Can digital game based learning raise attainment in mathematics

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"There is a common perception that all learning should be serious and solemn in nature and that if one is having fun and there is hilarity and laughter, then it is not really learning. This is a misconception." (Kim, 1995:35)

This highlights the dichotomy in using game based learning to raise attainment in mathematics in a primary classroom, which continues to cause controversy through intellectual debate. Games based learning deals with applications that have defined learning outcomes in order to increase and raise attainment by sustaining a positive ethos. Michael and Chen, 2006 suggests that "a serious game is a game in which education is the primary goal, rather than entertainment" As raising attainment is a Scottish government national priority (Scottish Government. 2003), "the rapidly changing landscape of games and simulation development is bringing new potential for learning in immersive worlds using multiple media" (Freitas, 2006:59).

Achieving a good learning environment is a constant challenge and is necessary to facilitate good achievement, attainment, and promote good health and well-being. However, leading game manufacturer Nintendo said their "Dr Kawashima brain training games do not claim to be scientifically proven to improve cognitive function". (BBC, 2010)

However, it could be argued that the traditional methods of text based approaches that have remained relatively unchanged since before the 1940s are not engaging or stretching children sufficiently. Examples of using games in schools to re-engage and refresh learning are encouraged in Curriculum for Excellence, making teaching and learning experiences challenging, demanding and appealing. (LTS:A) Conversely, not all learning has to be sombre in nature for children to learn.

According to Dr. Brian Boyd, 'A Curriculum for Excellence identifies three factors upon which the opportunity for children to develop the four capacities will depend - the environment for learning, the choice of teaching and learning approaches and the ways in which learning is organised.' Playing games is a fundamental method of learning for children and is a way to encourage and motivate pupils; especially those who experience obstructions to learning in maths. (HMIe, 2006:A)

While studying for my BEd Hons degree in Primary Education, I have been working part time in a computer games store. This has given me a real insight into the activities of young people in relation to playing games. I have observed and applied a variety of games in the classroom situation, however have only recently come to question the effectiveness of the possible connection between games and learning and how they may help pupils raise attainment in mathematics. According to Derek Robertson (2009) "Games base learning permeates the curriculum" and after viewing his video conference based on this topic I felt challenged to question the effectiveness of game based learning as a tool to improve attainment in mathematics.

Introduction and Method Section

The purpose of this review to is investigate if game based learning can be used in primary schools to raise attainment in mathematics across all stages. To assess if game based learning can improve attainment, it is the intention of the author to look at the arguments for and against the use of game based approaches to learning in mathematics. Within those two main sections a variety of socio, politico, economic and cultural factors will be reviewed using a Scottish dimension, to ascertain whether these factors influence game based learning and can raise attainment of pupils in mathematics. In doing this, key thinkers such as Derek Robertson, Marc Prensky, and Sara de Freitas are being studied.

As digital game based learning has been highlighted as a current initiative by Learning Teaching Scotland and is a methodology for excellence, it is essential to look at this concept objectively to ensure that the argument and counter argument are considered in great detail before any conclusions can be drawn.

When researching game based learning the author will examine the impact of the practical use of mathematics in playing the games in the classroom and the impact they have on social interaction in learning.

Research on this topic area is extremely current and ranges from internet sites, academic journals, newspaper articles, books to case studies including:

Academic journals based on the subject, some of which were purchased and others viewed through the university Athens account online. Key words input into the search engines were: Game Based Learning, Primary education, Attainment and Mathematics to bring up the journals that would have been beneficial to this research. The abstracts were studied to see if they would be useful before reading in depth the information contained in the main body of the articles.

Searching the internet for articles and websites with similar key words as mentioned above. Although care had to be taken to ensure that these articles were genuine and that reliability was not in question.

The web portals of Learning Teaching Scotland, game based learning initiative, Consolarium, GLOW and HMIe were search through for relevant information via case studies, newspaper articles and other links to reliable websites that could aid this piece of research.

Reading a variety of ephemeral materials including online publications that contained pertinent evidence for both sides of the main debate.

Reading textbooks that contained information on this topic which were bought or borrowed from the university library as well as the 'Dick Institute' library in Kilmarnock. The bibliography and reference sections in these books were used to source further information that was used through the course of this review.

