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Constructivism, Constructionism, and Video Games

We should always strive to help students get the most out of their education! Video games serve as solutions to many of the challenges faced in traditional education, whether they are serving as tools for distance learners or keeping students engaged and motivated in the classroom. With their interactive and immersive nature, video games can offer a unique and effective learning experience. But how do video games fit into a larger picture of education and pedagogical theory? 

via Giphy

To answer this question, let’s examine the intersection of video games, constructivism, and constructionism, and explore how the combination of all three can lead to better learning outcomes.

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What is constructivism?

Before we dive into combinations of learning theories with educational games, let’s cover the basics. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, “constructivism” is an approach to education that emphasizes the importance of the learner’s own experiences and interactions with the world. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget is considered the originator of this theory, but some other significant constructivist theorists who helped add to and develop constructivism include John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Robert M. Gagné, and Jerome Bruner

In a nutshell, this theory asserts that learning is an active process, where students construct their own knowledge through hands-on experiences and reflection. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this process, rather than simply imparting information.

via Instructional Coaches

Constructivism contains six tenets, which you can also see in the above infographic: active engagement, student perspective, student experience and background, student culture, and problem-solving, and it must be student constructed. For further information about and examples of these six pillars, check out this excellent resource created by JoAnna Wagschal.

Educational video games and constructivism are a natural pairing because games are active experiences where students learn by doing. 

What is constructionism?

Not to be confused with constructivism, constructionism builds off constructivist theory but is not the same thing. Created by Seymour Papert, constructionism is a learning theory that suggests students should use what they already know to acquire more knowledge. It may be confusing to keep the two terms we’re discussing straight, so here’s a quick video explaining how they two are related and how they’re different:

The constructionist advantages of playing video games

One of the three prongs in Filament’s approach to game design is systems – the rules that control the interactions of all the components in a game. According to Associate Professor and Game-based Learning Researcher Matthew Farber, “Playing and building games helps students understand complex systems—including their own systems of thinking.”

While playing video games students must construct their own understanding of the game’s systems: its mechanics, rules, and objectives. Players can experiment with numerous strategies and approaches in order to progress and succeed. This process of trial and error leads to a deeper understanding and retention of the game’s mechanics and underlying concepts. In games, players can quickly see the consequences of their actions and adjust their approach accordingly. This feedback loop helps players build their understanding of the game in real time. To summarize using a constructionist lens: while playing games, students develop a foundation of knowledge and then build on it to make progress. This leads to deep understanding and learning.

It’s worth noting that many video games also allow players to make choices and solve problems in a variety of different contexts. This diversification of challenges and experiences helps players develop a more well-rounded understanding of the game and the concepts within it.

The constructionist advantage of creating video games

As Farber puts it, “While playing games can reinforce systems thinking literacy, the act of making games can teach systems fluency. This approach—known as constructionist gaming—is an opportunity to combine game-based learning with project-based learning.” 

While summarizing a book called “Connected Gaming: What Making Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” by Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke, Farber explains how these authors combined James Paul Gee’s learning principles with “Seymour Papert’s constructionist notions about how we learn through making personally meaningful artifacts.” When students create their own video games, Farber asserts, they not only learn about curricula-focused content but also about the ways that they think – also known as critical thinking

Farber goes on to suggest that games such as Scratch, Minecraft, and Eco – games in which students can build their own systems – are great examples of how game-based learning informed by constructionism principles can produce outstanding learning outcomes.

In educational video games, constructionism and tenets of constructivism can be leveraged to teach a wide range of subjects, from science and mathematics to history and literature. The hands-on, interactive nature of video games can make difficult concepts more accessible and engaging for students, helping to foster a love of learning and a lifelong desire to continue critically thinking, exploring, and discovering.

At Filament Games, we believe in the power of video games to transform education and we are dedicated to creating games that inspire and empower learners of all ages. There’s never been a better time to embrace the potential of video games in education! If you’re interested in creating your own educational video game, reach out to us. We’re an educational game studio with 18 years of experience and we’re here to help you make a positive impact. 

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