Beyond the Textbook: Let the Games Begin! Creative Commons Deed CC0
Creative Commons Deed CC0

Are you a gamer? Do you use games in your teaching, or wish you could? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec

There is no denying that the students sitting in front of us need to be stimulated and engaged for true learning to occur. We want them to be excited as they crack open their textbooks to seek eureka moments in the pages. So what would it take to make this happen more often?  Are there tools already out there that can help bridge the gap between what needs to be taught and what students want to learn? I’ve always been interested in the way that multi-facetted, three-dimensional interactive simulations get students directly involved in their own learning, games such as SIM City, Minecraft or World of Warcraft. Students playing these games are curious and engaged along a learning path of their own design. With the scaffolding provided by a skilled teacher, subject textbooks can serve as tools to gather knowledge to address an issue in the game rather than to teach static concepts organized according to someone else’s creativity. Simulations lead to meaningful research into the same concepts as in textbooks; students become their own teachers.

At LCEEQ’s most recent conference, held in Laval Qc, on February 9th, 2015, John Hattie presented his research from his well-known book Visible Learning for Teachers: “the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers”. (Hattie, 2012). Students control their own learning, and develop strategies for life such as “self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, and self-teaching”. This research suggests that educators need to put students in varied learning environments, whereby they are stimulated to make informed and creative real-life decisions, learning for life.

Given our students’ ubiquitous exposure to 21st century tools, we now have access to online games that can stimulate students’active participation in the learning process. Again, Hattie’s research indicates that some of the highest influence on true learning is through self-assessment (is my city healthy?), on-going formative assessment (my citizens really like it when I lower taxes and make green spaces), constant feedback (my citizens need more commercial spaces to shop, it will make me richer too), and developing meta-cognitive strategies (The last time I built a park next to a factory my citizens revolted – let’s not do that again!).


Furthermore, psychologist Dr. Mark Griffiths’ research out of Nottingham Trent University supports Hattie’s, encouraging educators to seriously consider using video games to develop “individual characteristics such as self-esteem, self-concept, goal-setting and individual differences.” (Griffiths, 2002). Griffiths goes on to state that not all video games are beneficial to learning. Teachers need to to align the tool with their curriculum and gather resources to best inform student discovery. This way, they can optimize the potential of the simulations inherent to some games by encouraging students to engage in extraordinary collaborations and experiences. For example, using a game like SIM city ( in social studies; students experience how to build and maintain a city of their own creation, while keeping the fine balance of making their city eco-friendly but still pushing economic growth. Engagement in such a simulation goes beyond academic learning and delves into cross-curricular competencies, skill development and personal development emulated in real-life scenarios.

Think about the “teamwork, persistence, empathy, willingness to fail, project management, critical thinking, risk and reward analysis and goal setting” that takes place within the student while in these rich environments. The classroom shifts the attention away from a single content generator, the textbook, to a student discovery classroom, where students have the freedom to collaborate, problem solve, hypothesize, reflect in a simulated real-world setting.

Not only can games provide important personal problem-solving strategies and insights, but can also develop literacy skills. Game studies theorist James Gee explains, all gaming experiences, be it cards, board games, tablet games, online games, are a series of problems the user must solve to win, “The human mind learns through well-designed experiences.” Gee wrote in a 2013 report entitled Good Video Games and Good Learning, “[it] finds patterns and associations across different experiences and—after lots of time, effort, and practice—generalizes these patterns and associations into the sorts of concepts, principles, and generalizations we humans capture in language.” (Castaneda & Sidhu, 2015) Thus, games can be seen as text, not unlike books, yet still harnessing the motivation and engagement that tend to follow game environments. The challenge for teachers is to harness the learning potential of video games by making sure students learn what they need to learn.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, Beyond the Textbook, when I interview Shawn Young, science teacher and CEO of Class Craft, a free online role-playing simulation designed for the classroom, that involves teachers and students learning together.