This literature review includes a variety of resources from educationalist, theorists and practitioners who question the impact of game based learning on raising attainment in the classroom. However there is limited research available on game based learning in mathematics as it is current and topical.


"Even in the games of children there are things to interest the greatest mathematician" (Leibniz, 1697).

According to Learning Teaching Scotland, active learning is an established approach in nursery and primary schools to build connections in learning; as children learn through play. Active learning is learning which motivates and challenges children and young people's cognitive skills using real-life and imaginary situations. The opportunities for active learning presented by game based learning are immense. This planned purposeful activity can enrich, develop and raise attainment in all areas of the curriculum including mathematics. However, not everyone believes these serious games will help a young person achieve their goals in education and improve attainment, achievement and health and well being. (LTS:B)

Digital/Electronic game based learning

Since the 1990s, educationalists have discussed the potential that exists for the application of computer games to education. Even though a growing body of literature exists to highlight the educational potential of computer games, it is clouded by the fact that empirical evidence does not point towards improved learning outcomes for game-based activities especially in mathematics.

Game based learning is a methodology that has come to the forefront of education in the past few years; however it is not a new idea. It was explored by professor Seymour Papert in the early 1960s when he looked at "children using computers as instruments for learning and for enhancing creativity". In regards to this, he was one of the original designers to create the 'LOGO' program which is currently used in school to enhance children's abilities to understand directions, compass points, degrees, angles and shapes; which are all integral parts of basic mathematics. (Papert, 2008)

Games consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, the Sony PS3, Xbox 360 and the most notorious for enhancing mathematical development the Nintendo Duel Screen are used in conjunction with laptops and computers to aid teaching and learning in this digital age. According to Sandford, cited in Freitas, (2006) for these consoles COTS - commercial off the shelf- games can be used by teachers to enhance lessons and increase motivation, engagement and maintain attention levels in the classroom. Freitas (2006) states that "31.5% of teachers have used 'games designed for entertainment' in their lessons 59% would consider using them in the future" (Sandford cited in Freitas, 2006). This suggests that teachers believe that these types of games and consoles have effective uses in a classroom setting and they believe it helps raise higher order thinking skills and raise attainment.

A study based in Dundee has shown that when children play "computer games at the start of every school day, there is a 'dramatic' improvement in mathematics, concentration and how they get on with each other" (TES, 2007). This common trend has been evident over the last few years. In this study a digital games console named the Nintendo Duel Screen and the COTS game 'More Brain Training' invented by Dr Kawashima were played for 30 minutes every day over a 9 week period. The study carried out by Derek Robertson LTS's Development Officer for games-based learning, who led the experiment and Dr David Miller of Dundee University suggests that the increased use of games systems in Scottish schools is bringing real benefits. The pair held a trial involving more than 634 children in 32 of the country's most deprived schools, where they believed the technology could bring about the most change. The study concurred that the attainment of pupils who played the game has seen a rise compared with pupils who have not. As head of Consolarium, the Scottish Centre for Games and Learning, Robertson is a key thinker and practitioner when it comes to game based learning. He firmly believes the power of games technology has a growing potential for learning within schools and that the arguments for games are framed in terms of knowledge gains, skill development, motivational aspects, and raising attainment specifically in mathematics. (Prensky, 2001a; Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2002; Sandford, Ulicsak, Facer & Rudd, 2006 cited in Miller and Robertson, 2008) However, as yet, the evidence of their educational value is neither extensive nor robust (Condie & Munro, 2007).

