Using Games for Thematic Learning

Context is very important in learning. Usually if we don’t know why we are learning something, we won’t learn much (if anything at all). So it’s important to have a good context to your lessons and the work you do as a teacher to give your students a reason to engage and hopefully do some learning.

This is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of Thematic Learning (that’s Project Work to you an I). The idea is that you pick a topic or a theme and base your learning activities around that theme to ultimately create a project that incorporates a range of skills. Primary schools are great at doing this; for example, they may choose the Ancient Egyptians as a topic or theme and base their lessons around the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Students may be expected to write an article, report or create a presentation (English); learn about the Pharaohs, mummification and Ancient Egyptian society in general (History); look at the climate and geography of the time (Geography); understand medical practices, inventions, hieroglyphics and mathematical methods needed to build the pyramids (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)… and the possibilities are endless.

But why stop with thematic learning in Primary school? Furthermore, why not extend this idea and use themes and topics that interest and enthuse children (as well as adults like myself) as the basis for the thematic learning process? In my opinion, computer games are a very good opportunity for teachers to use and embrace technology and extend the learning of their students; having a good time in the process.

In my post ‘How we can learn through games’, I spoke about how my son Adam had embraced Minecraft wholeheartedly and started asking questions about thrust as a force and how it could be used to project objects in his virtual world (he has since gone on to discover that materials with different properties can be used which work in different ways and how he can use pressure pads and sensors to control different parts of his creations within the game). I hope to eventually get Adam interested in the programming potential of the game and get him a Raspberry Pi to help him combine his love for the game and his need to understand control, logic and programming. I will of course post any updates!

So how can Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Zelda and the likes help our children learn about the things we feel are important at school?

My interest in gaming and education has led me on a path to follow an online course conveniently called ‘Games in Schools’ that has opened my eyes further and reinforced my view that games are an invaluable tool to support learning.

We’ve established that topic based work (like the Ancient Egyptians) gives context and scope for students and aids learning; but students can’t engage with the Ancient Egyptians like they can with computer characters in their favorite games. Students can play games for hours (my son controls my PS4 now; I have to wait my turn!). Think of what could be achieved if this gaming was coupled with education?

Since I’ve mentioned Mario and Sonic, lets see how they can help:

Mario and Sonic at the Rio Olympic Games

Giving the children responsibility – Firstly, if using a games consoles in the classroom, students need to be aware of how to responsibly set up and respect the technology. Giving ownership to the students is important to allow them to feel like they are contributing to their own learning and are taking charge of the lesson.

Humanities– Students can learn about the different countries participating at the games which may pave the way for teachers to discuss the socio-economic and political views and situations of the countries and how the countries perform and are seen by the international community. Students could also explore stereotypes and explore the languages as well as the cultural and geographical influences of the countries they choose to follow (after they have participated in a serious gaming session, perhaps representing that country).

Science, Technology, Engineering  and Mathematics (STEM)-  The Olympics can essentially be the basis for many STEM projects (The possibilities are vast). Additionally, issues like substance abuse, timing, affects of weather on performance of athletes etc. can contribute to a variety of additional areas of study.

Global Citizenship – Why stop at the classroom? With use of conferencing software like Skype, the Olympic games could be used as a means for schools work together across international boundaries and generate opportunities for collaborative learning (perhaps even play the game and create a leader board or mini school Olympics?)

Languages – Perhaps learn a language of another nation taking part in the Olympics? Through Skype perhaps?

English – Presentations, reports, and even going as far as becoming ‘journalists’ and making use of Green Screen technology to put students at the heart of the action?

and the list goes on…

One could argue that the this could all actually be done without playing the game and perhaps just using the Olympic games as a backdrop for all the aforementioned ideas. But this brings me back to my initial point; will students have a context and engagement with the particular area of study had it not been given to them in the form of a computer game?

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