Saturday, August 9, 2014

Video Games, Common Core, and the Links to Constructivism and Social Constructivism

This post will be broken down into three distinct parts. The first part will examine social constructivism and its core values. The second part will be a brief look at Connectivism and the connections it has with classroom environments and learning. The final part will look at video games as a pedagogical tool to be explored using the first two parts as supporting foundations. I will draw links and parallels to modern day video games and multiplayer games. I will discuss how they cannot only fit historical learning theories, but can also be used as new tool sets in education technology. While this is not new information and has been discussed before, I will shine a light on the connected community that has developed between gamers. This paper will attempt to show the strong relationship between modern gaming and the socio constructivist and connectivist theories

Social Constructivism and Connectivism to support video games for pedagogical application.

     When it comes to the use of video games in the classroom, most of the academic world seems split or indifferent. As media evolves, the social acceptance of video games has become more widely adopted, and with it, the application of video games as an educational tool. While opinions on video games for educational use vary, we can still look back on whether or not they fit any learning theories in practice. A recent survey suggested that Only 1% of the teachers surveyed stated that none of their students benefit when using games as learning tools. (Salter, 2014).The survey draws a light into what many teachers already know; students like playing games. However, video games are still not fully adopted as a main source of media when compared to television, movies, and how they are used in learning environments. In order to make a logical case for video game usage in the classroom, I want to look at the historical tenets of learning and emerging styles. From there, I will posit video games share more with these foundations than most educators realize. It is important to note that when referencing video games in education there is a downfall of using all video games because of content relating to sex, drugs, violence, and other inappropriate material. While these themes do make their way into mainstream television, music, and literature, video games seem more polarized than the others. I would ask anyone who read Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy poem part one Inferno to find a more disturbing mental image in a movie, video game, or music than the one portrayed of the nine circles of hell.  In this post, I will assume the instructor can make the appropriate distinction for what is acceptable and not acceptable. The focal point will be firmly planted on drawing similarities to Social Constructivism and Connectivism in video games for classroom learning.
The Social Constructivism Movement.
The idea of learning through active participation through group discussion and exchanging of ideas in a social context is a major driving force in the Social Constructivist school of thought for learning.  Students construct their own learning like constructing Lego houses with the help of their social support structure. During this construction, we can see the appearance of a new learning environment, an environment that shies away from a speak and listen (lecturer and students) and into an interaction based model. Below is information pulled from:  which gives high detail into some of the Social constructivist and constructivism schools of thought for a more complete view.

Philosophical Perspective/Theory
Key Points
Practical Implications

Social Constructionism
(also called simply Constructionism)
·There is no meaning in the world until we construct it.

·We do not find meaning, we make it.

·The meaning we make is affected by our social interpretation of the thing.

·The meaning we derive for objects arises in and out of the interactive human community.
Even if you bump into a tree, you cannot get meaning directly from the tree because you have ingrained social interpretations of the tree. You will assign meaning to the tree based on your social background and it will be a different meaning from what any other person will have for the tree.

·A branch or variant of social constructionism

·People create meaning through their interactions with each other and the objects in the environment.
If you bump into a tree, you can get meaning directly from the tree but that meaning is basically combined with social interpretations of the tree. The meaning you assign to the tree will still be a different meaning from what any other person will have for the tree.

Vygotsky’s Constructivism
(epistemology with specific application elements)
·Social interaction in development of cognition

·Social learning precedes development

·MKO (More Knowledgeable Other)

· ZPD –distance between the actual development level as determined by the independent problem solving and level of potential development as determined through problem solving under MKO

·In ZPD provide scaffolding –masters task remove (fading)

·Social interaction leads to increased knowledge
Struggling students in a Math class are assigned a peer tutor. (MKO) The peer tutor helps their partner work through problems by providing hints and instruction. (Scaffolding) Struggling students will stop relying on MKO as they work through ZPD levels. The amount of help from the peer tutor can be gradually reduced until they are no longer needed or relied on. (fading) The struggling students have reached the MKO level and no longer are struggling.

