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Communications of the ACM


Games in Schools--Sugar-coated Learning?

Judy Robertson

Do computer games have a place in classrooms as learning tools? Or do they act as a mere sugar coating to learning? That is: If computer games have a motivational effect on children are they worth using at school? Or do they have to improve learning outcomes to be worth it? This old chestnut crops up regularly, but a recent example in the Scottish press caught my eye this week as an illustrative example.

On one side, we have Learning Teaching Scotland (LTS), a government organisation whose purpose is supporting curriculum development in the country. They have a unit called the Consolarium which enthusiastically and energetically promotes the use of game-based learning in schools. They have conducted some research into the use of common off-the-shelf games in classrooms, particularly relating to the effect of brain training games on mental arithmetic.

On the other side we have professor Della Sala, a cognitive neuroscientist at Edinburgh University publically “slamming” (don’t you love newspaper headline verbs?)  a recent brain-training study by Learning Teaching Scotland at a conference for Scottish head teachers. He does quite a lot of public engagement around debunking brain myths (such as you should drink more water to help your brain function as it is 80% water).

 Ho ho. A little spat between a government quango and an academic: could be entertaining. Let’s look a bit more closely at it.

LTS conducted a study of 634 ten-year-old pupils in Scottish primary schools, spending £33,000 of public money. The control group took part in classes as normal with no treatment. The experimental group played the consoles game Dr. Kawashima’s brain training for 30 minutes a day, 5 minutes a week for nine weeks. They measured pre and post tests of accuracy and speed of mental arithmetic and some attitude and self concept measures. They report that there are significant improvements for the experimental group in speed and accuracy, i.e., playing the game made the kids more likely to get their sums right and do them quickly. Interestingly, there were no differences in the children’s perceptions of their own mathematical ability between groups, although there was a slight but significant improvement in attitude to school for the experimental group but not for the control.

Our neuroscience professor dismisses the findings and methodology of the study as “flim flam”. For some reason he thinks there was no significant difference on mental agility between the groups (as interviewed on the radio show "Good Morning Scotland" on 20th Nov 2009). This contradicts LTS’s report, so I am not sure what his source for this is. I can’t find any of the actual data published to check it. He also criticised the control group’s complete lack of treatment for comparison. (In my view he should be grateful for this, because in a pilot study LTS had a brain training group, a control group and a group who did Brain Gym! Yes, Brain Gym, that  bizarre set of exercises which have no scientific credibility whatever. Doh! What a weird choice of comparison.) LTS are “disappointed” and claim the prof is being “disingenuous”.

You may be less amused by this piece of local squabbling than me, but there are more general points to consider. Firstly, the professor commented that the children might enjoy it, but it is not a suitable educational tool. We do need to consider whether increases in motivation are sufficient reason to introduce games into the classroom. Suppose LTS had not found improvements in performance, but the kids had enjoyed it and had a more positive attitude to maths afterwards. Would that be worth having? In my own opinion, it probably would be beneficial because negative perceptions of maths at an early age may well put people off pursuing it later in life, to the detriment of society in general. However, what LTS actually found was more positive attitudes to school but no difference in self-perception of maths ability.

Secondly, and more importantly, I have to ask why we care about speed and accuracy of mental arithmetic anyway? Have these people not heard of calculators? Seriously, as ACM members we might value children knowing, understanding, or devising an algorithm, or even comparing multiple algorithms for the same task, but do we really care how quickly and accurately a human can compute using them? Humans are better at other more interesting tasks. Perhaps it is not surprising that children end up avoiding maths if their educators confuse it with mental arithmetic. Maths can be so much more than that. Maybe computers (and games) in the classroom could be used to explore bigger ideas, as Seymour Papert has been arguing for some time.


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