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Mario Kart in the classroom: the rise of games-based learning –

Mario Kart for Wii

Mario Kart: coming to a classroom near you Photo: NINTENDO

The ‘gamification’ of particular tasks, to incentivise them with game-play
rewards, has never been something I’ve been keen on.

The application of games in this way doesn’t serve either games or
productivity well. I enjoy watching movies and reading books but I don’t
want to “filmify” or “bookify” the less entertaining parts of my life –
likewise with videogames.

I’m equally suspicious of those who want to justify videogames by their
educational or health improvement side effects. Even the usually forward
thinking TED
gaming talks
can fall into this trap.

We wouldn’t suggest that novels or films are valuable just because you learn
things during the course of the storytelling.

But technology is becoming an increasingly important way of delivering
elements of the curriculum.

Apple have recently announced their new Textbook category in the iBookstore
that offers students access to educational texts that can be highlighted,
marked and searched without then passing on a dog-eared book to subsequent

Speaking to Nathan Lowe at The Filtch Green Academy school, which has
pioneered the use of technology in the classroom, I was surprised to hear of
the level of investment both in terms of money as well as space in the
school day. “We currently have 100 MacBooks, 20 iPod Touch and 80 iPads for
our 210 children aged 4-11… We have found that with a creative approach to
learning and teaching, our teachers have managed to integrate technology
into all subject areas.”

These are productivity tools rather than entertainment though, and much easier
to justify in the classroom than video games. With this on my mind I was
still unconvinced when I talked to Oakdale Junior (London Borough of
Redbridge School) about its use of video games in lessons.

I was expecting some pseudo-gaming experiences that did little more than
incentivise doing sums with pretty visuals and sounds.

However I found my distain turning to intrigue as I heard more about what they
were doing.

Rather than using purely educational games, or culling gaming snippets for
educational purposes, Dawn Hallybone has been integrating common or garden
video games into the heart of her lesson planning at Oakdale. Off the shelf
bona fide games as part of a lesson isn’t the gameification of education but
Games Based Learning.

Wii titles like Mario Kart, Endless Ocean and Just Dance are used alongside
more obvious educational games like Brain Training on the DS to enrich
lessons in a variety of ways. Talking to Hallybone about the process it is
clear that she understands that these games can engage students in an
ongoing way because of their unique perspective on different subjects.

She described how she got hooked on the idea after a Derek Robertson talk had
sparked interest at a recent Bett
. “The borough bought a set of 30 consoles and schools were
invited to bid and show how they would use them. We put a bid in were
successful and trialled the use of them across the school – 30 consoles with
350 children using the Brain Training DS game for maths. This was in 2008.”

The focus was initially on maths but Hallybone explained that the benefits
reached beyond this.

“Children have also learned through play — for them computer games are part
of their lives – using this enthusiasm for games in a positive way promotes
learning as well as enabling them to ‘fail’ and build up skills of
resilience, team work, hand and eye co-ordination and co-operation.”

Hallybone has used a range of different games in her lessons, but it was
interesting to hear how retail titles sit shoulder to shoulder with
educationally focused games like Manga High. “Off the shelf games enable
children to be immersed in rich environments – that can promote writing,
speaking and listening skills, team work, maths, science skills in fact
skills across the curriculum. Children do not necessarily expect to see this
in the classroom but they are rich with learning potential.”

Asking her how Mario Kart fits into the curriculum it is clear that this is
more than a gaming hook to get children’s attention before moving on to more
productive territory. She rattled through a series of learning outcomes from
the ongoing engagement with the game. “Maths: averages, decimal numbers
rounding, sorting data, design. Technology: designing moveable vehicles,
forces. Writing: character description.”

Less mainstream games also feature in her Wii powered lessons. Family
favourite Endless Ocean as well as Wild Earth African Safari offer students
a chance to enter a world, be that underwater or the African plains, they
would otherwise have to learn about second hand.

Hallybone enthused about how well these games worked at sparking an ongoing
relationship with certain topics that extend from the lesson to play time
and back again. She named a few for me: “Habitats, descriptive writing,
research, diary writing, settings, signals and use of signals to

It may sound like these two games are purely designed for educational
purposes, but play them for a short while and you discover a campaign mode,
story, achievements and as much character progression as many more obviously
game-centric experiences.

This scenario may be familiar for those who have watched The Wire. In Season
four of the show, new teacher Roland Pryzbylewski uses a game of dice to
teach his Baltimore students statistics. The setting may be very different
but the theory is similar. Both Pryzbylewski and Hallybone have a respect
for the games they are using educationally and give them adequate space to
do what they do best — entertain and engage. The learning then comes as an
inevitable side effect of a class sharing these experiences together – with
the teacher steer conversation back to curriculum topics where appropriate.

In the fictional school of Baltimore and the real place of Oakdale Junior you
could imagine that parents hearing about this would be less than enamoured.
I’m not sure what I’d make of it myself even. I only let my children play
games such as Skylanders
on non-school nights and this is a rule I would need to
re-negotiate with them if their homework was to play a particular game.

Other parents may feel disadvantaged if their children aren’t already up to
speed with this technology, something I put to Hallybone. “No I don’t feel
it disadvantages as we supply the technology they need — we loan the gaming
hardware in some instances but not all the time. You could say that it
levels the playing field as children are all using the same devices.”

Certainly it’s a natural space for them, and by letting the games be games
rather than forcing them into an educational mould Hallybone seems to be
finding a good balance between interaction and learning. It seems to me that
the tension here is inevitable, and shouldn’t be avoided, if you are to get
the best out of games for educational purposes.

The school head at Oakdale Junior, Linda Snow, seems to agree. She highlights
the additional benefits of this approach. “The development of the ICT
curriculum and the embedding of gaming across the curriculum has enhanced
the motivation and engagement of ALL our pupils. Many pupils have also had
opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge to visiting teachers,
educationalists and software developers which has been a real boost for
their leadership and presentation skills.”

Beyond the lessons themselves, being more engaged with the videogame world has
also led to other opportunities for the school. “We have Beta tested games
online and children have been able to work with developers from Preloaded,
Wordia and Zondle. This gives the children an insight into the work that
goes into games — the coding, visuals, game mechanics etc.”

With so much of the talk surrounding Wii and DS technology I asked Hallybone
how supportive Nintendo have been of the project. “Nintendo is not an
‘educational’ company but has provided games and kit on-line for us to trial
and feedback on and use within the classroom.”

Having heard from Hallybone about all this I was something of a convert. The
level of understanding of what games have to offer and the confidence to
take the risk of granting them space in the school day is the sort of
groundbreaking approach I’d want for my children. It will be interesting to
see how the project develops and which other games are a good fit for these

Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer)
runs Family Gamer TV
and the Family Gaming blog.

Further information and advice:

Based Learning

Tom Barrett’s Blog

Redbridge Game Network

mario – Google News

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