Thursday, 28 April 2011

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Supports Games Based Learning

I have always been an admirer of Bill Gates. "Why? But isn’t he one of the ruling capitalist overlords (I hear the Class War brigade scream)?" Well, I like Bill for a number of reasons.

Firstly, he is a geek come good, and to us geeks, that alone is enough. Secondly, and most importantly, having amassed huge wealth, he is giving it away via The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So what has this all got to do with a games based learning blog. Well, on April 27th 2011, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a suite of investments, totalling more than $20 million, focused on identifying and expanding promising cutting-edge learning resources that support teachers and students and bring innovative new instructional approaches into America's classrooms. These investments support the development of game-based learning applications; math, English language, arts and science curricula built into digital formats; learning through social networking platforms; and embedded assessments through a real-time and engaging environment of experiences and journeys.

"Technology has advanced how we do so many things today," said Vicki L. Phillips, Director of Education, College Ready, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Yet, instead of transforming our schools, technology has generally been placed on top of antiquated models. These new cutting-edge applications have the potential to inspire students and engage them in the way they naturally learn.”

Bill is a visionary, well apart from the fact he didn’t initially see the importance of the web, so if games based learning is good for him then it is good for us mere mortals, I mean pawns, err  dumb terminal users, no willing consumers (that’s what we are). Oh go on send me a copy of “Anarcho-syndicalist Guide to Not Looking like an Hypocrite When Waging Class War with the Aid of Capitalist Technology”.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Boys will be Boys

Rowntree Foundation Report in 2007 found that early gender differences reflect a pattern that can continue right up to age 16, when boys outnumber girls by 20% as low achievers at GCSE. And if that wasn’t bad enough, researchers and policy developers assert that this underperformance and inability to work hard results in disaffection in low achieving boys, causing disruptive behaviour, and potentially a run in with the criminal justice system. Could playing games make a difference?

Various suggestions have been made as to why girls are outperforming boys: the historical bias against girls has been eradicated; teaching has become feminised; teaching has become girl centric (Professor Caroline Gipps at Kingston University identifies boys' refusal to adopt collaborative learning strategies as a factor in their falling behind, particularly before 16); and others suggest that boys think they are too cool for school.

There probably isn’t one single solution to raising boys attainment, but good teaching that adapts to varied learning styles is a good starting point. Some researchers suggest that gender has significant impact on learning styles while others think that the effect is more nuanced. Researchers from Cambridge University found girls were more likely to be visual learners, but when they asked students about which skills (from listening, looking and doing) they found easiest and hardest, they discovered that overall, the 'doing' skill was most often regarded as the easiest skill and listening the hardest by both boys and girl.

The trick is to ensure that VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) elements occur together rather than separately. Any gender bias toward visual, auditory, kinaesthetic learning is therefore dealt with and the reality is that many learners are usually combinations of VAK. In addition to learning styles, curriculum experts propose new ways in which education should be delivered to boys. They include an emphasis on using technology for learning; learning as part of a group; taking a lead role; developing communication skills; and solving problems as a part of learning.

Games based learning can help, as their technological basis can support visual, auditory AND kinaesthetic learning. Collaborative games can also allow players to take on different roles as leaders within the group. They enable students to develop personal learning and thinking skills. These soft skills are particularly enhanced if the game is played at a group level rather than being a person to computer experience. In my work with games-ED, I have seen first-hand, the power that collaborative games can have in education from primary schools through to higher education.

But, what about girls? The theory is that boys play games more than girls. Historically (if you can use that word for products that have been with us for 30-ish years) boys have certainly been keener than girls. But that is not to say that girls do not play games. In fact, games like Tomb Raider and "The Sims" have proved very successful with many female players.

Analysis of The Sims can also tell us a lot about what girls like and more importantly what they don’t like in certain types of games. Research shows that, at least four factors can account for the gender preferences in computer game playing. Three concern the content typically found in games: archaic gender role portrayals, violence, and lack of social interaction. The fourth factor is that games can be too focussed on winning.

In delivering games based learning in education in the UK, I have not seen gender differences and I have delivered to all boys, all girls and mixed classes in all age groups.  I attribute this to the fact that games-ED products are simulation-based and are played together with a collaborate score.

Choosing the right games is therefore a key factor in the success of games based learning. Commercial games will tend to focus more on male preferences, although the games that have more use in education such as simulations will be less gender specific. Also for pedagogic reasons, commercial games have their limitations as I have written in a previous blog, so purpose built curriculum based games based learning is the best route to achieving significant learning outcomes. The RETAIN model could help you choose an appropriate product. The Relevance, Embedding, Transfer, Adaption, Immersion and Naturalisation (RETAIN) Model was developed to:

1. Support game based learning development, and
2. Assess how well games based learning contains and incorporates academic content.

