Games and Learning

Shaffer, D., Squire, K., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. (2005). “Video Games and the Future of Learning.” Phi Delta Kappan. pp. 105-110. Retrieved from

While the article serves primarily as a review of the potential for games in learning, the reiteration of basic principles is a useful reminder:

  • games are simplifications of reality (simulations)
  • through roles, games allow players to “participate in new worlds” and experiment with new identities
  • games provide situated learning because words and symbols are no longer “separated from the things those words and symbols refer to”
  • games bring “players together–competitively and cooperatively” to develop “effective social practices”
  • games encourage creative construction as players, “write FAQs, participate in discussion forums and become critical consumers of information”
  • games emphasize expertise over accreditation
  • “Games bring together ways of knowing, ways of doing” to create a set of shared values

Shaffer describes epistemology as the way of thinking that characterizes community members and defines an epistemic frame as the grammar of that culture. Although epistemic games require that players be immersed in authentic worlds, they are not left to flounder on their own; instead, virtual players (or real players in a MMORPG) provide guidance and scaffolded support. While describing motivational aspects relative to authentic knowledge acquisition, fun is given scant attention.

Shaffer proposes that games are useful for both new community members (initiation) and experienced practitioners (transformation). A variant on traditional games, goal-based scenarios (or cases) model successful problem-solving for professionals; this case approach could grow organically if professionals were required to create a new case as a reflective activity upon conclusion.


While both cooperative and collaborative learning are founded in constructivist theory where knowledge is actively constructed by students, the distinction between cooperative learning as, “a division of labor among participants” and collaborative learning as “mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together” (Roschelle & Teasley as cited in Resta & Laferrière) offers practical clarity as a backdrop. Education is a personal transaction among students and between students and teachers; these activities and transactions can take place only in a cooperative (or collaborative) environment.

Cooperative learning is more teacher-centered because the teacher controls the tasks, facilitates the methods, and may define the end products. Collaborative learning emphasizes personal change and transactions over environmental control and transmission. And in a punny way, collaboration may exclusively involve (evolve) elaboration. However, the sophistication of both students and teachers, as well as the subject matter, determines which method is more appropriate.

Many educational settings overly emphasize competition and individual work, although the former can provide motivation and the latter may be necessary to assure individual accountability. Key components in successful cooperative learning environments include positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing. Clear guidelines on roles and expectations can prevent conflict and lay the groundwork for accurate assessment.

Collaborative learning should be viewed as “knowledge building” which is more concrete than “learning” from the perspective of social practice. Collaborative knowledge building is structured by the intertwining of personal perspectives with group understandings. Learners are influenced by socially-situated contexts, and learning occurs through interactional processes.

The construction of knowledge proceeds on the basis of artifacts already at hand and creates new artifacts from group knowledge-building to formulate, embody, preserve, and communicate new knowledge. The meaning of artifacts and our understanding of that meaning are first created in interpersonal contexts and subsequently may be internalized in an individual as a cognitive artifact. The mental representation is a result of collaborative activities within a socio-cultural context, not first as an internal product which is then expressed externally. Naturally occurring and carefully captured examples of collaborative knowledge building can be rigorously analyzed to make visible the knowledge-building activities at work, the intertwining of perspectives, and the mediating role of artifacts.


Wiggins becomes even more specific in discussing how to craft understandings. Understandings are identifiable by being abstract, transferable, and opaque. Non-understandings are general, aimless or rote, and simplistic. The specifics include the direction to use complete sentences, even to the point of recommending the form: Students should understand that…

The features of understandings were useful, but I admit I’m getting a little bogged down in (and weary of) all the number sets. Why are there 6 facets that map to 5 features that tie to 6 criteria? However, the features seemed less an ordered list than a set of characteristics:

  • specific and drawn from expert experience
  • enduring beyond a specific topic
  • abstract and easily misunderstood
  • best acquired by uncovering or doing
  • summarizes strategy in skills

The Zen-like aspect (for me) is that understandings must transcend a specific time and place. However, they must be constructed from specific (even down to the level of each learner’s individual prior experience) situations.

One aspect I enjoyed was the connection Wiggins drew between understanding and fact. While understanding is inferred from facts, a learner who knows the facts can only recite them, while a learner who understands the facts “gets it” and can generalize to non-identical situations. A similar parallel might be drawn in the skills area:  a learner who knows the steps can only teach them, while a learner who understands the steps “does them.” BTW, that’s not a slam on P.E. teachers.

My best moment: the absence of resolution that seems to characterize most of Wiggins was filled by the quote from Grant (note to self: look up his research):

There may be no right answers, but some answers are better than others.

Do you understand the way I understand?

