Games and Assessment: Barbarians at the Gate

We badly need a paradigm change in learning and assessment in our schools.  This is so because the world has changed massively.  We face unpredictable changes and even chaos in the future in terms of jobs, automation, artificial intelligence, equity, economies, technology, the environment, crime, hacking, conflict, and the transformation of states and institutions.  The old order is fast fading away while our schools retain the old order and lead students to believe they will or even could live in it.

Assessment leads our system.  We really cannot change the paradigm of learning in schools unless we change the system and nature of assessment.  Today, standardized theories of assessment are based on separating learning and assessment and dropping assessments out of the sky in disregard for context, time, development, growth, and trajectories towards mastery.  Furthermore, we assume our assessments are fair when the students being assessed have manifestly not had the same opportunity to learn in terms of background experiences, resources, capacities, motivations, mentoring, non-cognitive skills, stress levels, and familiarity with the genre of the test and its environment. Having had the same texts and time on task with them is NOT a good measure of opportunity to learn, especially because we humans give meanings to language and symbols based our experiences in the world and not just based on verbal definitions and associations.

Digital games offer us a model of a certain paradigm for learning and assessment.  The paradigm does not require a game, but can be implemented in many different ways.  Below I list the features a game-based paradigm for learning and assessment has, stressing here assessment: 

  1. Games assess problem solving not just the retention of facts and information.
  2. Games assess knowledge/skills/choices in context.
  3. In games, facts and information are used as tools, not in and for themselves, but can still be assessed for mastery.
  4. Games allow assessment of alternative solutions and innovation.
  5. Games give language and symbols situational meanings (that is, meanings associated with images, actions, experiences, and dialogue, not just other words).
  6. In games, the problems being solved are well matched to the actions taken to solve then (game mechanics).
  7. In games, learning and assessment are tightly integrated, they are pretty much the same thing. Games allow learning and assessment to go on at the same time and    they embed assessment continuously within game play.
  8. In games, language is used just in time (when it can be put to immediate use) or on demand (when it is need and has been prepared for).
  9. Levels design in a game is a theory of trajectories towards mastery and growth in a problem domain.
  10. In games, players engage in multiple trials and performance can be compared across multiple players on many variables across time, patterns of growth, and different trajectories towards mastery.
  11. Games use level design to ensure everyone is well prepared for future learning on later levels. We can test whether different learners have the necessary preparatory experience, capacities, skills, and motivations to be fairly and ethically compared to each other.
  12. Games can be customized to different learners in terms of level design and level of difficulty.
  13. Games define transfer in term of genre of types of problem solving.
  14. Games allow for an inside perspective within the virtual world and an outside, god-like top-down, perspective and switching between these.
  15. In games, failure is recoverable and a source of feedback and learning.
  16. Games allows for U-Shaped development, where “failure” is a sign of reorganizing one’s learning in order to move on to a higher-level of thinking, since they happen across time.
  17. Games allow for collaboration and the assessment of collaboration.
  18. Games allow for the assessment of things like “grit” and persistence past failure.
  19. “Big G games” (= a game plus all the social activities inside and outside the game, in affinity spaces for example) allow learners to leverage outside information and activity.    Now we are learning and assessing within teaching-and-learning systems.
  20. Games are not just about “passing”, but mastery.
  21. In games, time is not the measure of learning, accomplishment is (though we can assess time-based problem solving if we want to)
  22. Games allow learners to project their identities and personal goals onto the goals of the game’s designers = buy in.
  23. In games, goals are lucid and progress towards them is replete with feedback.
  24. Games allow a rich data trail across time.
  25. Games are models and often require model-based thinking to master.
  26. Games can enable or disable hints.
  27. Games can assess “content” (a problem domain), ethics (ethical decision making). Strategic thinking, thinking about complex systems, and valued-based choices, as well as the ability to take on an act out of different perspectives. 

Whenever I bring up the need for a paradigm change in our schools and not just a touch up of its fading glory, I am told that the “stakeholders” (countries, states, policy makers, politicians, institutions, and elites) don’t want it.  But, of course, THAT is the point.  The old order never invites the new order in.  The barbarians always have to attack the gates.


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