NEA: Video Games in Classrooms

The National Education Association is an organization that I am forced to support with money taken out of my check each month, as part of my union membership. I do not agree with the leadership of my local union, but I certainly do not object to the tiny amount of money that must trickle up to an organization like NEA. I just don’t like being forced to do things.

In a recent article published in NEA Today, Cindy Long discusses some of the benefits of using video games in the classroom. Long interviewed a number of teachers that use computer games and simulations to help students think critically and improve problem-solving skills. In the article, a couple of my old favorites got some much deserved attention:

A pioneer of educational video games is Civilization, says Bill MacKenty, head of instructional design at Hunter College High School in New York City and a former Massachusetts elementary school teacher. In Civilization—called “Civ” by devotees—students literally build a civilization and learn how it survives through the ages with technology (like the invention of the wheel), agriculture, commerce, and the role of government.

SimCity is another favorite of MacKenty’s. While planning and creating a virtual city, the game shows students how to build revenue through taxes, provide water and power sources, build industrial and residential zones, and learn why distances between them are important.

I used to love playing Civilization with some old friends. One of them was an anthropologist named Thom, and I think the game had some special meaning to him, because we would always play it when he was around. I played Civilization on my computer, but it was never quite as fun as playing with Thom. He was always so happy to make bronze.

None of the educators interviewed described the games as a miracle solution, but rather as a useful tool to help student engagement. Bill MacKenty, head of instructional design at Hunter College High School in New York City had this to say,

You have to have a conversation before and after the game; you have to ask questions and get students writing about what they’ve experienced, or that critical thinking isn’t crystallized. If you stick a kid in front of the computer and expect something magical to happen, you’re going to be disappointed. You need to ask, ‘what are my objectives?’ You need planning and assessment. It’s just good teaching.

As an educator, I can tell you that if your child comes home and says he or she played Halo 3 at school today, then you have a problem; however, before you get too upset about that teacher using the SIMs as a teaching tool, ask your child to describe how the game was being used and ask about the lesson’s objectives. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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