In the world of games, knowledge isn’t useful unless students translate it into action. What does this mean for learning and teaching in the game-based learning classroom?
To teach how acids corrode metals, you can let students conduct experiments with some zinc lumps and sulfuric acid.
Or, you can let them fight off metallic monsters using guns loaded with an acidic mixture.
Some teachers did just that in Chemistry lessons, by using the computer game Legends of Alkhimia, developed by Dr Chee Yam San and his team in NIE.
In this game, students take on the role of chemists who have to figure out what combination of chemicals gives them the best ammunition to kill off those monsters that are hot on their trail.
It certainly sounds exciting – and in more ways than one.
To Yam San, games such as Alkhimia have the potential to change the way learners relate to what they learn.
“If I teach you about nickel, for example, the learning is in the third person,” he says. The focus is not on the student, but on the content.
“But in these game spaces, students are someone and they take on a role,” he further explains. “They’re the hero, the protagonist, the person who matters.”
Because of that, students are much more likely to stay engaged throughout the learning process.
“Games offer this epistemological shift in the relation between the learner and what is being learned: from the third person to the first person. And that makes learning real and alive.”
Knowledge in Action
A game like Alkhimia creates a space for inquiry and puts students firmly in the action seat. Knowledge is no longer something that they simply memorize and recite back to the teacher. Instead, they have to turn their knowledge into action, or risk being mauled by monsters (virtually, that is).
“It changes your relationship with what you know, because you’re acting on it and not just knowing it,” says Yam San.
This opportunity for students to act on what they know is often missing in traditional schooling. And it’s a gap that games fill very well. Immersed in a virtual environment, students are free to try out different approaches to solving a problem.
Here, the notion of play is pivotal. Students can play with the knowledge by doing and re-doing in the game space.
Even if they get it wrong the first time, they can always restart the game. Doing and getting things wrong can be invaluable to students’ learning, says Yam San.
“It is because you can do the wrong thing that you’ll understand and have a basis for justifying why the right thing is indeed right!”
That, to him, is what true understanding is all about.
Learning to Be an Expert
When students are doing and re-doing something, they’ve changed from learning about content to learning to be. “Learning becomes a continual becoming – becoming an expert,” says Yam San.
He calls this approach to learning performance. Just as professional swimmers or musicians constantly practice to improve their performance, students are doing the same.
But practising alone is not enough. Students have to be reflexive about it.
“You can interrogate your own performance and ask: How well did I do?”, Yam San suggests. Students may even compare their performance to their ideal standard.
“If you’re a classical pianist, you have an ideal of how you want your performance to turn out. During the actual performance, there may be some wrong notes played. During your reflection, think about what’s different between the actual and the ideal. That tells you what you need to pay attention to. That’s key to performance.”
Opening Up the Classroom Conversation
Another crucial part of game-based learning is dialogue. On this, Yam San talks about the Social Studies game Statecraft X that he and his team came up with.
Governance is traditionally a tricky topic to teach in Social Studies as it involves many abstract concepts, such as democracy.
Learning becomes a continual becoming – becoming an expert.
– Chee Yam San, Learning Sciences and Technologies Academic Group
“It naturally invites a game-based treatment, where it’s not just understanding about governance, but understanding governance by doing governance,” Yam San notes.
In Statecraft X, students are governors of their virtual states and have to ensure that their citizens are happy and well taken care of. This includes fulfilling the citizens’ basic, higher order and cultural needs, and also maintaining economic stability and multicultural harmony.
It’s a great way to introduce civic and societal issues to students in an engaging manner. But to relate what they’re doing in the game to the real world, students need a little extra help.
This is where teachers come in, to help them talk through what it means to govern a state and to be a citizen of the state.
“The game opens up the classroom conversation and that’s where the dialogue takes off. As a teacher, you can help students understand themselves and their own values in relation to these issues,” Yam San explains.
Facilitating such classroom conversations may mean that teachers have to adjust the way they teach (see box story below “Transforming Practice: Lesson Preparation, not Planning”). But the effort they put in will mean a lot to their students. As Yam San puts it, “That’s how you make learning alive for them – make it matter and relevant.”
Chee, Y. S. (2011). Learning as becoming through performance, play, and dialog: A model of game-based learning with the game Legends of Alkhimia. Digital Culture & Education, 3(2), 98–122.