PLAYING TO LEARN: Using Games to Help Teach Difficult Concepts
The Possible Worlds digital games are designed to help improve student understanding of phenomena that are often the subject of scientific misconceptions. Developed by the Center for Children and Technology, the games are the centerpieces of modules that address four topics: photosynthesis, heredity, electricity, and heat transfer. Each module includes accompanying classroom activities that leverage students’ experiences within the games.
Our games are designed to
- help students build novel conceptual models;
- complement teachers’ existing instructional practices;
- be familiar and fun to play.
Helping students build novel conceptual models
Why are certain scientific phenomena the subject of persistent misconceptions? Research suggests that we develop naïve theories because the accurate versions of these concepts are difficult to resolve with our common experience of the physical world. They are counterintuitive, and thus hard for us to imagine.
The Possible Worlds games respond to that challenge by focusing gameplay on interactions with analogies for these phenomena. In each game, students interact with novel visual representations that have analogical relationships to the complex concepts at the heart of the misconception. Students then can draw on these visual analogues to help them make sense of the target concepts as they encounter them during normal instruction.
Complementing teachers’ existing instructional practices
The Possible Worlds games and classroom activities are designed to supplement, not replace, teachers’ normal coverage of each topic, with the goal of improving the effectiveness of the overall instructional process. Students play the games prior to instruction. The teacher then helps students explore the significance of the in-game visualizations to the target concepts. We provide teachers with support materials to help them build explicit and accurate bridges between gameplay and goals for learning, with the aim of helping students reflect on and modify their misconceptions about these difficult science concepts.
Games that are familiar and fun to play
Our games use popular, familiar genres and engaging narratives that make gameplay easy-entry and age-appropriate for middle-school students, whether they are avid gamers or not. When students play the games, they do not have to engage with or demonstrate mastery of academic content. This frees up gameplay to be a genuinely fun experience, increasing the likelihood that students will play repeatedly, tolerate frustration, and engage with the science-relevant elements of the game.
National Research and Development Center on Instructional Technology
Possible Worlds was a National Research and Development Center on Instructional Technology, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. The center was created to develop, refine and test a specific approach to using digital games to support teaching and learning in middle grade science classrooms. Center staff also wrote and presented our work to stimulate and contribute to a broader conversation about digital games, learning and teaching in K-12 classrooms. This website presents the game modules and the research papers and presentations we developed with that funding.