So will boys be boys? Well in education, the trend seems to have become fairly fixed over the last couple of decade, so maybe it is the time to do something different. Games based learning might not be THE panacea to raising attainment in boys, but it is part of solution and one that is achievable, even in these times of austerity.


Pat Bricheno and Mike Youngee, 2004, Some unexpected results of a learning styles intervention.
Eurydice (European Commission) Report 2010, Gender Differences in Educational Outcomes. Study on Measures Taken and the Current Situation in Europe.
Hartmann, T., and Klimmt, C. (2006). Gender and computer games: Exploring females' dislikes.
Nicholas Pyke, TES Magazine (2004), Gender gap.
Rowntree Foundation Report 2007, Tackling Low Educational Achievement.
Mike Younger and Molly Warrington (2005) Raising Boys’ Achievement.

TES North and the Geography Association Exhibitions

After exhibiting games-ED at BETT 2011, we didn’t know what to expect of our next two exhibitions. So here is the low-down on TES North and the Geography Association.

TES North
Located in Manchester Central (formerly G-MEX), the TES show was certainly easy to get to given we are based in Stockport. As a good Mancunian, firstly let me say that Manchester Central is an excellent venue. The show itself was somewhat of a mixed bag partly due to the fact that many of schools had already broken up! But, we met up with some very interesting people in particular a few chaps from India and Singapore, but I can’t say any more at this stage.

TES focus wasn’t really technology, so instead let me highlight a couple of other stands that I spent some time at:

Aqualease provide educational live fish aquarium for schools and children centres etc. With excellent educational and health benefits, our fish aquariums are fully installed complete with fish and then looked after for you on a regular basis.

Circus Zapparelli are a collective of experienced performance and visual artists who deliver workshops and services in schools, including circus shows and workshops; stiltwalking acts; musical entertainment; an eco powered Christmas Sleigh-and-Grotto; we also undertake willow weaving projects for inside and outdoors spaces, including living willow sculpture.


Geography Association Conference
This year the conference and exhibition was held in Surrey University in Guildford.  Next year it will be in Manchester – yay.

As part of a conference, the exhibition was small (maybe 50 stands). The show was a success for us with a lot of interest in our products coming from the geography teachers. We also had a lot of PGCE students interested and we plan to run a few games based learning workshops to arm a new generation of teachers with our games based learning approach games-ED.

My personal favourite stand was Gapminder. For those who don’t know much about Gapminder, you should check out this You Tube video, where Han Rosling (the man behind the tool) delivers a tour de force performance at TED

Gapminder can be used in classrooms around the world to build a fact-based world view.

At the Geography Association Conference Han Rosling spoke. On the stand, his colleagues were playing a stats based roulette game using a projected image of their gapminder software. Players had to predict how they thought certain countries had faired when judged against life expectancy and family size from 1950 to 2050.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Art of Conversation

If Elvis had been singing about games based learning, he might have demanded, ”a little less action, a little more conversation”.

The history of the introduction of new mediums is littered with the belief that they kill the art of conversation. Those “halcyon” days when the family gathered around the piano and the men retired for port and conversation have “sadly” gone (as it happens, I would have worked down the pit or in the mill). It is argued that the likes of TV and more recently computer games have put another nail in the coffin of conversation, but I disagree.

New mediums can act as conversational anchors, like the fact that people can chat about Eastenders or Corrie at work the next day. Soap operas offer viewers the opportunity to put the actions and interactions of human beings into perspective, both socially and culturally (Brunsdon, 1997; Gillespie, 1995; Liebes & Katz, 1990). Games can also do this.

Even individually played games can generate conversations. “Have you seen this?” “How did you do that?” We have seen this in action: We have delivered two programmes, involving seven schools, using two different individually played games. These classes were far from quiet! And it also worth noting that “individual” games were often played by pairs of pupils, as they preferred to work this way.

Collaborative games, though, take conversations onto a different level. With our games-ED products the gameplay is structured around rounds and phases to encourage conversation. The learners talk in their teams, between teams, at a class level and with the educator. The game anchors these conversations allowing a natural set of questions (shown below) to flow during the course of the plan > do > review phases. These conversations are at the heart of the learning; they are inclusive and are not formalised / one-way. It is through these questions that learning flows. Together the class constructs their understanding, and makes tacit knowledge (emotions, experiences, insights, intuition, observations and internalised information) explicit.

Games can be action packed and so engaging, but it is their ability to anchor conversations that provides the key to their success in the classroom. They also provide a collaborative framework that suits both boys and girls, which I think would make a good starting point for my next blog.


Brunsdon, C. (1997). Screen Tastes: soap opera to satellite dishes. London: Routledge
Gillespie, M. (1995). Television, ethnicity and cultural change. London & New York: Routledge
Liebes, T. and Katz, E. (1990). The export of meaning: cross cultural readings of Dallas. New York: Oxford University Press