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Towards a Taxonomy of Educational Games using Bernstein as a Guide

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.

 

Bibliography

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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Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs!

I am writing this in response to Jackie Gerstein’s excellent blog post Addressing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Technology. Gerstein writes that “Technology cannot address nor meet biological and physiological needs.” It is this claim that I wish, rather tongue-in-cheek, to take issue with. At one level, of course she is perfectly correct! Sitting at a computer, or being surgically attached to a tablet or smart phone is hardly taking care of anyone’s physiological needs. Indeed one could quite easily make a case that all that sitting, all that bad posture is positively deleterious.

And yet I can’t help thinking of the eSports men and women I have seen in action, their mouses flying, their eyes dancing across the screen, reaching incredible speeds in clicks-per-second! This level of hand-eye co-ordination is hardly unphysical, and therefore, to some extent satisfies physiological needs of a certain kind! I’m not sure how far one would like to take this claim, but it leaves, I think, a space for considering eSports as fulfilling physiological needs, and I would like to see it added to the infogram above.

Watching people play on the XBox Kinect demonstrates some ways in which human beings and machines can interface, and one can well imagine even enhance physical exercise. Why run on a track, when you can run through a virtual jungle dodging lions and tigers! It may even be that the digital layer enhances our ability to satisfy physiological needs.

And don’t get me started on teledildonics!

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2015 in Authentic Learning, eSports

 

The Case For eSports in Schools

DSC00236Thomas Arnold is best remembered for his reforms of the education system based on the tenets of Muscular Christianity, and most famously for his focus on the importance of team games, especially rugby, in developing character. I would like to argue that eSports could perform a similar function today, and should become a part of every school’s extra-mural programme.

Video gaming gets a bad rap, but a raft of research now suggests that playing video games is healthy, and leads to a positive sense of well-being and social engagement. Up to 3 hours a day, that is! Any more than that and players experience negative side-effects. I’m not going to bore you with a well-documented summary of the research – this article by Jane McGonigal presents the case pretty cogently. What I want to do is to make the link between Thomas Arnold and his Victorian notions of turning unruly louts into gentlemen, and playing video games competitively, and in teams.

IMGA0505Games such as DotA, CounterStrike, League Of Legends or Smite all involve players in a team game with a premium on strategy. Players need not only to plan a strategy over how they will collaborate to win the game, but they also need to learn how to communicate with each other to co-ordinate this plan in-game, and switch strategies in pre-determined game plans when their opponents have “figured out” what they are doing. Each player has a role to play in the overall strategy, and players train before a match to work out tactics they can use. If you can spot what your opponents are up to and trump their strategy you can set traps and gank them!

I cannot vouch for this, but I believe that eSports involves considerably more strategizing than a game like rugby. But even if it is merely the same, I believe it offers the chance for boys and girls to learn to work together on developing strategies and tactics in a setting which does not usually endanger one’s collar-bone! There are many children who can never hope to attain the physical prowess necessary to be chosen for a team at rugby or hockey, but all children can learn to play video games at a level which will involve them in strategizing, collaborating and communicating effectively.

Even the so-called casual gamer, when they play an eSport will need to fit in with the team strategy. I run a gaming club and every Friday I sit listening to kids screaming at each other because someone has not fulfilled their part in the game plan! Kids are frank, and can be cruel, but in eSports they tend to support each other as well. You don’t destroy an individual you are going to have to depend on next Friday when you play again! Older players tend to stop their game and give advice to newbies. It is a noisy, but quite warm and fuzzy environment.

Gamers have something of a reputation for being foul-mouthed, racist, sexist and bent on trolling behaviours, but in a school environment the atmosphere is one of camaraderie and sportsmanship – maybe because there’s a teacher present! While teenagers are racking up those 10 000 hours they apparently spend playing video games I believe it is vital that we give them a structured, disciplined environment to learn how to play with sportsmanship, largess and collaborative bonhomie! If we leave it to chance that they will fall in with the right crowd online we might be in for a rude shock. Let us rather, as teachers and parents, encourage youngsters to join a gaming club at school, compete with other schools, and learn the etiquette of gaming from the ground up.

In South Africa, Mind Sports South Africa runs an inter-school league for eSports. I firmly believe we need to integrate eSports into the sports curriculum, and recognise its importance in socializing screenagers!

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2014 in eSports

 

eSports & The Curriculum

945214_10152287654974008_1706979993_nThere has been a great deal written about the place of Chess in the curriculum, and quite a bit about games play and learning, but I have yet to find much said about competitive eSports and its place in the school.

Team sports have a long history of regard in educational discourse. One only has to think of Thomas Arnold and Rugby school, muscular Christianity and the long tradition of sport as a socializing and humanizing agent. But video games? The predominant perception is one of anti-social behaviour and damaging acculturation to violence. Research, however, tends to present a rather different picture. Games are in fact, intensely social affairs, Third Spaces affording opportunities for networking and community building.

I would argue that eSports, such as CounterStrike and DotA have a very definite role to play in the modern school, taking on many of the roles played by cricket, soccer or rugby for a digital generation. They are team sports every bit as much as football, and give students an opportunity to learn to co-operate and collaborate, to build team strategies and learn to accommodate strength and weakness within social contexts.

There should be inter-school leagues, school tournaments and inter-house video gaming contests – absolutely. I am not arguing that this should replace physical sports, merely that eSports has a definite place in the 21st century school.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in eSports, Gaming in Education

 
 
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