Towards a Taxonomy of Educational Games using Bernstein as a Guide

29 Jan

Games and gaming have increasingly become a part of the educational landscape, both in analog and digital formats. Teachers are keen to find out if they can use games in their classrooms to improve student learning and performance. It is often easy to demonstrate an uptake in engagement, but less easy to justify the time spent on a game, if educational benefit cannot be quantified. Taxonomies of games are largely based on their genre or features, the degree to which chance is present, or the complexity of the rules. This is great if you are trying to classify games, but not very helpful if your interest lies in its pedagogical value. One approach has been to try to map the affordances of game genres to educational concepts derived from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, Gagne’s five categories of learning outcomes, and Jonassen’s typology of problem solving (O’Brien, et al, 2010). This approach is promising, but suffers, I think from a surfeit of base concepts. By trying to account for too much, we end up with the kind of diagram beloved of these post-post times, so complex that it differs little from anecdote, and illuminates nothing.

I would like to suggest instead that a fruitful avenue might start with the work of Basil Bernstein (2004). Bernstein’s sociology of education has offered many researchers insight into the problems they were researching and a shared language which can illuminate different concerns, at different scales from the macro socio-political level to the individual lesson. By bringing this language to an analysis of types of games in education it seems to me we might be able to leverage a common language to understand better what it is in a game that might bring use value to the educational setting. I am not going to go into a lengthy summary of Bernstein’s work, which is often dense and difficult to navigate. Bernstein was basically interested in the ways in which education reproduced inequality in society, the rules and processes by which middle class students are advantaged, and working class students disadvantaged. A key tool of analysis for Bernstein was to see pedagogic practice in terms of two concepts: classification and framing.

Classification refers to the content of pedagogic discourse, the boundaries and degree of insulation between discourses. This answers the question of what knowledge is considered valid and legitimate. For example, in a Science class there is a strong sense of a body of knowledge that constitutes Science and doing Science. Even within different Science classes, some teachers may organize around tightly drawn boundaries of what constitutes doing Science, but others may operate around learning Science through problem-based approaches. A Social Studies class may have less of a sense of what might constitute legitimate knowledge in the field. In Social Studies there is more cross-disciplinary work being done, and the boundaries of the field are less tightly drawn. A class might quite legitimately be engaged in gender studies or in studying ancient history. Classification, in other words can be strong or relatively weak. Some schools organize work around themes rather than distinct subject areas. Problem-based learning probably represents the weakest classification of all.

Framing refers to the “how” of pedagogical practice, and sets out how control operates within a classroom, the ways in which the curriculum is sequenced, paced and evaluated. Strong framing reflects very much a teacher-centred approach, while weak framing is where students have greater control over what and how they are learning.

Both classification and framing are described as strong (+) or weak (-) and allowed Bernstein to identify two codes – collection codes which result in the acquistion of specialised knowledge and integrated codes in which the boundaries between subjects are weaker as are the boundaries between everyday knowledge and school knowledge. By visualizing these continua of weak to strong as a Cartesian plane – as below – we can start to identify recognizable pedagogical modes and ways of describing shifts in pedagogical practice over time. While teachers tend to favour one style or another, effective teaching relies upon the ability to shift between pedagogical modes according to the needs of the moment.

Figure 1: Pedagogies analysed with classification and framing (adapted from Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2013 in March et al (2017)

As Maton and Howard (2018) have shown, integrative knowledge building is dependent on movement between fields of knowledge – what they term Autonomy Tours. I have summarised what is meant by autonomy tours in a previous blog, but what research indicates is that successful lessons involve more than just sticking to the subject or topic being studied. Effective teaching involves turning everyday knowledge, knowledge from other bits of the curriculum to the purpose at hand. A Science teacher will often need to use Maths knowledge in her lesson. A History teacher might use Geography, and all teachers tend to use knowledge from students’ everyday experience to unpack and understand the concepts being built upon in their discipline. To teach effectively teachers need to take tours through content that is relevant to their field and knowledge outside their field and turn it to the purpose of teaching the topic at hand. In this way knowledge across the curriculum becomes more integrated.

It seems to me that in a similar way, effective teaching depends upon Pedagogical Tours, movements between pedagogical modes. There are times when it is appropriate for students to explore a topic on their own or with minimal guidance, but it is also appropriate for much more teacher-directed activities at other times. Movements between student-centred and teacher-centred pedagogies are necessary for learning to take place. It might well be that teachers are more comfortable in one or other pedagogical mode, but it is hard to see how effective learning can take place without movements between modes.

