How Computer Games Help Children Learn – Review

Will Richardson commented on my recent post where I referred to the book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn:

The thing I find so much more effective about the network learning I do is that it’s asynchronous and done on my time. And yet IM and Skype and others make synchronous discussion imminently possible when needed or necessary. And all of that is what to me at least poses such a challenge to the traditional work of classrooms where we are all expected to learn the same things at the same time.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in learning and education, but the title is a bit misleading. It’s more about the theory and practice of authentic learning experiences than specific computer games. Many of games mentioned in the book, like the debating game, are not computer-based, but could be computer enhanced. David Williamson Shaffer’s book is really about epistemic games, or “games that are fundamentally about learning to think in innovative ways”.

He begins by showing the fundamental weaknesses of our Industrial School System, itself a game:

Not surprisingly, the epistemology of School is the epistemology of the Industrial Revolution – of creating wealth through mass production of standardized goods. School is a game about thinking like a factory worker. It is a game with an epistemology of right and wrong answers in which Students are supposed to follow instructions, whether they make sense in the moment or not. Truth is whatever the teacher says is the right answer, and actions are justified based on appeal to authority. School is a game in which what it means to know something is to be able to answer specific kinds of questions on specific kinds of tests.

Shaffer shows the need for teaching how to think and how to be creative, instead of how to memorize, and lays the argument for the use of games in learning. Most of his examples are outside of the classroom because it is obvious that these kinds of epistemic games would disrupt classes and the curriculum. The games that are discussed are called monument games, or exemplars of good practice. None of the games is available “out of the box” but the ideas and concepts are critical for anyone who wants to use games in learning, not just playing bingo and using words or figures out of context. The latter does not help learning.

The use of epistemic games is an approach that resembles cognitive apprenticeship. As our society moves from a linear print-based medium of knowledge creation to a networked and computer-assisted medium, we need new, post-industrial learning models:

As the late Jim Kaput and I have argued, if written symbols led to a theoretic culture based on external symbolic of storage, then computers are in the process of creating a digital or virtual culture based on the externalization of symbolic processing. This is the kind of change that has happened three of four times in the course of human evolution – a change of similar magnitude to the development of the printing press and the development of writing and language itself. What it means is that being “literate” in the digital age is not about reading and writing but about solving problems using simulations. What matters in the digital age is not learning to do things a computer can do for you but learning to use the computer to do things that neither you nor it could do alone.

I have emphasized what I see as the core argument of the book. We need to do things differently because the world has changed.

I highly recommend “How Computer Games Help Children Learn”.

Other books I recommend.

8 Responses to “How Computer Games Help Children Learn – Review”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Thanks for this Harold. Your ways of making sense of Shaffer’s book help me a lot. His contribution to post-industrial ways to learn now seems more valuable than to games — with your frames of reference. Seeing “factory schooling” as an epistemology also resolves some of the struggle on my own blog with his use of “epistemic frames”.


  2. Dave F.

    “…being ‘literate’ in the digital age is not about reading and writing but about solving problems using simulations…”

    This was a real stop-and-think idea for me. One of my first thoughts was an analogy: maybe reading-and-writing are to the digital world as speaking-and-hearing were to the written world (to invent a term).

    What I mean is that no matter how great a computer or network you have, reading and writing at some level are prerequisite skills. They won’t get you to optimum performance, but if you can’t read or write, much potential experience in the digital world’s going to pass you by.

    (I’m not ignoring the possibilities of experiences created specifically for people who can’t read or write; I’m just focusing on the developed-world norm.)

    The other half of the relationship: when literacy (reading and writing) began to expand (e.g., within the first 50 years after moveable type; again after the establishment of widespread schooling), your success in learning to read and write depended to some extent on your being able to talk (and make sense with what you said) and to listen (and make sense out of what you heard).

    I could do a whole other comment on “learning to use the computer to do things that neither you nor it could do alone.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve often talked about “reaching through the software,” meaning enabling someone to accomplish something without having to think much about the application enabling that accomplishment.

  3. Harold

    I’m starting to reconsider reading & writing as prerequisite skills, at least in the form that they have been taught for the past 100 years. Will Richardson quotes Mary McNab here, which I think gives a flavour of what I’m mulling in my mind:

    “…reading online requires synthesis of multiple perspectives and multiple information resources. We have to create our own narrative. And in a book the author creates a narrative for us and connects information and synthesizes through explanation. And we do that in our heads now when we are reading online.”

    “It [hypertext] changes the reading path. And the kinds of things that we do when we are reading hypertext are different from when we read a narrative print. And as a result, some students may encounter that it requires more mental energy to focus on creating a personal rhetorical structure while they are reading. It requires engagement in critical analysis of information.”

  4. Dave F.

    I think McNab overstates in saying “we [connect…and synthesize] in our heads now when we are reading online.” Maybe she’s just more of an optimist than I am.

    Critical analysis of information doesn’t happen simply because you read online, as a visit to many political, religious, or health-issue sites will demonstrate. (In the same way, if in print I read The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The Washington Times, I’m likely to encounter a certain congruence of viewpoints.)

    Maybe one of the challenges for teachers (formal or informal) is to help people become aware of how they learn, how they organize information, prompting them to investigate how the information they encounter is organized.

    Another challenge is that of resources — the weblogg-ed link talked about signing up parents and reading tutors, blogging with the students, providing feedback, asking questions about what students read, and visiting the same sites to see if the student’s description and understanding track with the information…

    …which, if you use other words for “blogging” and “sites,” describes a rich environment for learning to think in pretty much any paradigm.

  5. Harold

    We’re definitely of the same general opinion, Dave. We need to create rich learning environments. What reading online offers though, is something different from reading print.

    If you read online with the perspective of a writer (blogger), then you are reading and formulating your comments at the same time. In the age of print, how many people were writers? Now we can all be online writers. Also, hyperlinks bring in more of the context of the conversation, instead of just a boring list of footnotes, that only academics read.

    I think that online writing can have a very different dynamic and can be more cognitively demanding as well. However, as you say, reading an online newspaper is no more stimulating than the print version, and maybe even less so.

  6. Dave F.


    I risk sounding anti-blog… but if you read with the perspective of a writer — a person who expressed himself in words — then you’re likely to read and formulate your ideas at the same time, even in the print world.

    Blogging can deliver you the opportunity to do that more readily — can, not will, in something of the same way that word processing can deliver you the opportunity to write in a more clear, organized fashion (by making it easier to edit, rearrange, annotate).

    And writing online can bring more immediate responses to your writing, meaning that you’re connecting with a reader more directly than you would have on paper.

    Hyperlinks absolutely offer the chance to extend the horizon, though also the risk you’ll lose it in a forest of tangents.

    One thing I was trying to say is that in the online world there can be just as much an echo-chamber effect as in the print world, with people reading and quoting and linking to the people who read and quote and link to them. That’s not much of a way to develop critical thinking.

    I’m not tossing out bathwater, let alone babies. And adults will most likely have to learn for themselves (through trial-and-error, or from example, or from friendly input). I was thinking more of ways to guide a young person’s awareness and skill.

  7. Harold

    I see the downside, Dave, but I guess I’m just optimistic that young people today have more opportunities for reflection and critical thinking than I did growing up in a small town with a tiny public library, two TV channels and one radio station. It would have been difficult to publish my thoughts or to connect with anyone outside my area.


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