Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"PBL and GBL Sitting In A Tree..."

(This post was originally shared on ASCD's SmartBrief.)
“Hello Games-Based Learning; this is Problem-Based Learning.”
Like two pandas in a zoo, we need to do all we can to ensure that these two find a soul mate in one another.
Games, by definition, are meant to be fun. But, in the race to transform schools, we’re missing out if the goal of games-based learning is to help us run that race faster or provide students with more fun while they run. We’re running towards the wrong finish line.
Games transform education and learning. The question is: transform “towards what end?”
If our goal for games is to take traditional school content — multiplication tables — and spice it up as more fun for students, then we are missing a golden opportunity.
In the recent research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on short-form games  (quick tools for practice) versus long-form games  (higher-order thinking skills better aligned to the common core), they rightly advocate that there is significant potential for these long-form games to transform education. Long-form games focus on the 21st-Century skills we all know our students need. These games hold more promise, but are also more complex to integrate. The Center advocates that game designers “affiliate selectively with school reform leaders to help move schools towards content-rich, deep curricula that foster critical thinking and problem solving.” [my emphasis]
We've all heard the familiar student refrain, "Why are we learning this?" Short-form games can decrease this cry, but only temporarily.
Any game, by definition, has a context.  But if games are only taking our same-old learning outcomes and making them fun, then we're missing out.
Game have the potential to set a context and purpose for this learning that is rich, complex and authentic — something followers of problem-based learning have been advocating for years. This is element of game design we need to better leverage.
Like pandas at the zoo, we need to foster collaboration between the philosophies of Games-Based Learning with those of Problem-Based Learning. 
Games-Based Learning
Problem-Based Learning
dynamic environmentscontext rich, authentic, real-world environments
immediate feedback, where failure is a natural part of the learning processopen-ended solutions with no “correct” answers
multiple decisions / choicesauthentic audiences for student work
clear goalsrecall not sufficient, application of content / skills is required
meta-cognition (“How am I doing?”)naturally holistic and cross-disciplinary

The best games — with or without technology —  can set a context for learning that can combine the characteristics above to strive to create new environments for learning.
New environments for learning will:
  • Empower teachers to customize the environment dynamically, so that content can be specialized and individualized as needed.
  • Enable students as creators of solutions — beyond recall and decision-making.
  • Encourage students to be environment evaluators — aware of each others’ creations/ solutions.
  • Allow students — and the teacher — to act within an interdependent environment, where the actions of one user affects others.
  • Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.
  • Provide a context where the game is not the teacher of “content” but rather it is the “context” through which learning happens.
  • See learning and assessment as individualized. The teacher — not the game — is in charge of the learning and that happens at the teacher-student level. The game is simply the introduction to that interaction.
  • Strive to mirror the real world by giving students multiple roles and goals which sometimes conflict. Students are not simply an all-out pursuit of a single goal as they strive for points, badges or rewards.
This does not mean that all games need to fit into this category to be useful. Creating games that get us to the very limited goal of content recall can be one piece. But we should distinguish this from the nature of what games can be and the role they can play in transforming education. Otherwise, we’re just running the race faster to an out-dated finish line.
As we gamify our schools, we’re missing a huge opportunity if we’re not considering “games” in multiple perspectives. Certainly, the combination of PBL and GBL elements has vast potential for changing the way we prepare students with the 4 Cs of the 21st Century. It needs to be on our radar; we need to use our limited time, energies and money to to scrutinize our understanding of games to create these new, transformational learning environments.
There is no silver bullet. Creating games like this can’t be done with every topic and it’s not always the most efficient way to get students from A to B.
Not every panda-romance is a match made in heaven. But, for the propagation of the species, we need to encourage this budding romance to grow.


  1. Derek, I'd hazard that learners' game making is a good way to get these two pandas together and perhaps even to have them mate in their own special way. What do you think? BTW more on

  2. Derek, I'm not sure that short term v. long term matters. If the brain is engaged, it's engaged; learning is learning. The function of both games, done right, and PBL is engagement. Funny thing, the only function of the brain is to learn... we seem to have missed that part in most classrooms. DragonBox is a good example of short term learning based on game technology
    We are just now in step one of a major change in education. We are trying to find those processes by which the brain is engaged and learning. My only question now is: "Do we really need to control the content in learning, or is learning itself the point?"