Motivation is a key characteristic when it comes to children's ability to want to learn. It has been suggested that children have become bored of completing pencil and paper exercises in mathematics and teachers are always searching for new methods away from the traditional behaviourist approach where the value of "social discussion was not recognised" (Wothington and Carruthers, 2004) to help every child achieve their potential This is a point echoed by Sautoy, ( 2008 - telegraph) when he states in a government report that pupils are simply turned off by the rote learning of mathematics and argues the point that "Mathematics is taught as if it was handed down in some vast textbook with little context". This demonstrates that he believes that the 'fun' and 'skill' of learning mathematics has been removed and that this requires to be reintroduced into the curriculum. HMIe (2009:A) state that teachers "need to engage, challenge and motivate all young people to increase their levels of achievement in mathematics" and that this has been a problem over recent years. According to Joint Information Systems Committee (2007) "Game-based learning offers a particular strength of motivating users and this is why many learning games have been developed for particular groups that have difficulties with sustaining motivation" (JISC, 2007).This illustrates the potential for games based learning as not only a motivational tool for learning and raising attainment in mathematics but as a strategy for helping the more challenged pupils who struggle with traditional teaching methods. This is extremely important, as enthusiasm is a key element of effective learning that needs to be sustained in order for children to improve. The fact that pupils are 'playing games' rather than 'working' helps to appeal to pupils who experience barriers to learning such as dyspraxia and dyslexia and who are "vulnerable, disengaged and hard-to-reach" (SQA:A) According to Druckman, "There is consistent evidence that games increase motivation to learn and interest in a subject" (Druckman, 1995 cited in Dowell, 1999) however it is vital that when playing games in a classroom situation, there is a purposeful time limit put in place. Otherwise, according to Dekkers and Donatti, (1981) the longer the game lasts, the less effective the learning gain. It may be suggested that to be of value, games should be planned regularly so that they are not treated as a special occasion activity, where young people can get too excited, and "chaos can ruin learning objectives" (Ehow, 2011). Therefore it is essential for teachers to use game based learning in the classroom but only when it is structured to meet the mathematical learning needs of every child in the classroom according to the outcomes and experiences of a curriculum for excellence.

Playing games is said to bring a lot more motivational factors to learning in mathematics but there is evidence to suggest that it provides social isolation. However according to Paul Pivec, (2009) "Children state that it is the collaboration with other players, either in a multi-player game or the social environment outside the game, which provides the motivation to persistently re-engage in the games and want to improve and continue to do well". This is demonstrating that children are not being anti social by playing games, as they are still being socially active; just not face to face. Robertson (2010) suggests there is further evidence about enhanced collegiality in the group, in his 2008 study as he states that "Children become really supportive of each other". This intimates that games based learning does provide some sort of social interaction amongst its users and brings pupils closer together. This is summed up by Dr. Clark (NYT, 2010) who echoes Pivec and Robertson's thoughts that not only the student's problem solving skills improved in mathematics but the game also encouraged collaboration between the students. This is in contrast to the 'image of social isolation' that has only recently been associated with games and learning (Bliven and Abernethy, 2010)

Statistics suggest that 80% of the nation's teenagers play computer games and 43% spend over an hour a day on the Internet (Lee & Hoadley, 2006). This surely identifies that children are socially isolated at these times and gain no social interaction, which according to Vygotsky is a fundamental part of learning. He believes that children learn through social, collaborative and interactional activity (Cohen et al, 2005:168-169). The BBC (2009) report that video games and technology in general are responsible for a lack in basic verbal communication skills in today's youth. It may be suggested that playing electronic games impedes social constructivism and the ability for children to learn through social interaction; which according to Vygotsky means they are not in their optimal learning environment. HMIe, (2009:B) also believe that "collaborative learning challenges individuals to think independently and engage in discussion, debate and activity to achieve specific outcomes". This coincides with Vygotsky's views and demonstrates that learning should be collaborative; to ensure maximum attainment in mathematics, motivational; to maintain an interest in the subject and adaptable; to help with skills such as leadership, responsibility, resilience and team-working, which are all essential for lifelong learning.

Obesity is an additional factor that needs to be taken into account when researching the use of game based learning. "A health body equals a healthy mind"(Bupa, 2010) and if children continue to sit indoors to play 'serious' games, according to researcher Elizabeth A. Vandewater their health may be affected as they will increase their weight status gradually more than children who do not play games constantly. According to an Independent Television Commission survey, the average 4-15 year old watches TV or plays video games for 2.5 hours a day. Research also shows a strong correlation between the number of hours spent watching TV and increased risk of obesity (Parliament, 2003). As 'learning and health go hand-in-hand" (European Conference, 2002 cited in Scottish Executive, 2004:ii), an improvement in children's health, would provide an increase in their academic achievement too. According to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, "research has linked obesity with low self-image, low self confidence and depression in children". This in conjunction with social isolation while playing games at home may lead to a disjointed society. (Parliament office, 2003)

