As I mentioned in my last blog post, one of the most interesting things about the Totally Wired forum was hearing Katie Salen talk about games in education.

In her introduction (PDF) to a new volume entitled “Ecology of Games,” Salen quotes Nobel laureate Herbert Simon: “the meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.” Salen believes that games are a perfect way to teach these “new media literacy skills.”

The use of games in school is controversial, and it’s easy to see why.

On one hand, learning through play is so fundamentally natural that it transcends species.

Moreover, games are especially relevant to digital natives. A recent study found that games are the most popular use of the internet among kids in the US aged 6 to 11 — far more than homework, email, music, video, or just surfing.

On the other hand, playing games in school clashes with a long held cultural belief in the separation of work and play.

“Education and entertainment are two different processes,” Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “They require two different interfaces. Our whole society is being eroded by entertainment.”

Personally, I have no doubt that kids can and do learn a lot from games. Salen has amply proven this with a plethora of ideas and insights she’s gained by looking at education through the eyes of a game designer. I came away from Totally Wired wondering what other sundry subjects could be illuminated by game design, Freakonomics-style.

Still, I wonder how much of this game-based learning needs to happen in schools. Obviously kids need no encouragement to play. Why not focus on making educational games kids will want to play on their own time, and invest school time in activities most kids won’t do on their own, like read Shakespeare, or build robots?

To be fair, kids will undoubtedly learn more from games when guided by teachers and well designed curricula. As for traditional literacies, Salen acknowledges their importance, and believes they should be taught in tandem. In fact, she told the audience last week, “for kids and even for us, it’s not a huge distinction anymore.”

At any rate, soon Salen’s theories will be put to a dramatic test. She’s currently spearheading development of The Game School, an experimental public school in New York City that, according to its website, “will use game design and game-inspired methods to teach critical 21st century skills and literacies.” Talk about an exciting experiment! From a July article in Wired News:

Right now, the ideas are vague but intriguing: Alternate reality games could be used to study science, as those players typically seek out and analyze data, and then propose and test their hypotheses. Salen also envisions harnessing the creative urges that kids already express through fan fiction, blogging and the creation of avatars and online identities.

How well this works remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure though: a lot of fun will be had finding out.

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