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Free Radical

Are games the future of learning?

Tony Sherborne
19:16  |  21 September 2011

Marc Prensky, its most well known proponent, thinks so. He coined the phrase 'digital natives', and if you believe his books, we should stop interrupting kids playing computer games because they're learning at warp speed.

Trouble is that his argument contradicts a widely held, and eminently observable psychological theory. Cognitive load theory proposes that we have a 'working memory' limited to storing and processing just a few pieces of information at a time As teachers we instinctively use this, reducing complexity when presenting a new subject, so as not to overload our students.

Computer games on the other hand are about simulating reality in all its complexity. According to Marc, the realism helps, it makes kids more motivated, and therefore increases learning. How does he address cognitive load theory? Simple – he dismisses all the research, claiming that we know little about learning – except of course that games are good.

I used to be a convert too, creating quite complex digital learning games for science. However, I discovered how very difficult it is to engineer a game world sufficiently complex to be interesting yet sufficiently constrained so students would achieve specific learning objectives.

I didn't know about cognitive load theory at the time. If I had, I might not have been so enthusiastic. Maybe the reason that schools aren't tripping over themselves to adopt games for learning is that they do implicitly understand the theory.

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