Forget Teaching

Should children be taught using video games?

You may be choking on your cornflakes so apologies but this is what the chief executive of Mangahigh thinks.

EdTech evangelist Mohit Midha thinks that children have “much lower attention spans” than they used to so they should be taught using game-based learning instead. Mangahigh produce maths games and their approach claims to leverage “the buzz and excitement of rewards and competition to engage students in their learning.”

It’s a good pitch and the video below (with dramatic music) gives you a flavour of what’s on offer:

As reported by Will Hazell in the Tes, Mr Midha’s opinion that “people are obsessed with video games” but are “totally out of love” with “traditional forms of instruction” involving “pen and paper”.

I’m not sure what research he has to support these claims but I can’t find any. Surely a child’s background influences their motivation to learn? Not all children will be motivated by video games and some will prefer a mixture of approaches.

Speaking at a debate on artificial intelligence and education organised by Nesta, Mr Midha said, “These kids do not have the attention span of listening to someone for 15 minutes. They don’t have five minutes that they can focus on.”

Mr Midha might be surprised to know that very few people will be able to focus for 15 minutes which is why many teachers employ a chunking strategy when they are teaching.

Again, where is the research telling us that “they don’t have five minutes”? This feels more like a sales pitch for Mangahigh and there needs to be some evidence that it works.

Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, says that “average attention span” is pretty meaningless. She says,

It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.

Mr Midha’s idea seems to be to ditch instruction and let children figure things out for themselves by playing educational video games. He thinks that by letting children learn this way will help teachers because it will remove some of the administrative “grunt work” such as marking.

So let’s ask the same question that Nesta were asking: ‘What does artificial intelligence really mean for our education system?’

Clearly there is a place for adaptive learning platforms that provide personalised pathways and support students to learn effectively. If a computer can mark homework – great. If its algorithms can judge what children need to learn and the best time to learn it – great. If its software can help to fill gaps in your knowledge –  triple great.

Adaptive learning is the customisation of the design and delivery of learning based on each learner’s individual learning needs and performance in real time.

Adaptive game-based learning environments can help teachers understand and address the varying proficiency levels in their classrooms. These platforms are welcome and can add real value (although not perhaps for “high academic-achievement students“) but as replacements for instructional teaching?

No, I don’t think so. They can sit alongside and be part of a learning experience but they can’t be expected to replicate real teaching where human relationships are the true drivers of achievement. Game-based learning is inevitably focused on a narrow range of content too.

A learning ecosystem is made up of people, technologies, processes and physical resources and these all play a role. Artificial intelligence isn’t there to outdo and compete but supplement. Yes, video games are valuable learning tools and can improved student communication skills, resourcefulness and adaptability (Barr, 2017) but let’s not get carried away. They add value and can be useful for engaging and motivating students during learning but they aren’t replacing teachers (Ruggerio, 2013).

Effective teachers catalyse optimal learning and engagement by leveraging interests, knowledge, skills, and dispositions – if AI is part of this fine but only in part. Even Mr Midha agrees,

I strongly believe game-based learning (GBL) has a significant role to play in education and enhance the learning experience for our students. It has many inherent benefits for the teacher but I agree that it cannot and will not replace good teaching.

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