Randy Kulman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Director of South County Child & Family Consultants in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Dr. Kulman is a parent of five and founder of LearningWorks for Kids. He is the author of "Train Your Brain for Success" and "Playing Smarter in a Digital World." This article is based on a recent discussion between Dr. Kulman and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox, Inc.
My passion is with LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that I formed in 2005 that has the mission of transforming game-based learning into real-world skills. We try to help kids to take their love of gaming and all the skills that they use in gaming and help them learn skills such as time management, organization, being more flexible in their thinking, using their memory, and being able to plan. Improving these executive function skills is the core goal of LearningWorks for Kids. All the skills that they use in games that don’t necessarily go from the games to the real world — we’re trying to be the bridge between those two events.
My original work as a psychologist was doing psychotherapy. Oftentimes, the big question about the impact of psychotherapy depends upon how effectively someone can take their insights from the office and bring them to their real world. That’s what psychologists refer to as generalizability. In other words, how do you learn something in Situation A and bring it to Situation B?
At LearningWorks for Kids, generalization has been simplified into three different components: Detect, Reflect, and Connect.
We want to take the skills they use in gameplay or with engaging apps, where they are fully attentive, persistent, and willing to overcome frustration and transfer them into real-world activities.
The first thing that a kid needs to do is to Detect or identify a skill that they used (in a game or in an activity) . They need to be able to describe it, see how they’re using it, where they’re using it.
The next step is one of the key things — metacognition or the Reflect step. Thinking about your thinking. How does that skill help you in gaming and how might that skill help you in the real world? We apply similar principles when kids engage in apps that support executive functioning skills. For example, Quizlet is an app where kids create their own quizzes from materials that they want to learn. They are able to remember that because they’re reorganizing and thinking about what it is that they need to learn. They’re not just memorizing. They’re not just writing it down or re-reading it. They’re thinking of it too. They’re thinking about their thinking.
People talk about kids becoming totally immersed in the game, they lose track of time and experience a sense of “flow”. Even though those things happen, why aren’t kids actually taking those skills they’re using in games to the real world? Aha, the games are very different; they’re really focused on fun. There’s nothing built-in to most games, unfortunately, that allow them to become aware of the skills they are using, skills that could be generalized. I wish that game publishers would start to think more about this aspect of gaming. I’ve written about this in my Psychology Today blog and on our website and say, 'Why not add just a little bit of digital nutrition to the game. It will help kids develop these skills in the real world.'
The last part of improving the generalization of game-based learning to real-world skills is the Connect piece, which is how do you make that connection happen. What we’re trying to do is give kids, families, or their teachers examples of actually practicing those skills. Recognizing that that same skill is used in the real world, and then actually practicing that skill. There’s a lot of techniques that can help with the generalization piece. We can help people to become aware of analogies: this scenario is like this scenario and this is what we can pattern in that way. One of the techniques is a bridging technique—we try to teach something that’s more similar to what we want to do in the real world.
The MetaCognitive Impact
There is plenty of data that would suggest that certain kinds of gameplay can modestly improve executive function and some social motions. Modestly. We’re trying to amplify that by getting in there and creating an understanding of their thought processes. That awareness is part of what I would call the metacognitive piece and is part and parcel to making it more effective.
Games for Skill Building
When selecting a video game that will help build skills in children, we need to know our goal. Let’s take, for example, the skill of organization. I would want there to be a 10-second video piece in the game that said, 'You’re going to need to use an organization skill in order to get from Level 1 to Level 2. You’re going to need to collect and organize these things.' So we’re labeling that. The kid goes and collects and organizes those things. Once the player successfully completes that level, they go up a level or get some extra powers or whatever. We’re not trying to hide learning from the kids. The next step would be to have some imagery that suggested how those skills could help them or someone else in the real world.
The Future of Learning Works for Kids
Our company is not interested in developing our own games. We’re using popular games that kids already love. I think the best games are fun games, not learning games: Minecraft, Fortnite, the Nintendo games, the Mario games.
Right now, we are teaching on a platform called Outschool, an online learning community. We’re doing small group online classes. When kids come to our classes, they meet with us via Zoom and then we go to a Minecraft server. Kids watch a short video that says, “We’re going to be playing Minecraft. This is our project today, and we’re going to be using this skill.” Let’s say, it’s planning. They go on and plan out how to build the building. As they’re working, the teachers are talking about how they’re using that skill. They play through the game. We get the kids talking about how to use that skill in the real world. They can get homework to go practice that again, and their parents get some do-together projects for practicing in the real world.
We’re trying to build that up and expand beyond Outschool. We have a grant to do some of the same kind of work in a local school. We want to build it into after-school programs and special education programs.
My bigger dream is to create an app where a parent could complete one of our own assessment devices to assess their kid and where they could then get popular games and apps that the kids could play, right there on their phone. Before the kid played with the game, he or she would watch a short video that would prime their brain for improving that skill in the real world.
Then, we’re scaling this because, instead of us individually talking to the kid, many, many parents would have something to follow along and help their children to build important life skills doing what they already love to do: play video games.
That kind of app that could also be attractive to independent game publishers. People who are making fun games would have a way to sell their games through this app.
Generalization of game-based learning to real-world skills will improve in the next decade.
Virtual reality is proving to be an incredible tool for helping kids with social and emotional issues and I think this is just the beginning. VR games hold great promise for making game-based learning into real-world executive functioning and social-emotional learning skills.