Classes are starting to resemble arcades
WALLINGFORD, Conn. — It’s 1 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in Wallingford, Conn., and about 20 children are watching a screen at the front of the room as they take turns navigating challenges and collecting virtual currency to unlock powers, outfits and pets for their characters.
The game they’re playing has some similarities to the online battle game “Fortnite.” But the kids aren’t fighting one another — they’re racking up points for participation and good behavior in their classroom at Dag Hammarskjold Middle School, where their teacher is presenting a home economics lesson with help from Classcraft, a fantasy-themed educational program.
“It’s actually a lot of fun,” said 13-year-old Caiden McManus. “The pets — that’s my favorite thing to do. To train the pets, you gain as many gold pieces as possible so you can get the new outfits and stuff.”
Peek inside your average classroom these days, and you’re likely to see teachers using apps, websites and software that borrow elements from video games to connect with students living technology-infused lives. By all accounts, they’re fun to use, and studies have found that some can be effective. But there is also skepticism about how often students who use them are better educated, or just better entertained.
Dag Hammarskjold consumer sciences teacher Gianna Gurga said she had been looking for a way to get more out of her students. Students have been more motivated and performed better in her classes since she began using Classcraft in spring 2017, she said, and she has signed up a handful of other teachers in the school.
“My kids are so addicted to it in the best way possible,” Gurga said.
In one session, the classroom filled with suspenseful music as Gurga began rapid-fire questioning. With each correct answer, chosen from multiple choices on the screen, students gained points that could be used for avatar upgrades, privileges like listening to music in class, and a competition against other classrooms. The available characters — warriors, mages and healers — each have different powers and must collaborate to succeed.
Points are awarded for class participation as well as good behavior, but the kids can also be penalized, as was the case for one of Gurga’s seventh-graders who told a classmate to “shut up.”
A middle school in New York City, Quest to Learn, was the first public school to fully embrace game-based learning when it opened nearly a decade ago. The Manhattan school, developed by game theorists with the Institute of Play, has been closely followed since by researchers hoping for hard evidence of results from technology-inspired gamification.
In the last school year, 43 percent of Quest to Learn’s students were up to state standards on the state English test, compared to 41 percent citywide, and 29 percent of its students met state standards on the state math test, compared to 33 percent citywide. But advocates say standardized testing alone does not tell the story. Outside studies have shown growth in soft skills such as collaboration, creative thinking and empathy, according to Ross Flatt, director of programs and partnerships for the Institute of Play, a nonprofit studio that uses game design principles to develop new learning experiences.
Fifth-grade student Ashlynn De Filippis (left) works math problems on the DreamBox system as teacher Heather Dalton (center rear) works with other students in class at Charles Barnum Elementary School in Groton, Conn. A wide array of apps, websites and software used in schools borrow elements from video games to help teachers connect with students.