost half of the gamer generation are not gamers. In which case, why is it called the gamer generation? Do the assumptions about gamers really apply to this generation?

Gamer Cognitive Styles

A model survey is presented based closely on Prensky’s digital natives/immigrant concepts and ideas – yet it is unclear whether this survey was actually used! If it wasn’t used then why not? If it was, what were the results??? Further, I believe that several of the questions are flawed, conflating multiple factors and hence potentially skewing results were the survey to be used.

For example, question 5 – Connected vs. standalone. This question, like all others in the survey, uses a five point scale. Here the scale goes from “You would like to have three Web windows open, IM your friends, and talk on the phone while working” to “You would rather take a book to a quiet place to work alone”. Thus, the question conflates multi-tasking (already in question 2), preference for working with others and preference for working on a computer vs. with a book. How would students who like working alone but on a computer answer this question?

Within the survey, participants are supposed to answer “how do you think and learn best?” – yet my own observation is that in many cases students who like to learn while flipping between multiple browsers and IMs and conversations are often not learning effectively. I’ll mention Kolb’s learning styles later… but I could nit-pick at least another 3 or 4 of the ten questions here for biased phrasing. Move on.

Gamers think differently

This may be true. But read the sentence that this is presented in and see whether you think this satisfactory evidence for what is quite a strong claim:

Gamers before and during college stay gamers after college, lending credence to the notion that gamers (including gamer teachers) do indeed think, work, and play differently than non-gamers.

Yes, apparently having and maintaining a different hobby from someone else is evidence that you think differently.

Gamer teacher values

Apparently gamer teachers favour the qualities Imaginative, Cheerful, Broadminded, Courageous and Independent more than non-gamer teachers who prefer values such as Honest, Loving, Responsible, Helpful. Although of all of these differences, the gamer teacher preference for Imaginative is noted as being the only value with a statistically significant difference.

It would be nice to have seen some discussion of the significance of these changes. Personally, I could note some similarity and some contrast between this finding and the recent notable quote calling high-school leavers ‘narcisstic praise-junkies’.

However, before I did that, I would like to see the data re-tabulated to show that there are no age or gender effects influencing this finding. Back to Table 3, I note that the proportion of gamer respondents who are male is 23%, while for the non-gamer respondents this figure is 14%. This is quite a big difference, and I’d be happier if they provided stats to show that the significant differences are due to gamer vs. non-gamer rather than due to gender differences in the sample population.


One positive of the gamer teachers might be their more positive attitude towards customization and individualization in learning. One consequence of this not considered in the paper, and not really within the scope of the paper, is that it may be the case that not all students will engage fully with learning using this method. To an extent, game-based learning may at times be the opposite of personalized learning – a common simulation experience being delivered to multiple students. It would depend a lot on the particular game implementation and how it was deployed.

Gamer learning styles

If I were to boil down what appears to me to be the essence of this chapter it would be something like this:

Today’s students are gamers; Gamers preferences are for flashy stimulus, learning in small instantly useful doses, and for learning while doing other stuff on their PC’s. Gamer teachers understand this better than non-gamer teachers, and place more value than non-gamer teachers on imagination and invidualised learning in place of honesty and teacher expertise. Gamer teachers will probably be better at teaching gamer students.

I have to accept at this point that this is my own biased reading of the chapter at work here. You might summarise the chapter differently. But some of this conflicts with another study, backed by Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Take-Two, which found that:

Using games in a meaningful way within lessons depended far more on the effective use of existing teaching skills than it did on the development of any new, game-related skills. (see here)

Then the chapter itself states in closing:

It would behoove programs that train future teachers to incorporate games and simulations not only because they are essential tools of the modern teacher, but because they match the learning characteristics of a significant proportion of the new generation of teachers as well as their students.

I presume here that the authors are strictly referring to digital games and simulations, role-plays and other types of game and simulation long having been established teaching tools. And I agree with them that future teachers should be aware of how they might incorporate digital games and simulatios into the classroom. But again I think the authors fall into the trap of assuming that because students like something, makes it enough reason to use it in teaching. Students also like television but, as has been learned over time, this doesn’t necessarily make it a better tool for learning than interacting with a teacher.

Kolb’s key point in developing his ideas about learning styles was that while you should provide learning experiences suited to particular learning preferences, ideal learning occurs when learners use different modes of learning. As noted here (Business Balls) :

Kolb says that ideally (and by inference not always) this process represents a learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’, ie., a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting.

This is definately something I have seen for myself in attempting to help students learn programming – both extremes of students who try to ‘think’ their way to the answer without experimenting, and students who continually experimentally try to ‘hack’ their way to answer without reflecting sufficiently on what works and what doesn’t, and why.

The End

To wrap-up, I would really have liked this paper to better justify some of its assumptions and to have more carefully considered its findings and claims. I see little evidence of the caution recommended by Chris Dede in the introduction.

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