Teachers as gamers, gamers as teachers

Games can have enormous power in the learning process. Playing Minecraft or Sim City can teach young people about complex systems, creativity, policy, social dynamics, and a range of other subjects. Children who play chess learn a thing or two about strategy. Even classic games like Scrabble, Monopoly, and Yahtzee can teach larger concepts about language, economics, and probability.

A wealth of research and the work of organizations like Institute of Play have demonstrated that games — digital games, video games, and traditional board games alike — have enormous power in the classroom. Indeed, enterprising teachers have been bringing games into the classroom for years, as those of us who recall playing Chemistry Jeopardy or State Capitals Monopoly will remember.

Today’s interest in game-based learning, however, goes beyond making learning more entertaining. Its truly valuable aspect lies in design thinking: How do games deepen young people’s ability to discover the rules of complex scientific and social systems and then modify them, or use them to solve problems? A simple historical game in which a monarch may keep more wealth than he gives his subjects, for example — and an exploration of what happens when the rules change so that his subjects can express displeasure — becomes a lesson in power that can bring history to life.

Putting game design and game-based pedagogy in the hands of teachers through professional development programs gives them a powerful new tool. Last year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation brought together a pilot group of middle and high school social studies teachers to explore how games and play can transform both teachers’ practice and students’ engagement. This year, the program’s next phase — the HistoryQuest Fellowship — will convene 70 social studies teachers for a summer institute and a year of school-based followup.

Each HistoryQuest Fellow is charged with exploring how games can best be used in their history and civics classes. The Fellows will also bring what they learn back to colleagues in their schools and districts, spreading new techniques to make history more engaging for 21st-century students.

Some of these Fellows are new teachers just starting their careers. Others are established veterans. What they share is a commitment to innovative teaching strategies and a drive to make history lively and relevant for young people. Creative and dedicated to their profession and their classrooms, these Fellows are looking to lead the way in new kinds of learning for history and civics.

With ongoing efforts such as iCivics and even the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate exploring ways to help educators incorporate games in their lessons, K–12 is seeing direct, meaningful responses to growing concerns about Americans’ lack of civics knowledge. These organizations, and many like them, see how games can make social studies come alive for today’s students. Emphasizing game design — the approach of the Institute of Play, a HistoryQuest partner — not only reinforces students’ learning of history, but also provides them with 21st-century critical thinking and teamwork skills.

There is no question that the current generation of children approaches learning and information acquisition far differently than the generations before it. If we want them to have a 21st-century grasp of civics and history, we must teach it in 21st-century ways. That requires equipping educators with the knowledge and ability to bring games into their lessons, moving history from the pages of a textbook to the center of the classroom.

(Stephanie J. Hull is the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.)