Piaget’s Constructivism
(epistemology with specific application elements)
·Knowledge is actively constructed

·More of a “theory” on how a child’s thinking evolves over time

·Focuses on the commonality of learning stages

·Need for equilibrium

·Detached observation
At a certain stage of development all children will become aware of “self”. A mother places a mark on a child’s face without the child’s knowledge. She then places the child in front of a mirror. If the child has self awareness, he will reach to his face and touch the mark. However, if he has not developed self awareness, he will reach out to the mirror and try to touch the mark. He is unaware that it is his image in the mirror.

Social Constructivism
(learning theory with strong epistemological elements)
·Reality is constructed through human activity

·Members of a society together invent the properties of the world.

·People create meaning through their interactions with each other and the objects in the environment.

·Learning is a social process. It occurs when people are engaged in social activities.

·Associated with the work of Richard Prawat
A group of students are given a difficult WebQuest Math problem to work through. By using the different perspectives they have gained from their different backgrounds, they can help each other solve the problem more effectively that if they had worked alone.

Papert’s Constructionism
(also called simply Constructionism)
·Not an epistemology but “a theory of learning and a strategy for education” (Kafai & Resnick, 1996, p. 1).

·Knowledge is actively constructed

·Learning to learn

·Focuses on the variance of individual and the environment

·Dynamics of change

·Engagement – Learning occurs through interaction and reflection

·Learners can create meaning by building artifacts
In the University of Georgia’s Instructional Design & Development master’s program, the Design & Development Tools class invites students to choose any multimedia development project they personally find meaningful (within reasonable social and professional norms). The project is not required to be instructional in nature. They are then required to reflect on the design process via readings in design literature and writing an online design journal; and structures are put into place to promote interaction about the design process among peers. Finally, finished artifacts are displayed at the end of each semester in a public showcase event.

Table Citation: Kim, B. (2001). Social Constructivism.. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <July 14th,2014>, from

 The Social Constructivist theory has been brought to light by its main construction engineer Les Vygotsky. Vygotsky believed that by interaction and help from more knowledgeable peers, one could develop more profound comprehension than his/her individual capacity. His theory was centerd on the collective knowledge of our peers to help achieve our true potential through social learning. He introduced this theory further by describing the zone of proximal development. He used this to explain the social origin of higher mental functions. He defined the zone as the "difference between the child's actual level of development and the level of performance that he achieves in collaboration with the adult" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 209). This can be represented in the new environment that emerges, known as the social constructivist learning environment (SCLE).  “According to social constructivism, learning occurs when students share background information and participate in the give and take of collaborative and cooperative activities” (Sthapornnanon, Sakulbumrungsil, Theeraroungchaisri, & Watcharadamrongkun, 2009). Social constructivist approaches can include reciprocal teaching, peer collaboration, cognitive apprenticeships, problem-based instruction, web quests, anchored instruction, and other methods that involve learning with others (Shunk, 2000).

A common misconception is that video games are individual experiences. The historical picture of one player and one controller is no longer an accurate picture. The more accurate picture revolves around the growing popularity of playing together. Nintendo’s Wii game console made an entire marketing campaign around playing together called “Wii play together”. Most consoles support up to four players engaging in gaming at a time. If you add an internet connection, that number turns into an infinite possibility determined by who is playing together on line. Based on Vygotsky’s theory that we increase our learning capacity socially, the same assumption can be made that the larger our social constructivist learning environment the larger the opportunity for increased learning capacity. This means,  if I am in a SCLE of twenty, my maximum learning construction is based on the knowledge of those twenty fellow learners. If my SCLE is twenty thousand than the maximum learning construction of that environment is now twenty thousand. Massive Multiplayer Online Games boasts memberships in the millions, which is an impressive number for an SCLE. This demonstrates learning environments happen in all different places, real, and virtual. Take for example  “World of Warcraft had as many as 10 million subscribers when the most recent expansion, Mists of Pandaria, released last September and had more than 12 million at its peak in 2010”( Karmali, 2012. para. 1). World of Warcraft is more than just a game were twelve million people go to play, it is a game whose fundamental core is to share, learn and play together. Higher-level players help lower-level players in the same guild and a connected community emerges. Much in the way learning capacity is increased through social constructivism.

