Tricking children into learning: …why?

In my primary school in the mid-‘90s, this was the closest we ever came to interactive learning: Hooray for Henrietta, and Henrietta’s Book of Spells.

That’s right. For about 10 minutes a week over a couple of months, each of us was allowed access to either the BBC Micro in the corner, or the stunning beige tower running Windows 3.1 – and this was what our experiences with I.T. amounted to. No internet, no programming – although I was allowed to type once – just this abomination.

The adverts say it all – “give ‘em something to laugh about and they’ll forget it’s homework,” “…could do with a bit of torturing, erm, learning,” and “HOORAY FOR HENRIETTA achieves a perfect balance of learning and having fun” – balance? Are learning and fun mutually exclusive?

That children find learning inherently boring is a strange assumption for the producers of an educational tool to make. There’s this widespread belief that we have to trick children into learning, by disguising it as entertainment – however thinly-veiled.

B. F. Skinner was one of the first psychologists to suggest ways that technology could aid education: Skinner thought that the classroom was flawed because of children’s varied learning rates and delayed reinforcement/feedback, because of the lack of individual attention. As early as 1954, Skinner carried out successful studies based on his Programmed Learning Theory involving his “Teaching Machine”, which was designed to provide personalised teaching to match the rate of the student. It being 1954, his teaching machine consisted of a program that combined teaching and testing in the simplest way, where you either fill in the blanks or complete a workbook – and on giving a correct answer, reinforcement would be given and it would move on to the next question.

As you can see, Hooray for Henrietta basically follows the same lines – there’s a maths question at the bottom, you fill in the answer, and you get rewarded by moving forward closer to saving that thing in the corner. But that’s all it does – you answer correctly and get to move forward, and if you win they’ll dance – considering that this was nearly 40 years on from Skinner’s teaching machine, you would have thought that things would have moved on a bit.

It turns out that pretty much all educational games just consist of the most unbelievably basic, get-it-right-and-maybe-they’ll-do-a-funny-dance, strategy. The graphics have improved, but you won’t find many games explicitly attempting to teach maths that are any more involving than this. We have the technology to make interactive, involving games that actually teach more than times tables – and yet the furthest anybody has gone with it is things like Brain Academy, which has been demonstrated not to improve general cognitive function, and which still relies on asking you things like addition/subtraction questions. But even the proficiency gained at the other various tasks don’t transfer – your only hope is that you get better at playing that game. So, how can we use gaming, and the motivation it gives people, to teach?

A number of blogs last week explored the idea of using technology in education, and I’ve duly nicked their references: scofedhannah talked about using perceptual learning, which is basically learning through repeated pattern recognition – this makes sense, as all the brain really does is recognise patterns in its environment – which makes it really easy to spot irregularities. The potential applications for any rule-based subject (e.g. maths) are self-evident. Massey & Kellman (2010) tested a program that asked students in the equivalent of years 4-7 different kinds of fraction problems, that emphasised transfer and generalisation, so they could use what they learned outside of this program, and found that these students consistently performed better than students a year or more above them. What’s more, they retained this advantage 5 months on. Psub1a mentioned a number of studies that point to the usefulness of using story-telling as a way of making things more memorable and entertaining, provided they correspond with the context.

Guillén-Nieto and Aleson-Carbonell (2012) found that a game designed to teach intercultural business communication between Spaniards and Brits where English is the common language, had a huge learning effect on intercultural communicative competence, as well as effects on intercultural awareness and knowledge. They concluded that, while the immersion and interactive learning environment of the game contributed to its effectiveness, it was so effective because it found a good balance between instructional content, game dimensions, game cycle, debriefing, perceived educational value, and transfer of learnt skills and intrinsic motivation.

Amory et al. (1999) found that students prefer adventure and strategy games to shoot-em-up and simulation games, and luckily things like logic, memory, and problem-solving are integral to adventure games, as well as being integral to the learning process. They then came up with a model that links these game elements to learning – so we could feasibly develop an educational game based around this model, that takes all of the parts of a game that students find interesting and stimulating, and which also happen to help learning, and give students the intrinsic motivation to solve those kinds of problems with the virtual environment the game provides.

So it looks like the best way to make use of the potential of games is to emphasise feature such as logic, memory, and problem-solving; incorporate a storyline (not just ‘save the princess’); make sure that the skills obtained are transferable; make the player feel as if they’re learning; and for God’s sake, use a bit of imagination.


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2 responses to “Tricking children into learning: …why?

  1. rgadd18

    I think that we have used the technology advancement to improve the games used for learning. My project is based on Headsprout Early Reading programme it teaches children to read from non reader up to year 3. it is based on Direct Instruction and Precision Teaching principles. The content has been analysed so all phonemes are taught in the best order possible and fluency exercises ensure all children learn before moving on. It is similar to ‘hooray for henrietta’ in that the turtle or dinosaur moves along everytime you get the answer right, but also there is a short cartoon clip that acts as reinforcement. So its similar to the ‘do a little dance’ reinforcement you were talking about but tells a story through the episodes. All the children love it, they come in everyday and engage with the episodes, the only problem we have is getting them to stop at the end of the session! So i do not feel that we should advance this anymore, the children find it reinforcing and it is evidence based so i hope it continues and more are made like it for other subjects

  2. In agreement with rgadd18, programs such as HeadSprout are highly effective in learning but I think this is more of using such technology not as a way of just making it more entertaining to learn, as learning isn’t innately boring, but as a way of using methods that are suited to such programs. For instance with HeadSprout, the programs’ use of Direct Instruction (as defined by Engelmann in the 1960s) allows for the method to be implemented which may be hugely beneficial to schools as the training (with its costs) to implement using teachers may not be feasible for all and HeadSprout allows for this effective method to still be used. Also the entertainment it provides, while not nessacary for learning, could provide the positive reinforecement that motivates students to learn more.

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