A TANGLED MESS

Applying Cognitive Theory and Gamification to Improve Reading Comprehension

08/17/2017
LEARNING AND THE BRAIN
Mandy Vasek and Andrew Vreeke

Differentiation and personalized learning should not be avoided.

What a tangled web we avoid when we try to throw 22 students together in a single classroom with a teacher who plans and designs a comprehension skill lesson for one.  Avoiding a tangled web is a good thing, right?  Wrong!  Learning is a non-linear, messy process that has many curves and angles.  All students are unique and have different learning styles and needs, but educators continue to give students a single shot dose of uniformed curriculum using an instructional delivery designed to meet the needs of only one person- the teacher (convenience).  Of course, there are students reading on grade level or above who might do just fine.  Well...that is... if staying status quo is okay.  I am not sure anyone would be happy there.

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Reading is a complex task that is difficult to teach as a homogenous group.  Therefore, educators cannot take the straight and narrow path when constructing lessons for their students.  Differentiation is a must!  There are many ways to individualize instruction to meet the exclusive needs of each learner.  Personalizing learning is best practice.  Is this difficult for teachers to do?  In our opinion, the work of a teacher is always hard, and differentiating is no exception!  However, when you teach students in a linear, one-size-fits-all fashion, you are likely setting yourself and the other students up for failure and frustration.

We usually refer to the phrase, “a tangled web we weave” in a negative sense.  In a classroom, the best teachers understand that 22 students learn in 22 ways, and the instructional day could look extremely messy when mapped.  Real, authentic teaching is a beautiful mess full of tangled ideas, lessons, and activities.  It is personalized learning at its best!

Children need a participatory learning environment designed specifically for them.

One way to individualize student learning is through gamification.  Gamification is the application of gaming features in a non-gaming context.  Vygotsky’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) is the ideal zone where students need to stay, grow, and learn until growth begins to measure outside the zone.  Video games, which trigger high engagement, plus the use of the student’s ZPD, are optimal to reach student goals for learning.  Video games often use leveling systems to move up and down depending on the student’s performance, which may include their pacing and sequence.   Users enjoy the freedom within some limitations, but are not allowed to move to higher levels until prerequisite skills are mastered.  Games by nature have a competitive connotation.  Students will see the levels as intrinsic motivators to give their best effort.

However, there is an important difference.

Games for teaching reading are designed purposefully by developers, who hone in on specific areas of deficiency.  As users master specific skills, new habits of thought are permanently created. Through the power of play, children will work harder and longer to achieve greater success because they are immersed in activities that are fun, meaningful and effective.

“Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very raw young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action.

—Lev Vygotsky

Why some games are more effective than others.

What the student reads and what the student wants to get out of the reading helps determine their level of understanding.  The stance can have a powerful affect on determining if the reader comprehends.  Reading skills may shift back and forth along a continuum, between efferent and aesthetic modes of the reading processing, at any given point when measuring growth.  Efferent teaching focuses on recalling the relevant details from the text.  Aesthetic meaning takes a deeper, emotional approach allowing the reader to feel and make his or her own personal connections to the story in a more reactive way.  It is often during the shifting (transaction) of the positions (or stances) that readers begin to acquire knowledge. Thus, assessment of comprehension becomes quite complex.  Both the efferent and aesthetic modes of processing must be inclusive during the assessment process.  There is a fine line between the two modes.

What happens when teachers announce a game-based learning platform instead of a worksheet?  Exhilaration is expressed, no doubt!  Most students have desires to interact with peers.  Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning promotes the idea behind active, student-centered, motivation that is cooperative in a risk-free environment. 

Early studies using games rarely addressed content, but related games to the social aspects of the interactions occurring between players while playing. Some of the newer studies also follow this trend.  Researchers conclude that the construction of games provide the stimulus that students need to do necessary work, while using their creativity and deductive reasoning skills. 

All aspects of reading should be addressed when evaluating a student’s progress.  This includes the cognitive, affective, and textual areas of the reading process.  The teacher must not forget to mind what the student is reading and the reader’s intent for reading it.  Game-based instruction can function as an effective teaching strategy, learning instrument, and assessment tool. The games indicated high levels of affective, cognitive, and textual parameters. 

Games encourage collaboration, improve retention, promote student motivation, increase cognitive skills, and allowed students to problem solve.  Feedback from gaming is immediate and individualized.  Students connect feedback to the level of effort they put into their thinking and problem solving.  It is sad, therefore that effective approaches to learning, such as the game-based approaches to learning in the classroom, are stifled by fear and trepidation.  Simulation and games, which are proven techniques, have been shelved to collect dust.  Teachers, by default, continue to teach the way they learned.

It is not enough to replace the traditional worksheet and textbook with a computer screen. Games are more fun when they are dynamic. In order for real change to occur, games should provide more than an inquiry session. Purposeful and meaningful engagement within the gaming environment is important.  Games should be user friendly, provide multiple reading levels, and offer multiple formats for practice and skill development.

Video games can provide a rigorous mental workout using the brain’s cognitive skills.  Cognition is critical to problem solving, reasoning, attention, reasoning, etc.  Gamification transforms the learning environment to one that is engaging and stimulating.  Exercising the mental capacities allows for cognitive growth and development in mental skills, attention, verbal fluency, executive control, and both short and long term memory skills. 

The cognitive functions of the brain processes in two ways:  bottom-up and top-down.  The bottom-up is driven by data, input, perceptions of the world, and remembering details and features about something.  Top-down processes utilize schematic knowledge to assist in memory, decision-making, and perception. Video games provide a cyclical spin using both processes.  In other words, the gamer/learner perceives and interacts with the video gaming environment (bottom-up).  To win, the learner must problem-solve and use cognition to overcome the challenges (Top-down). 

Many researchers would argue for gamification systems in schools.  Game-based learning and reading comprehension have a great success rate.  Data from studies support visual-attention, spatial awareness skills, multi-tasking, visual/short-term memory, attention capacity, visual processing, executive functioning skills, etc.  In all studies, the gamers out-performed those who were not gamers in the study.  

About the Authors:Mandy Vasek is a third year assistant principal and former Reading Instructional Special for a school district in central Texas.  She is currently in her final year as a doctoral student at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.  Mandy’s research focus is using social media platforms for school leadership professional development.  You can follow her on Twitter @MandyVasek.Andrew Vreeke is the Co-Founder of SKO Learning, the designer and publisher of Skatekids™ and Ramps To Reading™, reading comprehension programs that bring together decades of cognitive science research with leading instructional design and gaming theory. You can follow him on Twitter @avreeke.
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