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GBL & PBL sitting in a tree,

5 min read



“Hello Games-Based Learning; this is Problem-Based Learning.”

Like two pandas in a zoo, we need to do all we can to ensure that these two find a soul mate in the other.

Games, by definition, are meant to be fun. But, in the race to transform schools, we’re missing out if the goal of games-based learning is to help us run that race faster or provide students with more fun while they run. We’re running towards the wrong finish line.

Games transform education and learning. The question is: transform “towards what end?”

If our goal for games is to take traditional school content — multiplication tables — and spice it up as more fun for students, then we are missing a golden opportunity.

In the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s recent research on short-form games — quick tools for practice — versus long-form games — higher-order thinking skills better aligned to the common core –, they rightly advocate that there is significant potential for these long-form games to transform education. Long-form games focus on the 21st-Century skills we all know our students need. These games hold more promise, but are also more complex to integrate. The Center advocates that game designers “affiliate selectively with school reform leaders to help move schools towards content-rich, deep curricula that foster critical thinking and problem solving.” [my emphasis]

Any game, by definition, has a context. Within our classrooms, students — and educators — often wonder, “why are we learning this?” Sure, games can make learning more fun, but games have the potential to set a context and purpose for this learning that is rich, complex and authentic — something followers of problem-based learning have known for years.

Like pandas at the zoo, we need to foster collaboration between the strong assets of GBL with those of PBL.

Games-Based Learning

Problem-Based Learning

dynamic environments context rich, authentic, real-world environments
immediate feedback, where failure is a natural part of the learning process open-ended solutions with no “correct” answers
multiple decisions / choices authentic audiences for student work
clear goals recall not sufficient, application of content / skills is required
meta-cognition (“How am I doing?”) naturally holistic and cross-disciplinary

Returning to the concept of “context and purpose,” games have the added advantage of  setting a context that is ripe for learning. The best games — with or without technology — are those that can combine the characteristics above to strive to create new environments for learning.

New environments for learning will:

  • Empower teachers to customize the environment dynamically, so that content can be specialized and individualized as needed.
  • Enable students as creators of solutions — beyond recall and decision-making.
  • Encourage students to be environment evaluators — aware of each others’ creations/ solutions.
  • Allow students — and the teacher — to act within an interdependent environment, where the actions of one user affects others.
  • Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.
  • Provide a context where the game is not the teacher of “content” but rather it is the “context” through which learning happens.
  • See learning and assessment as individualized. The teacher — not the game — is in charge of the learning and that happens at the teacher-student level. The game is simply the introduction to that interaction.
  • Strive to mirror the real world by giving students multiple roles and goals which sometimes conflict. They are not simply an all-out pursuit of a single goal as they strive for points, badges or rewards.

This does not mean that all games need to fit into this category to be useful. Creating games that get us to the very limited goal of content recall can be one piece. But we should distinguish this from the nature of what games can be and the role they can play in transforming education. Otherwise, we’re just running the race faster to an out-dated finish line.

As we gamify our schools, we’re missing a huge opportunity if we’re not considering “games” in multiple perspectives. Certainly, the combination of PBL and GBL elements has vast potential for changing the way we prepare students with the 4 Cs of the 21st Century. It needs to be on our radar; we need to use our limited time, energies and money to to scrutinize our understanding of games to create these new, transformational learning environments.

There is no silver bullet. This can’t be done with every topic and it’s not always the most efficient way to get from A to B.

Not every panda-romance is a match made in heaven. But, for the propagation of the species, we need to encourage this budding romance to grow.

Derek Luebbe a high-school principal at the American International School of Budapest. He blogs at Does It Catch Mice?, and is the creator of the simulation simCEO, winner of the SIIA award for Most Innovative Ed Tech Product 2013. He lives in Hendersonville, N.C. and Budapest, Hungary. Follow him on Twitter at @dluebbe.