A couple weeks ago, Pamela Paul wrote a column for the New York Times about the fad for educational computer games in classrooms and in the home. Ms. Paul is justifiably skeptical of these developments, and her article is a good read. The article has a certain charming, almost refreshing crotchetiness:
The concepts of work and play have become farcically reversed: schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach. There’s an underlying fear that if we don’t add interactive elements to lower school curriculums (sic), children won’t be able to handle fractions or develop scientific hypotheses — concepts children learned quite well in school before television.
I want to stress that the point here isn't that kids shouldn't have fun in school. There's nothing wrong with making learning fun. A good teacher gets us excited about Catcher in the Rye or the elegance of Newtonian mechanics or the beauty of geometry. The problem with computer game-based learning is that, in nearly every case, it's not the subject-matter that's catching students’ interest; it's something entirely incidental.
What game-based learning leads to, therefore, is not more learning but more games. There is a race-to-the-bottom, from worksheets, to computer math drills, to math-based games gussied up with cool features that distract from the actual math, to games that have no discernible academic content, like those found at the popular website coolmath-games.com. Like addicts, students need more and more bells and whistles to hold their attention, until they receive the drug in its pure form, undiluted by educative content or mental effort.
If you want kids to learn, you have to get them engaged in learning. No proxy will suffice.