Monday, 5 November 2012

21st Century Skills and Games Based Learning

This TED talk from Dr. Richard Van Eck brings up some very interesting points.  I would greatly recommend watching the video, but as it is 20 minutes long and not everyone will have the time, I will summarise the main points here for you.  If you have watched the video, please feel free to ignore the summary, just skip to the black text later on.

  • Why raise test scores when they don’t measure what we need them to in the 21st century?
  • If we really cared about learning, we would individualise it to each student – not ready to do this.
  • There are two main modes of change / reform:
  1. Changing because if we don’t adapt, we can’t survive.
  2. Disruptive technologies – new technology that solves problems that we face but in a way that forces us to change our behaviour.
  • The Industrial Revolution changed the education system to produce workers.  Children were all taught the same things, in the same place, at the same time.  We now live in an ‘information age’ where ideas are the new commodities.  
  • Situated cognition - if you are going to teach someone something, you should teach them in the environment that they will use the knowledge – learn by doing.  This promotes faster learning, better retention of knowledge and the transference of knowledge to the real world.  Games allow this.
  • Games promote systems thinking – currently education teaches discrete facts, not connections and systems.
  • Games promote collaboration – social negotiation of skills, collective intelligence, collective problem-solving all prevalent in games.
  • Games promote problem-solving.  The problems presented require new knowledge to be generated to solve it.  There is a value for the learner in solving the problem.  Schools sometimes get the first aspect but usually try and persuade children to “just do it, trust me it will be important later.”
  • Games produce engagement (engagement is not about fun or motivation but cognitive effort).  The challenge should be optimal – too hard and they’ll quit, too easy and they won’t want to play.  Zone of proximal development: some things so easy we don’t need help to do them, some things too difficult no matter how much help, some things where the challenge is ‘just right’.  This is where all the best learning occurs as it keeps people operating at the maximum of their ability.  This is what games do – can choose difficulty at start and can’t move on until mastered initial skills.  
  • But, games are disruptive technologies and this has practical consequences.  Games will require fundamental shifts in the education system.
  • Current tests don’t measure 21st century skills and tests might not be able to ever measure these skills.
  • Collaboration vs. cheating – how will we adapt to these new ideas?
  • Individualised instruction – currently we fit education to the lowest common denominator, which means that some children are not optimally challenged.  If we individualised learning, some children would take 2 months to complete the curriculum and some, 2 years.  Practical and financial consequences.
  • If we bring in games, we will have to adopt everything that comes with them.  Disruptive technologies by definition, destroy things; revolutions are messy.  
  • Games may not save the education system, they may destroy it and this might be exactly what is needed.

Dr. Richard Van Eck makes some great points, I completely agree that our current education system is somewhat ignoring these 21st century skills.  I also agree that the education system needs a revolution.  However, I thank that games can be integrated into our current education system very easily and this could produce change for the better now.  People, on the whole, are scared of change and the idea of a revolution, whilst headline grabbing, might not be feasible.  I am not sure if he meant it to come across in this way, but it seems that Dr. Van Eck is arguing that there is an either / or choice to be made: either we stay the same or we have a revolution.  I think there could be some middle ground.

What exactly are 21st century skills?  This is another good article, which lists the essential competencies for a student in the Information Age:

  • Ways of thinking - Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning.
  • Ways of working - Communication and collaboration.
  • Tools for working - Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy.
  • Skills for living in the world - Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

In a dynamic and competitive knowledge economy, innovation, creativity and problem solving are everything.  We exist in a world dominated by the likes of Apple and Google.  For these firms to survive, they must innovate.  They require a workforce of creative critical thinkers.  Furthermore, to survive in this economy and obtain employment, these are the skills that students need to be learning too.  Games are a great way of encouraging the development of these skills.  Succeeding in playing a game often requires problem solving, critical thinking and most definitely decision making.  These skills can be practiced in a safe environment.  For example, puzzle games such as Portal require explicit problem solving involving physics.  However, all games involve some form of thinking skills such as these.  How do I fulfil my Sim’s life ambition?  How can I make my theme park more popular?  How can I make my town more sustainable (an example of our learning simulation, Sustainaville)?

Communication and collaboration are also extremely important.  On a purely practical level, flatter organisational hierarchies require good communication skills.  This is common in a knowledge economy.  Further than this, the most successful companies have realised that their workforce are their best resources.  They have also found that collaboration can encourage innovation and so on.  For example, Google have special areas of their offices specifically designed to stimulate ‘spontaneous’ communication and collaboration with people that they wouldn’t usually come into contact with.  They also have small collaboration zones such as yurts and huddle rooms.

Image from Marcin Wichary on Flickr.

Games can encourage collaboration in different ways.  First, multiplayer games can obviously provoke communication and collaboration.  For example, players in games such as World of Warcraft, Halo, Portal and so on need to work together to succeed in their mission / level.  In our games-ED learning simulations, players make up sub-teams that need to work together to achieve the overall outcomes of the whole group.  The sub-teams are in control of one sector / building e.g. local council, health sector, private sector which must work together to improve the virtual community that they have been put in charge of.  

Single player games can also encourage communication such as “Guess what I did on Fifa last night?” or “Have you been on this quest in Skyrim?”  However, they can also encourage collaboration such as “How did you do that pass / goal celebration?” or “How did you defeat that boss / find that item?”  While talking about communication and collaboration, I’d just like to bring your attention to this Swedish classroomless school.  This innovative new school in Sweden has no classrooms, focuses on 21st century skills and children are split into grades based on their level rather than age.  One of their main priorities is the promotion of collaboration along with all the other 21st Century skills mentioned.  Is this the school of the future?  For more information on communication and collaboration see ‘The Art of Conversation’.

It goes without saying that IT skills should be encouraged through the use of IT based games.  However, what about the final bullet point above: skills for living in the world?  These benefits might not come about from all games.  However, they will in many.  For example, semi-realistic life and career skills are simulated in The Sims.  You must manage your sim’s life, made up of physical needs, social life, love life, career, family life and so on.  Other games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft have pretty strict rules about social etiquette and citizenship.

Our games-ED learning simulations are designed to educate learners about some of these areas.  For example, The Climate Game teaches students about climate change and environmental responsibility and Young People First teaches students about young people’s issues such as teen pregnancy, worklessness and anti-social behaviour.  For more information on how game-ED aims to encourage these 21st Century (or Personal Learning & Thinking) skills click here.

To conclude, these skills are needed in the 21st Century.  Needed by job seekers, employers, organisations and our future leaders.  In my experience, these are the skills that people are after (employers often just require you to have a degree, not a degree in a specific area) more than the knowledge of facts and figures.  Some specific knowledge is needed sometimes, such as medicine and law.  However, in many fields, knowledge needs to be gained on the job anyway.  Why then, is so much emphasis placed on this type of knowledge in education when it will be forgotten?  Why not put more emphasis on 21st Century skills?

Further Viewing
If you have the time, you might want to watch this video from Dr. Tony Wagner about what he calls, the ‘global achievement gap’ (the gap between what is being taught and what is needed to be taught in the 21st century).

Please follow @paulladley on Twitter, games-ED on Pinterest and like games-ED’s Facebook and Google+ pages for blog updates and other interesting games based learning findings.

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  1. What about the teachers? Here's a great article: 'The 33 Digital Skills every 21st Century Teacher Should Have'

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