Playful Learning and Rigorous Assessment: Can We Level-Up the Common Core?

July 25, 2014

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

According to a recent New York Times piece that has stirred a highly emotional debate among my many colleagues, parents across the U.S. who once felt confident helping their children with homework until high school are now feeling helpless when confronted with their first-graders’ Common Core-aligned work sheets. Stoked by viral postings online that ridicule math homework in which students are asked to critique a phantom child’s thinking or engage in complex steps in computational thinking, along with mockery from comedians including Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert, these parents are now adding their voices to a charged political debate about whether the Common Core is an effective measure of learning or just another way in which Washington is taking over our lives.

At the organization I lead, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, we’ve recently dipped our toes into the rollicking debate over rigorous standards and accountability systems. While I am personally a keen supporter of creating more rigorous national standards, there are four big challenges that are not getting nearly enough attention in the public debate.

First, the new standards are out of tune with many of the job skills employers are demanding, and won’t fulfill new needs for engaged, healthy problem-solvers in a global age. Traditionally, state level assessments in the U.S. have been focused on discrete and narrow cognitive skills at single points in time and for high stakes. The Common Core State Standards are a major improvement on the breadth vs. depth issue, but it remains to be seen if other key approaches to life-long learning, such as problem-solving, teamwork, tenacity, and healthy habits will be measured by anyone. We should learn lessons from early childhood educators who place emphasis on developing a “whole child” as a key principle of practice. We should also pay closer attention to experts such as Angela Duckworth, the Partnership for Global Learning and CASEL who are experimenting with both classroom and whole school redesigns to promote a new emotionally intelligent, globally oriented youth force, as well as highly promising video game products developed by pioneers such as Trip Hawkins (of Madden Football and FIFA Fame), Richie Davidson, and Debra Lieberman, who are promoting socio-emotional and executive functioning skills and healthy lifestyles in a thoroughly modern way. Bottom line: these leaders are helping schools and youth to build a new skill set that will help kids compete as well as cooperate. They are committed to youth who are smarter, and also stronger and kinder!

Second, the high stakes we’ve come to expect as policy and practice drivers are a real bummer for many kids, teachers, and schools. A better way to frame the national conversation on assessment is to take stock of how many global competitors view assessment as a lever for program improvement. As Henry Roediger recently wrote in the New York Times, testing new learning within the context of regular classwork and study routines has been proven to help students retain new knowledge. In The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley suggests that we should build in much more frequent assessments for lower-stakes accountability that is focused on cascading competencies that will then be demonstrated on the higher-stakes and less frequent assessments. The plain fact is that since the link between student and teacher performance is often tied contractually to high-stakes testing, the energies of too many great teachers are being sapped. Another unintended outcome from the high stakes: so many low-achieving youth are turning away from a pathway forward. There are alternatives, like badging systems and more authentic portfolios, that should be prioritized for large-scale experimentation.

Third, the incentives to celebrate success around assessment are currently distorted. While additional pay-for-performance approaches do create incentives for individual teachers to raise student achievement, these schemes do not typically drive additional support to a unit, when academic success is measured–schools as a whole often simply avoid punishment. Simply put, we do a lousy job of rewarding success. Assessments have become a game for individuals and not for the entire learning community.

Enter the prospect of game-based learning as a new element within a more playful, whole-child, community-centered approach. Through the Games and Learning Publishing Council and our new website gamesandlearning.org, a group of national organizations and practitioners is looking at the possible role that digital games, aka video games, may play in documenting and encouraging deeper learning and higher performance. What about games are really good for in learning? Games have driven learning and social communication for millennia. When designed well, they have three great benefits: they are fun to play, they offer tough mental and physical challenges, and they have great social currency–they add to the conversation. Good games allow personalization and rigor, celebrate persistence and grit, and discourage long-term failure. And they offer challenges that a whole school, state or nation can encounter together. Good games give instant feedback and can build community norms for high performance.

Research on games, learning, and healthy development are still in the early stages. With gamesandlearning.org we aim to keep up with the flow of research and investment in this growing sector. For those concerned with assessment, the relevant question is how to reinvent classrooms to meet the needs of today’s students and educators. There is a great deal of evidence that project-based learning approaches that integrate modern technologies are gaining momentum–in strong charter networks such as High Tech High, Rocketship, and Kipp, and in new start-ups such as Quest2Learn and the Incubator School in Los Angeles. These models are often using games and technology to challenge traditional approaches–whether it is flipping classrooms, changing the roles of teachers, or reconfiguring staffing structures to promote success.

New forms of assessment that take advantage of embedded game-based tools may be on the rise. In a recent national survey of K-8 teachers, the Cooney Center found a significant appetite for using games in non-traditional ways. For example, almost 6 out of 10 of the teachers surveyed said that they used built-in assessments in games to make instructional decisions, and over half said that built-in assessment systems helped them judge their students’ mastery of key content at the end-of-curriculum units. Many teachers use what they learn from the games’ assessment tools to modify their own teaching, choosing to emphasize areas where students struggled, and condensing material that they already understand. And nearly half use games to teach supplementary content not mandated by their schools or districts.

Nonetheless, perhaps the biggest (and our fourth) challenge for those interested in game-based assessment as a true driver of performance is in a professional preparation gap: teachers cannot teach with modern tools that they themselves don’t understand. In a previous national survey of teachers that the Cooney Center conducted in 2012, very few had any training in the use of games in the classroom, and more than forty percent pointed to the need for professional development as the most pressing need in integrating new technologies well.

Game-based learning is not a magic elixir to pressing student engagement and performance challenges. But games are an overlooked ally in the fundamental rethinking we must do to ensure that the Common Core and other 21st Century skills are in fact addressed in the next five years. Their unique advantage is the passionate embrace games get from one of the most overlooked success drivers for lasting improvement: the youth themselves!