Take for example one teacher's explanation of using World of Warcraft in an English class: Another benefit of using WoW in school is the fact that the game requires cooperation. Students learn to work together and help each other – everyone working together to achieve a particular goal ( Lawerence, 2013).  Notice the way she shared that students learn to work together and help each other. She also noted the English skills that the students are using to help eachother learn.  If you were to re-read the first section of this paper under Social Constructivism, it would be clear that what Vygotsky was writing about is now possible through modern mediums such as video games as Lawerence detailed in her English class.  Read the following summation by Vygotsky, and ask if the new information regarding the social interaction video games represent, whether or not this new medium breeds learning when used appropriately. “Knowledge construction occurs within Vygotsky's (1962) social context that involves student-student and expert-student collaboration on real world problems or tasks that build on each person's language, skills, and experience shaped by each individual's culture" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).

      The last part of the quote brings up another interesting notation.  Experience shaped by culture can now be found on a larger scale given our connectedness to other cultures through online components. These online components naturally include online games. This adds up to a strong argument that can be made in favor of video games value, through the theory of connectivism.

Social Constructivism to the Connectivism Connection.

As technology has changed, one remarkable observation can be established. The tenets of learning theories have remained relevant regardless of the change in socio-cultural tools. This speaks to the brilliance of early theorists, as well as their evolving understanding of learning. While the early learning theories have seen stability in practice, that has not stopped new theories from emerging, these base themselves on early understandings and new technology. One such theory is Connectivism. Connectivism has found a strong footing as a theory given our connected world. Authors Rita Kop and Adrian Hill describe Connectivism as “a theoretical framework for understanding learning. In Connectivism, the starting point for learning occurs when knowledge is actuated through the process of a learner connecting to and feeding information into a learning community” (Kop & Hill, 2008, p. 2) George Siemens was an early foundation setter for Connectivism. He suggests a “community is the clustering of similar areas of interest that allows for interaction, sharing, dialoguing and thinking together” (Siemens, 2004, para. 4). Connectivism suggests we can gain knowledge by using the power of technology, and one another. The connections we make with each other act as nodes in a framework. Nodes are connected and information flows freely between them. For example, a group of friends may be discussing where to eat. If you were to dissect that group of people to resemble Connectivism nodes you would replace them with circles connected with lines. A graphica representation of this concept is shown below.

   Within those circles is the knowledge they have accumulated over time or constructed from their personal culture. Based on such thinking, we hold the view that the collective knowledge of a group of people is greater than any one individual’s knowledge. Moreover, group knowledge is knowledge not simply in symbolic or poetic ways, but in literal ways, in that it can be defined as the set of connections formed by action, or experience (Downes, 2007).  In my example, we now have a connected group of individuals making a decision on where to eat. One person suggests a restaurant and quickly another member informs the entire group that the restaurant suggested has closed down. In essence, this member shared knowledge gained elsewhere and increased the knowledge base of the entire network with this new information. Connectivism acknowledges and holds  the value of experience in the highest regard (Barnett, Mcpherson,&  Sandieson, 2013). The group, or network is now more knowledgeable thanks to the help of the individual node or database. When referring to people, Connectivism takes its power from subject matter experts who then inform their personal learning network members of information.

As I stated earlier, the era of video games being lonely and individualized is coming to, or has ended. Co-operative and multiplayer games are some of the industry’s most profitable and best games. How does Connectivism and Social Constructivism fit into the world of video games for educational use? 

First, let me explain how connectivist learning has already been in practice within video games themselves. In a difficult game such as Dark Souls, the game publisher has prided itself with making a tak-no-prisoners, you are bound to fail, approach towards game design, and playing. The only help offered from the publisher was the ability to leave messages and helpers for other players in a connected virtual world. What emerged was an altruistic approach to gamers and gaming. A community of players wanting to help and be helped. The early adopters of this game forged ahead, noting surprises and mistakes made. They could then leave an environmental note for other players such as “be wary of right”. This warning allows other players to be cautious and with some luck, survive. This type of connectivist learning has demonstrated the helpfulness other players engage in. What this shows us about Connectivism is that its tenets reach far beyond the classroom. They reach to a medium that is being underutilized educationally. 

