How Computer Games Help Children Learn – Chapter 3

Shaffer, D. (2006). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shaffer opens by discussing the danger of superficially introducing games into the curriculum using Math word problems as an example. On the surface, an abstract equation might seem to be better explained by starting with a concrete example; however, couching the equation as a “real” word problem simply makes learning more difficult by requiring translation.

Shaffer introduces a defining characteristic of games: knowing what (declarative knowledge) versus knowing how (procedural knowledge). Procedural knowledge is the domain of experts in a field who often cannot articulate their declarative knowledge. Knowledge (what) and skills (how) are combined with the epistemology in a professional’s approach.

Shaffer defines innovation as something that “cannot be standardized…(but) cannot happen in isolation” and ties innovative professionals to a community. In the design game described in the chapter, students use both critiques (collaborative episodes) and public discussions (a community of practice). Shaffer describes the practicum process as:

  • doing things as a professional (action)
  • discussing what happened with the community (reflection on action)
  • repeating this iterative cycle until the process is internalized (reflection in action)

Shaffer ties the “reflection on action”  cycle to Vygotsky’s ZPD as a process of “doing things with help and then progressively internalizing.” This view accurately mirrors Stahl’s view of Vygotskian learning as initial socio-cultural community artifacts which are subsequently transformed into internal cognitive artifacts.


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.

Ten Core Insights–But Not Much New

While the 4-element principle–Learner, Mentor, Knowledge, and Environment–was a welcome reduction from 8+ part models, it seems to add nothing new (apologies to Judith), and LeMKE could just as easily have been KEEN (Knowledge, Environment, Expert, Novice).The idea that tools shape our learning was familiar but I’d hoped for some solid research into how new tools are changing how we learn (i.e., does multi-tasking produce better learning outcomes?).

The changing role of instructors (“all teaching functions no longer need to be embodied in one person”) was well-articulated. However, the most useful section was the discussion (although too brief) on research into the proliferation of receptor nodes caused by multiple new knowledge items (pattern-matching meets case-based learning?).

The ZPD discussion seemed to miss what I thought was the key point with Vygotsky (or maybe I’ve misread Vygotsky): the ZPD exists just beyond what a learner knows; the statement that students are outside their ZPD when they are totally lost rings hollow–the students may simply have no context to match against because the appropriate historically-relevant (historical in the individual sense) case has not been presented. Or, they could just be lost. I expected to see the idea that faculty are challenged to individualize instruction (to match ZPD) paired with the idea of community support.

A gem was Freeman’s description of “meaning as a process of successive approximations.” However, the denigration of learning the vocabulary of a discipline, while accurate in its caution against over-reliance on this method, ignores research into the value of declarative rules for novices.

Many aspects of the article were routine:

  • plan assessments simultaneously with instruction
  • learners bring their own history
  • concentrate on the core concepts

At the same time, the metaphor of content as an onion with the big idea at the center works effectively, especially in terms of the learning goal being a slice that drills to the core but includes outer contexts unique to each student. The final insight–that time on task produces more learning with all else being equal–is not supported although it seems to make common sense. What seems suspect is the statement that content chunking is, “one reason why games and role-playing scenarios are popular and valuable.” Games are popular and effective because they are fun. Maybe even addictive.