How Game-Based Learning Develops Real-World Skills

Remember that heavy feeling you sometimes got as a kid heading into yet another school day? You likely asked yourself on more than one occasion, “When am I ever going to use any of this in real life?”

Middle school Guidance Counselor Rachelle Vallon remembers the feeling, too. But she doesn’t want that to be how kids experience school going forward. And that desire for change drew Vallon to Quest to Learn, a public 6-12 school in New York City focused on game-based learning.

“I feel like this is what I needed when I was a kid going to school,” explains Vallon. “There are so many amazing ways to use games, game-like experiences and the design process to engage students, not just in academic things, but in things that have to do with conflict or processing feelings.”

For 10 years, she’s been part of a group of educators and staff using game-based learning to teach students how to think critically and creatively, analyze systems and ask thoughtful questions. Recently, Vallon sat down with EdSurge to share what she’s discovered about the social-emotional value of games—both digital and analog. She also touched on using games as a learning tool and how this approach prepares students for their future.

EdSurge: You’re a mental health professional; what attracted you to a school focused on game-based learning?

Vallon: When I found out about Quest to Learn, what caught my attention wasn’t just the game-like learning but the view on wellness. A big part of the school structure is supporting students. Game-based learning isn’t just supporting students academically and in their classes. It also provides opportunities through teacher advisory sessions to ensure students feel supported on a social-emotional level.

Game-like learning is supportive and provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning differently. A student who struggles with writing may have the chance to show their understanding through a Minecraft tutorial. Or a student who may not be into games but collaborates well with others can excel working on a project where the deliverable is a poster or something similar.

Many of the project-based activities and games don’t necessarily have a single winner. It’s very much scaffolded, especially when students come into sixth grade. Teachers spend a lot of time teaching students to work in groups, identifying different roles and practicing how to give feedback on a game or a project in a way that’s constructive.

Can you give us a sense of what the school day looks like at Quest to Learn?

The biggest misconception is that we are this gaming school, and kids are always playing digital games. That’s not how it is. Many of the games we use are analog; some are digital, but they’re not as pervasive as analog games.

While our curriculum is traditional in the sense that it must follow the common core standards, the delivery is very different. For example, in middle school, students might do a role-playing game for the semester while studying molecules and the human body. The teacher sets up a fun fictional narrative where there’s a shrunken scientist trapped inside a human body, and the students need to help rescue him.

Or, we have a math teacher who uses Minecraft as an assessment. While learning about slope and incline, students create a rollercoaster in Minecraft and then narrate a walkthrough, explaining where their incline and slope are. And, of course, it has to be mathematically accurate.

At the high school level, game-based learning looks at problems that exist in society and how to solve them. In ninth grade algebra, they create food trucks and pitch them to judges in a Shark Tank-style final project. They are applying the learning to a real-world context.

So, they focus on creating something using those principles, not memorizing information. In a game-based setting, students analyze, ask questions, think critically and foster creativity. If you look closely, it’s the elements of a good game that drive game-based learning: the goal is always clear; you take on a role; and you receive immediate feedback. We’re focused on those game-learning principles. As a guidance counselor, I find that powerful because it promotes resilience and perseverance in students.

One of our game-based learning principles is “failure reframed as iteration.” We teach students that learning to be their best selves or to deliver their best product in a class means they may not get it right the first time—and that’s okay. “Learning by doing” is one of the main principles we focused on last year. I think that encapsulates game-based learning in the best way.

How do you know if a game-based approach to learning truly works?

Every day, we see it anecdotally in comments from parents and students regarding confidence in learning, engagement and development.

New York University also completed a research project with some pretty astounding results. It was called the College and Work Readiness Assessment, and it followed the first group of Quest to Learn students to go from sixth grade through high school.

What stood out was that our middle and high school students achieved significant growth in 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, reasoning, problem-solving and communication. And that is one of the main pillars of game-like learning: fostering 21st-century skills. We know that’s what careers and colleges are looking for—people who can collaborate with others, communicate and solve conflicts and problems.

Those results are a testament to our model and how it supports students.

Game-Based Ideas Teachers Can Try Today:

Guess My Tone

  • Teachers use this game in ELA classes as a way to start teaching students about recognizing social cues. A student is given an emotion and a word, and they have to express that emotion when they say the word. Other players have to guess the intended tone or emotion.

Create a Rube Goldberg Machine

  • A Rube Goldberg machine is a device that’s designed to complete a simple task in a complex fashion. Get some inspiration for your own class here and here.