Teaching the next generation with games


This past summer marked my first as the Academic Director for the Yale Pre-College Summer Program with Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs. At the program, high school students from around the globe collaborated in small teams and competed against one another to design initiatives focused on environmental sustainability by combining interdisciplinary knowledge from classes in environmental science, technology, economics, politics, and communications. The winning team won the right to select a charity to which Julian Krinsky would donate $500. This rigorous, highly successful summer program was designed based on the concept of game-based learning (GBL). Essential features of GBL are that students compete towards a common goal and that mastery of the material and skills you’re trying to teach are paramount to winning the game.

GBL truly isn’t anything new, as even the oldest among us can attest to the ability of Scrabble to expand our lexicon or chess to impart valuable lessons about strategic thinking and delayed gratification. I received a first-rate primary and secondary education, but I more easily learned about sound money management from playing Monopoly than I did from my instructors.

Whether the game is old-school tactile like the above examples or is a digital video game, I’ve long used GBL to enhance engagement in my classroom. It fills the normal silence of a classroom with productive noise. I also find that it helps students of mine who have attention deficits most of all as they’re liberated to leave their seats while playing the game.

A recent study published in the ‘Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research’ confirms empirically what I have long thought anecdotally about the positive effects of GBL. Primary school students using GBL demonstrated significantly greater gains in logical-mathematical and linguistic abilities when compared to a control group of students that were taught using traditional methods.

Given compelling findings like this, GBL ought to be incorporated to a greater extent in our classrooms. This is not to say that it should be the only instructional methodology, but the findings here are meaningful enough that they should recommend teachers add GBL to their repertoire.

But one of the chief hurdles to greater proliferation of GBL is parent skepticism. This is a simple, though not easy, matter to address. Parents want their kids to learn, and parents want their kids to have fun. Well-designed and appropriately rigorous GBL can accomplish both goals.

Making the end result of the game a public product that demonstrates student mastery, and that parents can see, also helps win over initial nay-sayers. Have students compose video reflections to discuss what they learned, and how much fun they had learning: these video pieces are compelling for parents to see. You may end up inspiring tears of joy from some of these same initial resisters.

The willingness of teachers to adopt GBL in lieu of other pedagogical choices is another consideration. A 2017 study published in ‘Computers & Education’ notes that teachers see the greater levels of engagement and motivation from students during GBL, and see the influence it has on their achievement. However, there are significant logistical challenges for teachers utilizing GBL. GBL lessons tend to be planning-intensive, straining the already scarce resource of time for teachers.

Further, like any other educational initiative, in order to do GBL correctly, teachers need professional development in its best practices, ongoing support and coaching, and dedicated time to plan beforehand and reflect afterward to improve for the next time teachers plans to use it. Without these needed supports, teachers will treat GBL integration as another burdensome obligation that makes their lives harder, or as a passing fad not worthy of their attention.

My advice to teachers seeking to use GBL in their classrooms is to partner up with a cadre of like-minded instructors for peer support. Depending on the supervisory regime, you may be able to have this guide a professional learning community (PLC). Ask your administration for the support you need, and enlighten them to the benefits of GBL. The worst answer you can get is a no.

For parents reading this who are becoming GBL enthusiasts, try broaching the conversation with your child’s teacher to ask if it is used in their school. If not, find out who is in charge of professional development in the school, and ask them what resources they plan to make available to teachers who wish to be trained in GBL.

Game on!



del Mora Pérez, M. e., Guzmán Duque, A. a., & Fernández García, L. k. (2018). Game-Based Learning: Increasing the Logical-Mathematical, Naturalistic, and Linguistic Learning Levels of Primary School Students. Journal Of New Approaches In Educational Research, 7(1), 31-39. doi:10.7821/naer.2018.1.248

Huizenga, J. C., Ten Dam, G. T. M., Voogt, J. M., & Admiraal, W. F. (2017). Teacher perceptions of the value of game-based learning in secondary education. Computers & Education, 110, 105-115.