For many students, the mention of homework evokes a sense of dread. Ask any parent and chances are they, too, have a strong opinion about the value of homework.
Educators and researchers are divided on the issue. In the last decade, an emphasis on standardized tests has become much more prevalent, creating incentives to assign students with even more homework. At the same time, a recent study from Stanford University shows that spending too much time on homework can contribute to anxiety, physical health problems, and even alienation from society. The snowball effect of stress among teachers, students and parents over homework seems to be increasing with no end in sight. Unfortunately, homework as we know it is generally not effective. No data consistently shows that homework leads to learning or better grades, much less to development of cognitive skills not measured by traditional assessments. It is time to reimagine not only the amount of homework necessary but also its format.
Meanwhile, students are playing video games more than ever — on average, more than 13 hours per week. This time represents a huge educational opportunity. After all, play is one of the most powerful and natural ways for children to learn. Some game designers even argue that games can help to create a better world. As educators and parents, we can and should integrate gameplay into our students’ learning routines. Yes, you heard that right — let’s assign our kids some game time as part of their homework!
Recommended learning games by subject area
Early Literacy: Montessorium, Endless Reader
Math: Todo Math, MathBreakers, Motion Math, Dragon Box
Coding: CodeMonkey, Tynker, Lightbot
Science: The Sandbox EDU, SimCityEDU, Econauts
Financial Literacy: Thrive N Shine, Collegeology
Creativity: TinyTap, Pixel Press, Toontastic
After more than a year operating Co.lab, an accelerator for startups at the intersection of games and learning, I have seen video games work effectively as learning systems for engaging children across ages and subject areas. We have worked with companies developing games for the consumer and school markets to teach concepts as varied as math, reading, computer science, and financial literacy as well as “21st century” skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and grit.
Games, particularly those designed with educational goals in mind, are great media to engage kids in the quest of learning. Why? Because they are systems with goals, rules for how to reach them, and feedback loops along the way to surface progression — these characteristics can support learning in a wide range of contexts. When developers and designers align game mechanics with educational goals, games can offer engaging and personalized experiences where the player becomes the agent of his or her own learning. In GlassLab’s SimCityEDU, players learn about factors affecting the environment and problem solving by building their own cities and instantly observing the impact of their decision-making.
We do not all learn the same way, and games can be especially effective for students who are struggling in traditional learning environments. Almost 80 percent of K-8 teachers surveyed by The Joan Ganz Cooney Center agree that games can help improve lower performing students’ mastery of subject areas such as math, language arts and science. Indeed, games can empower a wide range of learners by offering personalized content as well as the freedom to experiment without fear of making mistakes. LocoMotive Labs’ Todo Math presents students with multiple representations of elementary math concepts like addition and subtraction to support different styles of learning without penalizing students for making mistakes. Similarly, MindBlown Labs’ Thrive ‘N’ Shine gives high school students the freedom to practice making their own financial decisions in a risk-free environment and then reflect on their experiences with peers through classroom discussions.
The value of games for learning is becoming more widely accepted among educators, with schools nationwide integrating digital games into their curricula. According to the Cooney Center’s study, 74 percent of K-8 teachers are using some form of digital games for instruction — primarily to teach supplemental content and introduce new material. Games are also used to bring concepts together so students can apply knowledge in different contexts. According to Jesse Feldman, a middle school science teacher in El Cerrito, Calif., games like Pixowl’s The Sandbox “can really reinforce concepts that are being learned in other ways … allowing students to build skills and understanding of how individual concepts fit together in systems and how different topics relate to each other.” Games can also help students bridge the physical and digital worlds: Pixel Press enables children to create their own games with pen and paper, photograph their drawings and convert them into digital experiences to play with their friends.
Games are definitely more fun than homework as we know it today, but they also hold the potential to be more effective, too. Most homework is inherently “hackable” since, too often, it is the same for every student. It’s easy to receive help from a friend or parent, to search online for answers, or even to use an app that solves math problems for you. This homework paradigm is biased toward kids with adult support and other resources at home, potentially widening the achievement gap for underserved students. This is not the case for games, which take a vast amount of work to hack, and can be personalized to address the needs of children with different interests and levels of content expertise. There are still disparities in access to mobile devices, but smartphone and tablet ownership continues to increase for families across income levels.
I hear of so many parents struggling over the right amount of screen time for their kids. But the real question we should be asking is this: Which games are worth playing? With tens of thousands of choices out there, let’s focus our energy on seeking out the highest quality learning games so that the time our kids do spend on mobile devices supports their cognitive and social growth.
What are you waiting for? Chances are that someone has a game out there that could help your child with their homework.
Esteban Sosnik is the executive director of Co.lab, a San Francisco-based accelerator for learning games, co-founded in partnership with Zynga.org and NewSchools Venture Fund.