Education technology in general—and digital games specifically—can be easily dismissed as yet another Next Big Thing that’s doomed to disappoint. If your standard prescription for schools and teaching is high standards, rigorous instruction, and rich curriculum, you might be tempted to roll your eyes at Greg Toppo’s new book on the potential of digital games to change K–12 education, The Game Believes in You. Toppo is no pie-eyed fanboy nattering on about digital natives, paradigm shifts, innovation, and disruption. The national education reporter for USA Today and a former classroom teacher, Toppo makes a compelling case for games as not merely engaging, (the default setting for mere enthusiasts and marketers) but cognitively demanding. A well-designed game is fun, but it’s rigorous fun.
Toppo makes a convincing case that savvy teachers have always used games to involve kids in learning. He’s at his best describing games like DragonBox, a “lovely, mysterious, and a bit off-center” diversion that seems unusually good at getting pre-schoolers—yes, pre-schoolers—to think algebraically. Likewise, what is a multi-level game if not an adaptive assessment that kids want to participate in? But the most compelling argument running through the book is the infinite malleability of well-designed games. If differentiated instruction is the fool’s gold standard of effective teaching, games hold out the promise of a new and rich seam of the real thing. “A well-designed game sits and waits...and waits,” he writes. “It doesn’t care if that wearisome math problem takes you fifteen seconds or four hours. Do it again. Take all day. The game believes in you.” It also knows students and their abilities better than anyone. The right game, Toppo makes clear, can be something close to a perfect differentiation and assessment engine.
The “well-designed” bit is, of course, the rub—and where the mischief begins. In a chat about the book at Fordham, Toppo quipped, "I really hope that gaming is not the Next Big Thing in education. Because the Next Big Thing in education always sucks. It always fails. I hope it's the Next Small Thing, and it just keeps going under the radar. Keep it away from the real rule-makers." Wise fellow. Many educational fads start out as compelling insights, then collapse beneath the weight of enthusiasts’ cheers and the hucksters’ attempts to cash in.
I came to The Game Believes in You as a skeptic. I finished it as an agnostic—I’m willing to be convinced that well-designed games have much to teach those Toppo calls “the real rule-makers” about differentiation, assessment, and curriculum—not just student engagement.
SOURCE: Greg Toppo, The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2015).