The use of game based learning through digital games has had a very mixed reception from parents. Initially parents had concerns and thoughts that game based learning was a waste of time, (LTS:D) but after seeing the change in their child's attainment in numeracy, their worrying and wondering of the educational values have been put to rest. By bringing game based learning into the classroom, children enthusiasm rose in correlation to their concentration span which was noted by parents and staff. (LTS:D) Therefore, "It is important that staff working with children and young people across all stages recognise the interests and experiences that they bring from home, and use these as a starting point to extend learning" (LTS:C).It is imperative to make educational games similar to the ones that children play at home to make a connection in learning between home and school. According to the Times Educational Supplement, "games (in mathematics) have been made exciting and children want to play them" (TESS, 2010). To raise attainment this needs to be a part of the holistic school experience and is advocated in Worthington et al, (2004) where mathematics teaching does not need to be a straightjacket for teachers or children. Subsequently, by letting children explore the world of digital games, helps encapsulate their minds and produce better results as highlighted in the times educational supplement. It states that when pupils were asked if they would enjoy maths more if they could use games in the classroom, 93 percent said they definitely would and when test scores came back based on the mathematical concepts they had covered in the games they did 13 percent better than before. (TESS, 2011)

There is evidence to suggest that digital game based learning is seen as fun when compared to a more structured learning environment, which questions the ethos of the classroom. Dr Kawashima is the inventor of the famous braining training games for the Nintendo duel screen which has been implemented by LTS throughout most of the local authorities in Scotland. According to Robertson, there was a dramatic enhancement in children's mental mathematical ability in a short period of time in relation to children using the games and console over a period of 9 weeks. However according to Della Sala, who is a Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, these games are "myths and have been designed for commercial reasons" (Guardian, 2008). He is especially critical of exercises taught to children, which he claims have no bearing on how the brain works and won't improve students' performance in any subject area.

Strangely this is a point shared by Professor Kawashima, from Tohoku University's Institute of Development and creator of the "brain-training" game, who believes that using games as a resource for sustainable learning may be questionable. He believes in rigorous discipline for young people and opposes the view of making study fun. Unless pupils are made to study then they will not be able to challenge ideas, and society will stagnate. He says:

"I don't think playing games is bad in itself but it makes children unable to do what they should do such as study and having fun is not studying. Making them study is not to entertain children but to pressure them to make efforts. People fall to lower and lower places unless they are driven to go higher." (Nintendo, 2008)

Professor Kawashima suggests that playing games in the classroom is a careless distraction from learning. However, according to HMIe, 2006, a school must have the opportunities to experience learning as a dynamic, challenging and pleasurable process and declare that learning should be fun. Therefore, "Digital games do have a place in the classroom, but as a tool to be utilised by creative teachers and not to replace teachers as suggested by some" (Bushnell, 2009; Prenksy, 2004)

Game based learning can be used to raise attainment in mathematics but only if teachers help design the games and use them for specific learning intentions. According to the new report from the Scottish government, teachers need to be "willing to engage with the change process and that teachers need to actively seek, apply and evaluate new learning approaches which is tangible to improve children's learning through a variety of mediums". (Donaldson, 2011). Games are a welcome break from the usual routine and can be cathartic and Brain Training has achieved something most Math teachers have not - namely making mental arithmetic 'cool'. (Games based learning, 2010).

Implementing game based learning in schools is not an easy task as the economic factors have a huge effect on how it can be issued from the offset. LTS have a large base of consoles and games that can be loaned out to schools for periods of time but this does not allow for game based learning to be consistently applied throughout a child's school career and this inconsistency could have a negative effect in a child's attitude to learning; as children prefer to learn in a safe, secure, consistent and structured environment. (Direct-Gov:A). Due to damaging cutbacks in Scotland's educational system the EIS general secretary Ronnie Smith, "warned that pupils would suffer most as a result of thousands fewer teachers, larger class sizes, scarcer resources for schools and little opportunity for teachers to undergo professional development" (STE NEWS, 2011) Therefore the effectiveness and value of game based learning in schools has to be questioned as it is not sustainable in this current financial crises with deep cuts in government spending and investment in education. Consequently it is hard to see how game based learning can raise attainment in maths in this economic climate as there is extremely limited funding available.