How games can highlight under teacher underperformance.

It is often said that games are motivating and fun. Although this may well be true, if we’re going to put them to use in school, the reality is that assessment drives curriculum and this drives content. Decades of research explains why many (not all) teachers teach the way they do . In this canon of evidence, norm-referenced assessment and information transmission stands out. Basically this means that feedback from assessment, tells ‘low-performing’ students they are ‘low performing’ students.

From this, students are placed in lower ability-groups, where most are left to function at that level. This used to be the way parents were convinced their children were dumb, until parents started to notice that millions of kids were playing VERY complicated games which required cognitive skills and information processes which — according to schools — they didn’t have. Schools have attempted to ban games of course. They need games to be seen as an outsider-media, lurking in the shadows to make kids dumb. Sadly, this myth has been debunked. Even the media, who have been negative about games for decades now publish stories of how games are helping kids break the cycle of poor-talent-skill-knowledge identification.

This to me is what Minecraft has really achieved in society. Granted it emerged at a particular epoch, but at a time where governments are wondering what to do with education, here we have a game which clearly shows kids are being wrongly labelled, and worse they self-identity with being a low-performer as though the world they will now enter works like it did in the 1960s. If you’re a parent of a ‘low-performer’ then you probably see your kid effortly playing very very complex games. Do not buy into the false idea that games are for dummies, a waste of time or signal a lifetime of time-wasting. I’m going to set out why this is a deliberate and convenient myth.

So how can a ‘low performer’ level cap in Destiny or build an amazing cityscape in Minecraft?

Parents open the school report to see their child has been operating at the ‘limited’ level (again) and so the circle turns. Go up to the teacher and challenge them — how come my child is limited, when she can build this? Chances are the video-game is being blamed for distracting the child – or worse that the game is a crutch for low performing kids – who presumably can’t read books etc.,

What rubbish! The reason the school report is an unreliable tool that is over-rated. It doesn’t detail whether or not the teacher understands how metacognitive, reflective and imaginative education could lift any child from the perceived cycle of poor-performance. It just says poor performance is the outcome of the classroom strategy. Once again, the child who is a poor performer – can also successfully play video games which require higher levels of performance and cognition than are needed information transmission based classroom. To get around this problem, teachers try to stream kids, which another way of saying reaffirm on a daily basis that you are not very good and should never be asked to think about relational or applied problems. No wonder she likes Minecraft, there’s no such garbage happening.

So why don’t teachers fix the problem? One reason is culture, the other is training. Research tells us over and over why teachers adopt the strategies they do, so I’m not letting the cat out the bag to when I say, low performance is an intended outcome of teaching sadly.

A better approach to using and designing games to break this cycle involves teaching as involving conceptual change/development intentions with student focused strategies (Trigwell & Prosser, 2013). This means that the teacher is focused on the gap between the current position of the child and the NEXT desired position. They are NOT focused on the next question, the next topic to get through or the next fact or powerpoint slide. Learning is intertextual and multimodal, yet teachers press ahead with strategies we know reinforce and trap kids in a cycle of low-performance identity. What crap, I’ve seen ‘low performing’ kids solve problems in games that their teachers couldn’t do — and perhaps this is why kids are awarded ‘detentions’ for playing games, rather than being rewarded for saying “why can you not teach me like this”. In effect, game playing behaviour is an indicator of teacher performance. Ouch.

For example, using Minecraft, Myst, Portal or other entertainment games towards can be intentionally used towards educational goals, The authors contend that literacy relies not only on the content within each element, but also each element’s position, relationships among elements, as well as aspects of the reader. This position can be further understood using the SOLO taxonomy.

In an extensive review of teacher assessment strategies, Biggs (1998) argues teachers tend to use practices that encourage low cognitive level activities such as recall of isolated items of knowledge, norm-referenced in such a way that feedback confirms their low ability and  assessment within this encourages students to mediate their own effort in assessment tasks, (which define the curriculum). Students  adopti cue-seeking behaviours to avoid what Biggs calls the backwash. ie, for those who perceive themselves as ‘low performers’, in classrooms where transmission of information is the dominant teacher strategy, their ability to improve is hampered by the backwash of assessment itself. Cue-seeking is a sign of pedagogical confusion or poor alignment rather than intelligence. Contrastingly, where metacognition and reflection are part of the learning process “students themselves, without teacher help can focus on the gap between their actual position, and the desired position, until the the calendar dictates when the calendar must stop” (p.107).

When we think about game-playing, where fun and immersion drive metacognitive, reflective experiences such as World of Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, Guild Wars, Lord or the Rings and so on – players are almost entirely focused on the gap between current position and the ‘next level’. The game, or rather information processes in the game, are entirely designed to give feedback to the player such that no external ‘judge’ is required.

This isn’t an easy fix and this is a blog post which has gleefully skipped over a raft of ‘challenges’ that can be put up – however, if a parent is reading ‘limited’ on a report and the kid can finish a AAA game in a weekend, then how can that be?

Biggs, J. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning: a role for summative assessment? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 103–110.

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2013). Qualitative variation in constructive alignment in curriculum design. Higher Education, 67(2), 141–154.