When David Brantley's first-grade students walked into their classroom this month, many felt right at home. Their teacher is a rare one who believes video games feed young minds, not rot them away. So these Indiana kids will throw virtual bowling balls down alleys on a projector screen and tally scores for math lessons.
"The tradition is to despise games as a brain-drain type of thing," Brantley says. He believes otherwise and that's why he brought a Wii game system into Cumberland Elementary in West Lafayette to supplement his teaching. He and some other teachers are discovering that game devices with Internet connections are both an inexpensive route to the Web and a priceless approach to engaging their students.
The wildly popular Wii game system and others, including the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP handheld systems, are welcome in a very few schools — less than 1 percent in this country, estimates Marc Prensky, the author of "Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning." He’s also the founder of Games2Train, whose mission is to combine the enjoyment of game playing with serious learning "to make the boring fun."
"Our teachers were taught, and still are taught, to lecture to cover the material," says Prensky. "Instead of mutual respect, teachers dis the kids, saying games contribute to a short attention span, that they're a waste of time. That's not true.''
Prensky says the kids know it's not true. They know how hard they concentrate, how many decisions they have to make to get through a game.
"Their attitude toward teachers is 'Why should I learn from you?' It's an atmosphere of mutual disrespect."
He sees it as a struggle between those he calls "digital natives," to whom the technology is second nature, and "digital immigrants," the teachers and parents who are skeptical of "toys" in the classroom and reluctant to abandon the traditional approach to teaching.
That's changing in some schools. Ben Daley, chief academic officer at San Diego's High Tech High, which is actually three high schools, two middle schools and one elementary school, says his teachers have the attitude that learning, especially via technology, is a shared experience.
"This is a very clear example of kids knowing more than teachers," he says. The idea that a child is "an empty vessel that needs to be filled" is a philosophy that doesn't work in the classrooms of the nationally recognized program.
The philosophy at High Tech High schools is that teachers and students can learn from each other. Daley says there are no game systems in use there yet, but he's open to exploring the idea.
Medium is not the message
Educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, author of "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect our Children's Minds and What We Can Do About It," urges educators to do so carefully.
"The main question is whether the activity, whatever it is, is educationally valid and contributes significantly to whatever is being studied," she says.
"The point is not whether kids are 'playing' with learning, or what medium they are playing in — a ball field or a Wii setup or a physics lab or art studio — but rather why they are doing it."
She adds: "Just because it is electronic does not make it any better, and it may turn out not to be as valuable."
"Technology is a tool," he says. "We're not trying to get kids to consume more technology. We're trying to get them producing new technology and, with technology, producing new knowledge."
He's not optimistic that other schools will rush to embrace games.
"Education has been remarkably resistant to change for 100 years," he says. But he has noticed, mostly in the last decade, that when it comes to technology in the classroom, "it's now more of 'This is a good idea, how do we do it?' instead of 'Why would we do it?' "
That's the attitude among the teachers in one middle school in Japan who took the leap in a pilot program and allowed students learning English to do some of their work last year on Nintendo DS handhelds.
Teachers observed the students more easily mastering English vocabulary, writing and speaking skills.
In Birmingham England, the students at Holyhead Secondary School used the Sony PSP, courtesy of Sony, to study French, geography and history — working in groups or, when necessary, refining individual skills.
Complex games, complex learning
Georgetown University's Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center, a consortium of universities funded by the National Science Foundation, sees "great potential for these games to be used in more constructive ways" than just play.
"Why not use them? Not as the sole way to learn, but as one way," she says.
Prensky says if kids are playing what he describes as "complex" games — like SimCity — that take between eight and 100 hours to complete, they are not only learning the concepts buried in the games, they are learning to cooperate and collaborate, make effective decisions under stress, take prudent risks in pursuit of objectives, make ethical and moral decisions, problem-solve and more.
They are all skills students will need, he says, as they move into their adult lives in a high-tech world.
"The pressure is coming from the kids," he says, to use these tools. So programs are being developed by those who know games and can incorporate content that addresses things like the educational standards teachers must meet under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Brantley says he is always on the lookout for such programs.
"If I'm teaching something, I will ask myself, 'What kind of game can I play?' I tell the kids, 'We're going to grab a Flash application online that's going to show you what a tsunami looks like and its effect on Sri Lanka.' Or it could be the water cycle or metamorphosis."
He says he has compared notes with others teachers at conferences, heard from some who want to add games to their curriculum, and even from a PTA president who wanted to spend her limited funds to buy a couple of Wii systems for her school but needed to know how to approach the administration with the idea. To Brantley, whose principal is totally supportive, it's a no-brainer.
The blogosphere is loaded with chatter about video games in education: "Love it," wrote one person on Barking Robot, a blog that deals with educational media.
"We SO need to incorporate more gaming and tools that students are ALREADY USING into their learning world. It just makes sense."
Dollars and cents
But it may be the cost savings that ultimately convince a school staff to go with games.
There aren't enough computers to go around in many classrooms, and some have none. Games systems like the Wii, with their ability to connect to the Internet, Brantley says, are an inexpensive way to extend the reach, conceivably, to every student in every class.
"If you have a teacher who, on the fly, is talking about some unique animal or sunspots, he might say, 'Hey, let's look it up on the Internet.' " Then, "that leads to something else."
Brantley says that teacher often has to try and cram three or four kids around each classroom computer or, more difficult, hustle them all down to the computer lab, sweet-talk whoever's in there into letting him do a quick lesson and then get the kids back in the classroom.
But with a game system in his classroom or a handheld game device used by every student, or shared between two, the lesson is immediately reinforced and absorbed with a machine the kids already are very adept at using.
"There's no question in my mind and heart that they're learning," he says. "Could they learn another way? Sure, but this is engaging, exciting and fun. When you're engaged, when you're enthusiastic, you're going to learn."