How are we to understand the role played by educational games?

I would argue that educational games can similarly be described through the lens of classification and framing.

Classification here would refer to the relative insulation of the game content. Some games have highly specialised content, while others have more integrated or open content. A game of Maths Blaster, for example, is clearly focused on mathematical concepts and skills, despite a space age theme. The content of the game displays strong classification (C+). On the other hand a game of I Spy with my little Eye incorporates content from everyday life around the players, and has very weak classification (C-). All games have relatively stronger or weaker classification along a continuum. Chess, for example, although it has warlike pieces and is nominally a game of conflict, is clearly more integrated in terms of general cognitive skills than a tactical wargame, which has more specialized military content.

Framing here would refer to the locus of control. Some games are tightly controlled through the operation of the rules, or software. Progress and sequencing is determined by the rules of the game and players have little opportunity to choose their own path. For example, in a game of tic-tac-toe, possible moves are heavily circumscribed. Players can only ever place a nought or a cross, and there are only nine possible starting positions. The Framing here is strong (F+). On the other hand, in a role play game, although the Games Master may have circumscribed the action by setting out a particular setting or scenario, players are generally free to try anything within their imaginations. The Framing here is much weaker (F-). In between of course might lie a continuum of games with relatively stronger or weaker framing. Chess, for example has more pieces and more possible moves than tic-tac-toe, although the framing is still strong because players cannot deviate from a set of possible board positions or legal moves. A tactical wargame might have weaker Framing because there are more pieces, more freedom to move in any direction and fewer restrictions on what a player may choose to do.

If we put the two together on a Cartesian plane, we can start to plot different games as follows:


Clearly we might differ in where we position any particular game on this matrix, and these are just a few examples of both analog and digital games. By using classification and framing, it seems to me that we can easily see the affordances of games for educational purposes, without being clouded by its features, genre and so on. By superimposing the two diagrams we might begin to identify possible code matches and code clashes between educational games chosen for use in a classroom and pedagogical styles. A code match is where the classification and framing of both pedagogical style and game match each other, and a code clash where this match is absent.



What exactly does this tell us though beyond a common sense understanding that teachers that value a great deal of control over the pacing and sequencing of their teaching are unlikely to choose to use a role play game in their classroom because it surrenders a great deal of control over to their students? Or that a teacher who values insulated academic boundaries is more likely to explore History through a game like The Oregon Trail than through creating an alternate world in Minecraft because there is simply more historical content in the former and learning is more tangential in the latter. This may seem obvious, but many teachers are genuinely confused by the range of material available to them, are easily swayed by sales reps, and misunderstand the affordances of the games they select for use.

What this taxonomy does offer, I believe, is a clear way into looking at those very affordances to be able to understand better the choices that teachers make. I think it also represents a useful research tool for looking at games in education generally and being able to relate it to pedagogical choices.



Bernstein, Basil. 2004. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse. Vol. 23. Routledge.

March, Jackie & Kumpulainen, K. & Nisha, Bobby & Velicu, Anca & Blum-Ross, Alicia & Hyatt, David & Jónsdóttir, Svanborg & Levy, Rachael & Little, Sabine & Marusteru, George & Ólafsdóttir, Margrét & Sandvik, Kjetil & Thestrup, Klaus & Arnseth, Hans & Dyrfjord, Kristín & Jornet, Alfredo & Kjartansdottir, Skulina & Pahl, Kate & Pétursdóttir, Svava & Thorsteinsson, Gisli. (2017). Marsh, J., Kumpulainen, K., Nisha, B., Velicu, A., Blum-Ross, A., Hyatt, D., Jónsdóttir, S.R., Levy, R., Little, S., Marusteru, G., Ólafsdóttir, M.E., Sandvik, K., Scott, F., Thestrup, K., Arnseth, H.C., Dýrfjörð, K., Jornet, A., Kjartansdóttir, S.H., Pahl, K., Pétursdóttir, S. and Thorsteinsson, G. (2017) Makerspaces in the Early Years: A Literature Review. University of Sheffield: MakEY Project.

Maton, K. and Howard, S. K. (2018) Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building, LCT Centre Occasional Paper 1 (June): 1–35.

O’Brien, D., Lawless, K. A., & Schrader, P. G. (2010). A Taxonomy of Educational Games. In Baek, Y. (Ed.), Gaming for Classroom-Based Learning: Digital Role Playing as a Motivator of Study. (pp. 1-23).



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