I didn’t find this chapter as useful as Gagne’s, not because I didn’t agree that there are different types of understanding but because it wasn’t as specific (but that might be good for me). So, I thought I’d translate what I understood Wiggins to say (in terms of the six facets) into how I might apply them:

  1. Explanation – accomplished via generalizations; not just telling because “why” and “how” are inferred; might be used as PBL to require students to explain not just recall answers; related to Bloom’s analysis and synthesis levels
  2. Interpretation – accomplished via telling stories; varies with context but students must defend positions; present students with inherently ambiguous issues
  3. Application- accomplished by requiring students to use in new situations; context-dependent; performance-based; seems identical to Bloom’s level
  4. Perspectives – accomplished by presenting the big picture; require students to take an alternate point of view
  5. Empathy – accomplished when students can identify value in other perspectives; seems to require an attitudinal assessment
  6. Self-knowledge – accomplished when students can perceive their own limits; achieved by using reflection; make certain students are not using binary answers; also seems to require an attitudinal assessment

All six facets are manifestations of transfer according to Wiggins, but I need to think how to prove that.


I wasn’t sure if we were also supposed to post reactions to the chapters–Jason and Xavier did such a good job facilitating the discussion last night that it seems somewhat redundant. But I thought I’d mention a few things that stood out for me:

Dick and Carey split up the ADDIE model into 9 steps. Wiggins looks like it has 3 steps but actually offer more steps than Dick and Carey since Wiggins use sub-steps (or at least sub-questions). In that sense, I found Wiggins more useful. However (and this may be too cynical), all of the models seemed to be variations on the same ADDIE theme; in some cases, it seemed like the model creators were inventing a 6th or 7th or whatever step just to create a new model. That wasn’t true for all of them–Bates just as one example seemed to offer a new way of looking at things (because the model split course development from course delivery).

We talk about the 3 forms of interaction a lot with faculty when we help them plan their online courses. I suppose it’s possible we do so simply because Blackboard (or any of the mainstream LMS/CMS products are similarly organized around content, communication, and assessment); or perhaps it’s because Blackboard is organized around the three forms (which seems more likely given that Blackboard originally came out of Cornell). And so I was fascinated to see Dick and Carey mention presentation, participation, and assessment as key activities because these translate in my online world to lesson presentation (student-content interaction), discussion board participation (student-student interaction), and assignment/assessment evaluation (student-instructor interaction). Of course, I may be seeing patterns and similarities where none exist, or I may also NOT be seeing nuances that I should.

While I found more I liked in the Wiggins model than in Dick and Carey, that may be due to spending more time with Wiggins (if only because of the two chapters). What I particular enjoyed about Dick and Carey though was the idea of replication of results. This is critical to my job even though we deal with the (virtual) classroom. We spend a lot of time developing an online course, and if faculty leave, it may take two years to build a new course; in the meantime, another faculty member must step in and use the existing content to teach the class. In addition, as online courses grow in popularity, we find that the campuses are adding additional sections which are often taught by adjunct instructors because the sections are added at the last moment; in these cases, we want a consistency of content across all the sections.

Roles and Delivery
To me, Dick and Carey seems more geared to training than to education for two reasons. First, in many educational settings and increasingly in informal learning networks, the role of instructor and student shifts constantly. Using our class as an example, Jason was our teacher last night when he led the discussion. In an online game, sometimes my son is the team leader and sometimes he’s a follower (when he plays with his older brother). On the DEOS list-serv, I’m mostly a student but sometimes I contribute as a (self-professed) expert in some small area. Dick and Carey don’t take this learner-shifting into account (and in training, there’s no need to do so) . Second, Dick and Carey imply that design is independent of the delivery mode, an approach that if followed fails to take advantage of the unique characteristics of the medium and the delivery/learning environment.

Not Backwards at All
Wiggins makes a big deal of using a backward design approach but in actuality, it seems like all of the models (except the completely circular ones) do this: objective/assessment/content. However, the authors are 100% accurate that most faculty want to to start with the content. I’m surprised that no one used the maze analogy when talking about backwards design (solving a maze by working backwards). I thought the idea of uncoverage vs. coverage was clever, particularly when uncoverage was specified in the 2nd chapter as a process of dealing with misperceptions, grey areas, and core issues. I also liked the pairing of big ideas with core tasks (although I’m still pretty hazy on how to do this). And even though Wiggins seems to have a K-12 focus, I found much of the approach equally applicable to higher education. I disagreed with a couple of the analogies: designs are not like software–they are like movies or paintings (software is a tool); templates are not intelligent unless they adapt upon input.

The reason I really enjoyed the Wiggins readings (although I don’t think Dick and Carey would disagree with this) was the discussion of understanding versus knowing (although it seems difficult and complex to identify big ideas). The story of anatomy memorization results matching the curve for nonsense syllable memorization results was wonderful–I intend to use that at our faculty training next month. The tile analogy (patterns) was great, and I need to find another analogy for the transfer aspect of understanding. My own take: memorization is a process of dealing with facts and specifics which is equivalent to searching Google; understanding is a process of dealing with patterns and complexity which is equivalent to participating in social networks (not just Facebook–things like delicious and YouTube). This leads me to more questions (and no answers):

  1. Given the replicable power of systems models, can we devise a systems model that emphasizes learner participation (which might bring down the cost and timeframe–I guess this was the attraction of the Dorsey model for me)? Or will that approach dilute the power of the systems model (too many cooks)? This question might be a restatement of the Wisdom/Stupidity of Crowds issue.
  2. If designing courses for understanding recognizes that each individual brings his or her own socio-cultural background to the learning event, can we really design courses that work for every learner?