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Meet a team of educators who are adding games to the 21st-century curriculum

"Games could be pervasive" in the classroom Sue Parler, DePaul Catholic High School

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Educators traditionally have done their best to keep video games out of the classroom, but a new school of thinking is integrating games and game-related exercises in teaching — even as longtime educators push back against it.

Attendees at the "Games and Learning" panel at New York Comic Con yesterday afternoon heard from teachers, game designers and education professionals about using games to facilitate learning. These individuals came off not only as passionate about games, but passionate about educating people. According to Justin DeVoe, a language arts teacher at a high school in Newark, N.J., that drive to make a difference in the lives of his students — through any means available — often draws resistance from entrenched, old-school peers and administrators.

DeVoe characterized many teachers as indifferent to the success or failure of their students: "Well if I'm doing my job, and I'm handing in my lesson plans, then it doesn't matter if they're learning, does it?" And teachers like DeVoe, who actually make an effort, have to deal with scorn from their less engaged colleagues. "When you are the person who wants people to learn, you might be the outcast" among your peers, he explained.

DeVoe's inner-city school is in a "failing school district, 20-something years running," and many of his students are gang members who were out of school for years. He told the audience that he tries to connect with each pupil individually, engaging their unique interests to bring them into the fold. Sometimes, that involves video games. DeVoe spoke of bringing in his own consoles for Gears of War multiplayer games, an attraction that gets students into school before class at 7 a.m. With that hook, he was able to relate the relationship between protagonists Marcus and Dom to the bond between Pythias and Damon in Greek mythology.

Students these days "want something interactive," said DeVoe, explaining that teachers who simply hand out the same old dittos to 21st-century kids aren't doing their job because they're not engaging their students. Another teacher on the panel uses gamification in the classroom to great effect, because she "can't teach any other way."

DeVoe teaches in Newark in a "failing school district, 20-something years running"

Sue Parler, technology coordinator at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, NJ, teaches game design to her students these days — she has high-school kids developing musical Android apps for an in-class concert. But early in her teaching career, she started experimenting with simple integration of video game concepts, splitting her Spanish class into "guilds" that competed with each other. She spoke of the important skills that games can teach — critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork among them — and pointed out that they're applicable throughout life.

"Whether or not [my students] ever end up as game designers is irrelevant," she said. The point is to legitimize the use of games in the classroom, as long as they can be used to better educate kids.

One of the panelists came from a New York City school built entirely around games. Claudio Midolo is a game designer at Quest to Learn, a public middle school in New York that opened in 2009. The school's curriculum incorporates principles from games, such as the way they use failure as a teaching moment. Midolo explained that just as dying in a boss battle might force you to try another tactic the next time around, students who fail a test shouldn't see it as a failure so much as an opportunity to prepare with a different strategy.

Quest to Learn uses three professionals for all aspects of its curriculum: a teacher, a game designer and a curriculum designer. "It's much more difficult to make an interactive experience," he said, "but the payoff is much greater."

The final panelist, Malcolm Bauer, discussed how to improve assessments for modern schools, since existing systems are often inadequate for today's students. Bauer, a research scientist at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) — the organization that the College Board uses to develop the SAT — talked about researching the use of game mechanics for assessment purposes. ETS is trying to align assessments with wider trends in culture, said Bauer, such as "adaptive testing" that can be individually customized and using "big data" to help with that. Bauer also works at the ETS' GlassLab, a research institute that has partnered including Electronic Arts and the Entertainment Software Association to bring the higher production value of commercial games into learning experiences both in and out of the classroom. He explained that the development of such products is usually left to the education industry, rather than developers of commercial games, but GlassLab is trying to change that.

The medium of video games is relatively new, and using them in the classroom for educational purposes is newer still. "Games could be pervasive," said Parler. Bauer added that the old ways of teaching and measuring students are safe, but they don't engage and assess kids as well as they used to. All the panelists expressed hope that games, traditionally seen as a classroom distraction, would become a major teaching tool in the years to come.

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