Harvard professor Chris Dede talks about the benefits of gaming in education

Students may leave school with knowledge of core subjects, but are they prepared to meet the opportunities that await them? Harvard professor Chris Dede believes that gaming can be a valuable way for educational systems to help students develop deeper engagement in the classroom. It can also help students develop the intrapersonal and social skills needed to tackle future challenges.

Professor Dede is conducting studies through EcoLearn, a research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to develop and assess learning environments that use virtual worlds, augmented realities, transformed social interaction, and online teacher professional development.

We talked with him about how motivating games are effective for learning and why educators should incorporate them into their classrooms.

Professor Chris Dede
Photo credit: Professor Chris Dede

Q: How has your outlook on education changed over the course of your career?

Chris Dede: I remember when I first started, I thought if we gave people the right kinds of knowledge everybody would be able to get along and it would be enough to make the world a better place. As a result of life experiences, I’m now convinced there is a dark side to human nature that doesn’t change no matter how much knowledge you have.

The way you overcome the dark side is by putting people in activities that help them acquire wisdom. We underestimate the difficulties of being prosocial. Collaboration and ethical behavior are crucial to navigating the challenges ahead. By [getting] involved in collaborative experiences with people that are different from you, you see that the world is complicated and that different perspectives matter. You learn to be humble about what you do and don’t know by interacting with people who know things you had never imagined.

The trends in education towards more narrow and deep expertise is going in the wrong direction for the problems that we face in the 21st century. What’s needed is, yes, core knowledge, but character and psychosocial skills are also essential, so that in interactions with other people you value the information and experiences they bring to the table.

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When providing employment references for graduating students, you’ve said that employers view social skills as having more value than grades. Why is that so important?

Dede: In 2012, the National Research Council came out with a report called “Education for life and work in the 21st century,” it was the first in a series of reports identifying the differences in job skills between the 21st and the 20th centuries. Recent other reports from NESTA [National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts] and the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] examine the skills needed in 2030.

The common theme in these reports is what Classcraft and similar systems are designed to accomplish: That character and social skills are important in the 21st century, because developing products and services requires teamwork. The problems are difficult ones that civilization hasn’t seen before. Resolving them requires patience, prosocial behavior, and teams of people with different backgrounds and skills working together.

The organizations who ask me for references know that an effective employee must have the ability to work with people different than them, as well as to be tenacious, caring, and diligent. The mistake that many schools and universities make is focusing on content knowledge too much, to the detriment of building character and social skills.

Is the field of education addressing this in an effective way?

Dede: The disparity among schools is broader than it’s ever been. I interact with wonderful schools that help their students along these dimensions. But there are lots of other schools that are focused solely on test score outcomes.

Sadly, demography is still destiny. if you’re poor or from a marginalized population, you’re more likely to end up in a school that’s not up to date with what’s needed for life and work in the 21st century than you are if you’re well off socioeconomically, coming out of a household that has many resources.

The challenge of helping schools and teachers that have kids who lack advantages, especially those for whom education is a lifeline out of poverty and discrimination, is very important.

Teacher and students in classroom
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Do schools understand that these skills are critical?

Dede: A lot of these schools understand that they’re not serving their students well. But they don’t know how to fix it.

Generation gaps are more profound than ever. The world of children is so different than when adults were children. In the Middle Ages, you could remember what it was like to be your children because society wasn’t changing. Now if you have a family with three children spaced four years apart, you almost have a generation gap between the children, let alone between the children and the parents — or their teachers.

It’s difficult for adults today to understand the lens through which children, especially those from a different cultural heritage or socioeconomic status, are viewing the world. Having systems that let kids help each other and communicate with adults, rather than just listen to well-meaning advice from adults, is crucial.

It’s vital to find mechanisms that provide an opportunity for students to have a voice in a way that helps present their point of view on things that are important to both adults and children.

Student and teacher having fun
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What works well when it comes to systems that encourage that perspective?

Dede: All of us relate to people best when we’re talking about things we’re passionate about. That’s why I teach my course on motivation and learning. Motivation is more than something you use to energize learning, it’s fundamental in identity.

The concept underlying Classcraft and this type of approach in education, is valuable because digital games are exciting for kids today. There are so many different kinds, so that’s like saying kids are excited about books when you mean that some kids are into mystery, some are into in fiction, graphic novels and whatever.

It’s a rare kid that isn’t spending part of their life as an alternate identity in a digital setting where they have relationships that are as meaningful to them as face-to-face interactions. That’s not as true for adults … that isn’t how most adults grew up and it isn’t how many adults relate to the world.

