Today is Day 3 of my week-long series related to gaming, cognition, and education. Remember that I am approaching this issue with the following question in mind: Why is it that kids who can't sit still in class for five minutes can be mentally locked in for hours at home playing video games? If you're new to this series, check out the previous posts:

My guide for this series is Dr. Jim Gee at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Today's topics are ongoing learning, regime of competence, and probing.

7. Video game participants are constantly learning, unlearning, and relearning

In most video games, particularly role-playing games, participants must continually unpack prior learning and undo previously-routinized behaviors in order to learn new skills that allow them to progress and be successful. In other words, participants cannot function on 'autopilot' for long before the video game requires them to do something different to reach a new and higher level. As Gee notes

Several educators have argued that this cycle of automatization of skills through practice, rethinking this automatization when faced with new conditions in order to learn new skills and transform old ones, and then perfecting these new skills through further practice that once again leads to automatization is the very foundation of intelligent practice in the world. . . . A cycle of automatization, adaptation, new learning, and new automatization is a sine qua non of learning for those who want to survive as active thinkers and actors in a fast changing world. (pp. 69-70)

8. Video games continually and appropriately challenge learners

Video games are structured so that learners constantly operate at the outer edge of their competence. Participants are continually challenged but the challenges are not so difficult that learners believe they are undoable. Gee refers to this as the regime of competence principle. Lev Vygotsky, a famous developmental psychologist, called this concept the zone of proximal development - the area in which students are ready to grow. Video games are similar to teachers in that they take the role of what Vygotsky called the 'more knowledgeable other,' the entity that helps students bridge the gap between their current ability and new capabilities. In education, we often call this scaffolding - the idea that learners can progress to new skill levels with structured, individualized, just-in-time assistance. Video games are very adept at scaffolding participants' learning. One of the reasons that video games are so compelling / engaging / 'addictive' is that participants are continually faced with new challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult. This motivates them to move forward because the next step is always in sight and is perceived as being achievable.

9. Video games foster active, reflective investigation

Gee points out that most good video games require learners to

  • probe the virtual world by exploring, looking around, moving items, clicking on something, etc.;
  • form a hypothesis about what something in the game might mean based on reflection while probing and afterward;
  • reprobe the world with that hypothesis in mind to see what effect occurs; and
  • treat this effect as feedback from the world and accept or rethink the original hypothesis. (p. 90)

These four stages reflect how expert scientists approach their tasks and embody the process by which children and adults learn when they're not in school. In other words, this probe-hypothesis-reprobe-rethink process is "central to how humans learn things" (p. 91). This model of learning is underutilized in schools, however, as curricula and other pressures often result in a focus on memorization of facts rather than on teaching students how to discover, decode, and test patterns of thinking and meaning. The latter, of course, is an essential skill for individuals living in an everchanging global society.

Questions of the day

  • How do the concepts discussed above map on to K-12 education?
  • Are our K-12 classrooms set up . . . to allow students to continually learn, unlearn, and relearn at higher levels? to have students work at their own pace and  individualized levels of challenge? to foster active, reflective investigation?

Gaming and education resource 3

Here's the schedule for the rest of the series:

  • Thursday: multiple routes to success, contextualized meaning, multimodal learning
  • Friday: subset of real domain, bottom-up basic skills, just-in-time information
  • Saturday: discovery learning, learning transfer, learner as producer
  • Monday: wrap-up