My next example is an in class example of Connectivism and video games.  In the web based game World Without Oil, (
players are set into a crisis revolving around oil. A teacher can use this premise to teach a number of lessons all revolving around this massive online game. While different from an MMO, the game itself has a great number of players. The game revolves around the connections made to everyone else playing. For example, students are asked to document how their life has changed over the course of several weeks of an oil crisis. Using blogs, students document the change in society and their lifestyle as the game prompts different weekly occurrences such as rioting or government intervention. When I played this game for the first time, it was shocking to read how many products contained petroleum. As students discuss the changes they are making to adapt and survive a world without oil, something incredible happens; there is a creation of a network of players who are sharing a living document on how to live in a world free from oil dependency. Examples from riding a bike or changing everyday products. The game produced a connectivist network of learning through game play.

Video Games + Common Core + Learning Theory = A Different Classroom Experience

Whether in K-12 or higher education the environments in which video games can be used varies. I have attempted to shine a light on basic connections video games have to the learning theories above. As Katrin Becker says “with a bit of effort, it is possible to find examples of computer and video games that embody every single worthwhile learning theory in existence” (Becker, 2004. p. 5).

           Video games engage and teach the players on a level most instructors work tirelessly to achieve. I detailed how games like World Without Oil can promote social issues while being educationally friendly. I have also detailed how games employ Socially Constructive learning environments. Many video games already lend themselves seamlessly as tools to use in the classroom.  This idea can be tested against new initiatives, such as common core standards. Using video games to achieve common core objectives will eventually make sense to those who are firmly against it. As the demographic of players continues to expand, common core teachers should be willing to try any medium to connect all students. One key concern I have heard from initial reactions to common core is students could fall victim to classroom engagement problems as teachers struggle to teach to a standard. This is where the connection to video games can help both teachers and the students stay energized and engaged. While common core may be focused on testing outcomes, how we get there will be the difference between winning the war on common core and winning over those who doubt in its ability to produce a nation of better-educated students.

The example of common core and English is a great starting point to discuss using video games. Narrative has become a key component in the success of commercial games.  From an outside perspective, most reading in video games is finished after the players read the title and hit the start button. However, the truth goes far beyond just playing the game. The gaming culture itself takes part in real world literacy quite often. Beyond playing the game, many video game players often read reviews, previews, gaming news, fan made fiction stories, and other types of writing that focuses on reading ability. If the common core goal is to increase literacy and reading it could be wise to start at the source of interest, and work that interest into other forms of literacy.  For example, Atlas Shrugged heavily inspired the popular game BioShock. A newer blockbuster, The Last of Us, notably was inspired by books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, P.D. James’ book, The Children of Men, and The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen. Many gamers are unaware of the great literature that inspired their favorite games. This is not just an opportunity for tangential learning, but also for teachers to inspire their students more by using both mediums. My opinion is that classroom success can be found when both feed off each other. To further illustrate this point I want to share an interesting finding Constance Steinkuehler (2011) wrote about in her research titled: The Mis-measure of Boys: Reading and Online Videogames. She writes, “We found that participants, regardless of diagnosed reading ability, were able to read text up to eight grades above their ability with 94-99% accuracy. So-called struggling readers performed, on average six grades above their diagnosed reading level, effectively eliminating the performance differences that mark them as struggling readers”( Steinkuehler, 2011, P. 4).  Based on Mrs. Steinkuehler’s research it would seem that something incredible was transpiring.  Students were achieving above level results when reading during game play and/or reading topics related to their interest. Now, I am aware not all students are interested in games and this is not the savior to the common core. It is, however, hard to deny such powerful results based off research done on an entertainment medium that gets more negative feedback than positive.


For anything to be taken seriously in learning it should be able to satisfy certain historical standards. I have taken only two, but have found the more I research the more gamification, and video games compliment different learning theories. In this post, I focused on Social Constructivism and Connectivism. The hybrid of societies and relationships that exist in a game world are anchored and bolstered by real people, real relationships (networks), and real sharing (Becker, 2004). This construction of knowledge through playing and social interaction is an outcome bestowed by tools such as video games.  As the education industry shifts towards common core, I still feel video games could make a positive impact on both instructors and students during these productive struggles. For this reason, I feel that video games should be as widely used as movies and other educational tools.



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