For kids to have a prosocial social medium or digital gaming experience provides the vehicle for powerful communication. Some parents have told me they didn’t really know their child or communicate with them well until they started gaming with them. They built the relationships inside the game that externalized outside of the game.

Somtimes that’s how relationships are built in education as well, In well constructed educational games, the teacher is seen not as content expert or disciplinarian, but as a mentor, guide, and a model. Such a relationship has to start with the child’s passions and aesthetics, not with the adult’s, then move on from there to show how academics relate to what the child cares about.

Does gaming support other educational aspects such as standardized testing and personalized learning?

Dede: It does. Well constructed games are sophisticated about motivating people to learn and in the way they instruct. When starting a fantasy game, the content is unknown and you have to learn a set of new skills to move forward. Without having read a 350-page instruction manual, you learn to play through embedded support.

We should be doing that in academics. That’s part of why our research team develops and studies immersive, authentic simulations that provide kids the chance to wear the shoes of an ecosystem scientist, through providing structural supports as well as the guidance of teachers.

Well constructed games are sophisticated in the way they instruct, yet often entertainment games needlessly exclude academic content. When developers do bring in real-world aspects, they distort them via fantasy in ways that make academics more difficult to learn. Pokémon and Spore are based on fantasy biology that makes real biology harder to understand, and there’s no reason for it. It’s just easier and quicker to build an entertainment environment than to figure out how to represent the real world in an engaging way.

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You’ve done a lot of work around AR and VR. Will headsets be the future for everyone, or are there other ways?

Dede: There are many different types of immersion. At one extreme is virtual reality where you’re alone in a digital environment. Less intense forms of immersion can help learners understand complicated real world situations by overlaying digital supports.

We use augmented reality and multi-user virtual environments to help learners see ecosystems through the eyes of an expert in the same way that people build flight simulators to help people understand airplanes. If you’re in a low-income school and want to use immersion to aid learning, you need a technology infrastructure to support that. We know that even kids in poverty have some access to cell phones and, increasingly, to tablets tablets.

When we began our work 10 years ago with immersive, authentic simulations, we needed high-end laptops to be able to run these. Now a mid-range tablet can run something sophisticated. That changes everything. When these media are affordable and practical for schools, it opens up the infrastructure needed to make immersive learning accessible and practical in classrooms.

Access is getting better, but the quality of the game experience remains crucial. The medium has to reinforce the message. If the message is “learn to collaborate with different people,” then every aspect of the medium has to reinforce that. That doesn’t take place unless games are well designed.

How do you get narrative and gameplay to complement the other material that goes along with pedagogy?

Dede: The fact is people aren’t wired from birth to collaborate with others. As any parent can tell you, collaboration and sharing are acquired skills, but we are wired to listen to stories. Researchers are also beginning to understand that we’re wired to generate narrative and to have a voice of our own.

Providing the framework for that in an educational setting is important but difficult. Games and immersive, authentic simulations open up opportunities for kids by infusing the foundational parts of education with narrative, which enables motivation.

Teacher and students in classroom
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You mentioned earlier that “demography is still destiny.” How do you help teachers set their students on a learning trajectory that overcomes this?

Dede: I’m a fan of personalization. That’s a term that’s often weakened from its original intent. A strong definition of personalization has a student agency and voice, including students aiding in the design of their learning experiences.

For some schools, the path forward begins by building a bridge from the world that students are passionate about. Teachers are articulating out of your curriculum what society thinks is important, kids are articulating what they think is important out of their experiences and context, and educators must forge a common ground to personalize and empower kids with these vital character and social skills.

To start that positive cycle, teachers must provide experiences that kids get excited and passionate about ,that adults can encourage and share. One path is through games and narrative, and another path is through good project-based learning and making. There’s more than one way to accomplish this, but the easiest way for kids to start with is what pervades the rest of their lives, which is games and social media.

People Bumping Fists Above Table With Jars and Pen Holder
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Entrepreneurship used to be an area of focus and interest in schools. How do we build that in a way that’s meaningful?

Dede: Many kids feel powerless. They are powerless to affect what’s happening to them and their families, their communities, and their schools. To be an entrepreneur, you have to believe that you can change things. If you don’t believe that, then entrepreneurship seems like a weird concept that has nothing to do with life as you’ve experienced it.

Alternate virtual worlds with fantasy identities offer kids a form of power, it may not always be a positive power, but they feel some sense of control over their destiny when they’re in this role.

The opportunity to develop entrepreneurship is to bridge from the avatar role in the virtual world into the real world. The narratives that the entertainment industry present, such as being an ordinary kid who suddenly developed superpowers, don’t transfer to the real world. What’s needed is games that have strategies for success that align with success in the real world.

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