Castaneda, L., & Sidhu, M. (2015, February 18). Beyond Programming: The Power of Making Games — THE Journal. Retrieved February 24, 2015, from

Gee, J. P. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

What Motivates Students to Want to Learn Science?


How do you motivate your students to learn more about science? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

Imagine that the bell rings to end your science class and you hear groans from your students. “Do we have to leave?” “This is so great” “Can’t we just stay here?” Well maybe that happens to you from time to time, but in my teaching experience, I admit that it was a rare occurrence. If you think about the activities that interest you and fully absorb your attention – skiing in deep powder, listening to your favourite music, reading that page-turner novel, playing with your granddaughter – why can’t a science activity produce a similar response?

The question of what makes students want to learn science has intrigued me throughout my educational career. It seems to me that learning about the natural world that surrounds us should be of intrinsic interest to everyone, and learning about it in school should be fascinating for all students. But this doesn’t seem to the case. Enrolment in high school optional science courses around the world is declining and students increasingly drop science courses as soon as they can. They find it difficult and boring and, surprisingly, they find it unrelated to their lives! In one study comparing the attitudes of students in different countries, Terry Lyons found that students frequently reported being turned off by “the transmissive pedagogy, decontextualized content, and unnecessary difficulty of school science.” (Lyons, 2006). In other words, they say it’s too hard, doesn’t involve them and is meaningless to them.

Intrinsic Motivation – Flow Theory:

We would all like our students to be intrinsically motivated to learn science – in other words to want to do science for its own sake and have a genuine interest in it. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian/Croatian psychologist developed the theory of Flow – an explanation of intrinsic motivation. A highly influential University of Chicago professor, his ideas have influenced people from President Bill Clinton to the winning Super Bowl coach of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys. Flow describes people’s state of “complete absorption in the present moment” when they are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). They are in control of their actions and pursue the activity for its own sake, not in pursuit of a reward or to avoid a punishment. Some of the conditions for Flow are: “perceived challenges, or opportunities for action, that stretch but do not overmatch existing skills”, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress being made.”( p. 195).   People “in Flow” would be observed to be focused on an active task, unselfconscious and in control. They may comment about the surprisingly fast passage of time while doing the activity. Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us called this Type I (I for Intrinsic) behavior. By this he refers to intrinsic motivation characterized by autonomy (control over the project), mastery (the desire to continually improve it), and purpose (doing something that has personal meaning).

Extrinsic Motivation

The opposite of Flow or Type I behavior is motivation by punishment and reward, often referred to as extrinsic behavior. Though this is a common practice in education, this behavior more often undermines motivation and engagement on the part of students and tends to reduce learning and understanding (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2005; Kohn, 1999; Pink, 2011). Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, argues that using rewards – points, stickers, extra play time, etc – to motivate students is just as damaging to learning as imposing punishments – detentions, loss of points, reprimands, etc. As soon as the reward or punishment is removed, he points out, the motivation for doing the activity disappears. Corroborating this, in an meta-analysis of 128 studies, Deci, Koestner, & Ryan found that rewards of all types significantly undermined intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

So how do we get our students intrinsically motivated to learn science? The research discussed above would indicate that the project or activity has to have the following characteristics:

  • a clear purpose.
  • personal meaning to students.
  • some degree of student control over it.
  • an appropriate level of challenge – difficult enough to keep them interested, not too challenging to create frustration, and not too easy to bore them.
  • continuous and immediate feedback.

Skilled science teachers learn by their own experience, workshops with other professionals, and discussions with colleagues. They struggle with balancing their desire to intrinsically motivate their students, with the requirement to cover the concepts needed to meet the requirements of the curriculum. I’d love to hear how you do this with your students.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow Theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lyons, T. (2006). Different Countries, Same Science Classes: Students’ experiences of school science in their own words. International Journal of Science Education, 28(6), 591-613.

Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.