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Learning Works for Kids: Getting Parents Engaged in GBL

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

What do you get when you combine 25 years of experience as a clinical child psychologist with a passion for video games and learning? Learning Works for Kids – a unique company in the GBL world that seeks to help parents find the best games to teach their children the specific skills that they need to be successful in the fast-paced, hyper-connected, 21st Century.

This week’s combined Google+ hangout and #GBLFriday Twitter chat with Learning Works for Kids founder and President Dr. Randy Kulman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical child psychologist, and LW4K vice president and Editor-in-chief James Daley, provided an opportunity to learn about the organization and its distinctive approach to using games for learning. Watch the entire interview below:

Putting Engagement Ahead of Content
Learning Works for Kids is focused on supporting parents in helping their children develop important 21st Century skills. But the model could easily be applied to education because one of the most significant problems that gamification has encountered as a sustainable and meaningful movement is the overall lack of support for educators who wish to use games in their teaching. Part of the problem is that there is a serious disconnect between commercial game developers and educators/instructional designers. Recreational games are engaging but lack rich educational content, and educational games sacrifice engagement in favor of academic content. In the LW4K model, engagement takes precedence, based on the well-documented importance of play for children’s learning. LW4K operates from the premise that getting kids involved in meaningful play is the key to using games for learning. Kulman mentioned well-known gaming researcher Kurt Squire in our interview, eliciting memory of my favorite Squire quote (to paraphrase): "Even Grand Theft Auto can become an educational game if we are willing to engage with students to have a meaningful discussion about the social situations that make this controversial game so popular."

LW4K operates by aligning commercial games with 21st Century skills-based learning objectives and helping parents guide the play in ways that make the learning concrete and generalizable for children. This approach, if expanded to fully include educators, can serve to overcome the primary obstacle to gamification, the lack of support and resources for teachers seeking to include games in their curriculums. The following image shows the LW4K widget, available on their site, that helps connect parents (or educators) to games that can help students learn important skills.

The Key to Learning with Games is Parental Involvement
One of the most refreshing things about the LW4K approach to game-based learning is that it relies heavily on parental involvement in order to function. Parental engagement in education is one of the most important factors in student success, and one of the things that educators are most inclined to ask for when questioned about educational reform. Parental involvement in education is in decline in an age where almost everyone is abdicating their personal responsibility for their own actions and the overall state of society. This failure of responsibility is reflected by society’s failure to fund education, support teachers, and in parents who fail to take a direct role in their children’s education. LW4K makes parental engagement the key to successful game-based learning.

LW4K takes a progressive approach to education by making their model dependent on parental involvement to work. Their approach is for parents to first identify the 21st Century or executive skills that they see as important for their children to work on. LW4K then helps parents identify commercial games that would be appropriate to help develop those skills. The organization then provides parents with resources designed to help them play with their children and have conversations that help them generalize the skills being focused on to contexts outside of the game. The folks at LW4K don’t think that GBL always requires parental (or clinician, educator, or peer) assistance for learning, but rather that using games as a teaching tool or having some type of mediation significantly increases the potential for learning.

Game-based Skills are Generalizable with Responsible Digital Mentoring
I personally have been engaged in an ongoing debate with my doctoral dissertation director, Dr. Thomas Brush at Indiana University, about whether skills learned in games are or are not generalizable to other contexts. Kulman and Daley provided some excellent support for my belief that games do teach skills that can be applied outside of the artificial reality of electronic play. What they offer however, is not a blanket statement that these 21st Century skills are automatically generalizable, but rather that it takes hard work, skillful support, and strong parental involvement to help students make the connections between what they are doing and learning in games and the ways that those skills can be applied elsewhere. In short, according to Kulman and Daley, parents need to guide their children during game play and then talk to and actively work with them to make the connections from the games to the real world.

While this is not a validation of commercial games as stand-alone vehicles for learning, it is a realistic starting place for considering how games can be used in education. There are very few things that can function as learning platforms without intense one-on-one support and individualized attention (MOOCs, anyone?). Why should video games be any different? While games have the potential to encapsulate fully designed learning experiences that could incorporate the kinds of interactive support necessary for learning, they currently do not. Inserting parents or teachers into the equation to help make the learning happen is where LW4K is ahead of the curve by providing resources to help facilitate these essential interactions.

Support for Diverse Learning Needs
For me, one of the best parts of LW4K, is that it has a specific focus on supporting children with Autism, ADHD, and other learning difficulties. I used to teach at a school for autistic and dyslexic children, so I have a soft spot in my heart for kids with these learning differences. The fact that LW4K focuses specifically on the kinds of interpersonal social skills that are so important for these learners, and provides support for parents who may also be struggling to reach their young learners, makes it easy to recommend the site for parents who have children with these specific needs. After talking to Kulman and Daley, it is clear that they understand this audience and their needs and are putting together an invaluable resource to support them.

Don’t let LW4K’s outstanding support for alternative learners dissuade those without these specific issues. This is a great resource for any parents or teachers interested in tapping children’s predisposition for game play and turning it into a productive educational opportunity. While this is a paid service, they do offer a free trial, lots of free tools, articles, and information that allow those who would benefit from their site to check it out and decide for themselves if the benefits are worth the cost. Personally, I think that the innovative model and well-thought out approach are worth giving a chance to.

Check out the video recording of the interview or this PowerPoint from Kulman’s presentation at last years American Psychological Association’s annual convention:  http://www.slideshare.net/rklearningworks/generalization-of-gamebased-learning-for-children-with-adhd-15799685?from_search=3 for even more insightful information about LW4K. Be sure to join me on Twitter Fridays at 1pm ET for more #GBLFriday chats.