Why open-world gaming is the future of learning

By: Asha Kumar

The joy of open-world gaming

From the beloved 8-bit forests of T&E Soft’s gem Hydlide to the expansive post-apocalyptic Commonwealth of Bethesda’s Fallout 4 in VR, the concept of an open-world gaming environment has grown since its introduction in 1984 to become a hallmark of successful role-playing video games. Rather than forcing the player to complete a rigid set of tasks to progress in a linear fashion from one mission to the next, open-worlds in video games allow the player to explore and discover to his or her heart’s content and tackle a variety of quests at their own pace.

Source: T&E Soft’s Hydlide

Regardless of individual skill or interest in role-playing video games, one thing is for sure – the magic of open-world environments lies in their ability to bring a much-needed sense of personalization to games. Despite playing the same game, two players taking on an open-world game will likely never have the same experience, as the sheer amount of freedom presented in the open-world environment allows for countless different playthroughs, none of which being the definitive “right” or “wrong” way to play the game. Instead, open-world environments encourage players to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as develop an individualized method of strategy.

The ability to traverse without limitations and use one’s strengths to complete even the most challenging quests certainly makes open-world environments an enticing aspect of video games, but the wonders of open-world gaming are indeed not restricted to the traditional gamer.  

How does open-world gaming relate to education?

Well before a child enters the classroom setting, independent exploration and discovery are important aspects of the learning processes that takes place in her or his developing mind. A research study conducted at Brown University found that young children demonstrate higher accuracy in learning causal structures when they are allowed to engage with their environment independently first, rather than simply observing someone else complete a task and then participating in some form of interaction. Indeed, self-motivated exploration appears to play a key role in learning and development, as the process allows children to create more personal connections with their environments and the information they are actively processing.  

Considering the heavy emphasis on personalized modes of discovery and interaction that is highlighted in open-world games, it appears that open-world environments have the ability to provide young students with the venue necessary to explore and learn at their own pace in an individualized manner. When interacting with an educational open-world game, students are essentially given the opportunity to take part in the organic discovery processes they should actively be engaging in as part of the learning experience.

Source: Hello Wonderful

Interactive play in the environment around a child is an important method of developing her or his understanding of the world, yet a student cannot feasibly explore historical settings, distant planets, or even subatomic particles the same way in which they explore the tangible, observable world … or can they? In an interactive gamified environment, a student can conduct meaningful exploration of anything from the rise of Cleopatra’s empire to the invention of the modern microchip, allowing her or him to engage in formative discovery on a previously unseen scale.  

Perhaps the most important aspect of open-world gaming in education stems from the visual nature of video games as tools of instruction. Nearly 65% of the population consists of visual learners, or individuals who learn best by actively visualizing whatever material they encounter. While visual learners may struggle to keep pace with an oral lecture or discussion, they often succeed at more interactive tasks, leading video games to be a key educational tool for this population of students. By embracing the active and independent exploration that is encouraged in open-world gaming, both teachers and parents have the ability to create more effective methods of learning that are personalized to the individual learning style of each student.

Source: Ryan Farrell, Visual Content – The Key to Effective Brand Storytelling

Can we really use video games to teach?

While the mere idea of planting a young student in front of a video game with the expectation that he or she will learn about the pyramids of Giza, advanced Algebra, or the body’s circulatory system may seem far-fetched, teachers and researchers alike have praised video games as effective instructional tools that should be incorporated in classroom curricula. As Scientific American reports, schools such New York City’s Quest to Learn public school have already partnered with organizations like Institute of Play in order to implement game-friendly curricula centered around missions and goals that make self-motivated learning the norm for students. In particular, Quest to Learn not only uses video games to teach lessons, but also gives students the tools to learn about game design creation.

Perhaps using game technology to teach students about technology and game development seems counterintuitive, but as Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media, noted in Scientific American, the careers that today’s students will pursue in the near future “will almost certainly … require some level of mastery of digital media and technology.” Whether a young student takes an interest in biology or economics, ample skills in technology are invaluable in any conceivable field and digital literacy is quickly becoming a must-have for all areas of the job market. Video games and other forms of technology are becoming a key aspect of the classroom experience with increasing popularity, indicating that innovation in the educational setting is both inevitable and more important now than ever before.   

Source: This Week in Education

The use of video games in an instructional setting also allows for a much-needed deviation from cookie cutter Common Core standards that often fail to accurately capture the multitude of learning styles represented in the classroom. While standardized testing seems to emphasize the distinction between solutions that are inherently “right” or “wrong,” gamified educational tools stress the importance of the creative process behind a student’s response to a particular problem. With instant feedback and interaction mechanisms that are far removed from traditional black and white testing methods, video games have the potential to more accurately assess a student’s ability to think critically in a goal-oriented problem-solving scenario. As students tread the path to becoming the next generation of programmers, artists, scientists, and activists, they will need to employ these exact critical thinking skills in order to solve the most pressing issues of their time, from the cure for cancer to global climate change to the ethics of artificial intelligence.

The State of American Education Is Uncertain: Here’s Why It Matters

By: Asha Kumar

Earlier this year amongst the slew of education debates that have taken the United States’ political sector by storm, the Pew Research Center released a comprehensive study comparing the math, science, and reading abilities of American students to those of their peers from countries across the globe. What resulted was a series of shocking revelations about the pitfalls of the American education system and the urgent need for education reform.

The Pew report analyzed students’ scores in a series of international exams, the largest being the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which serves as a tool to monitor the math and science abilities of 15-year-old students across developed and developing countries. The results paint a bleak picture for the world’s wealthiest country with the largest GDP: the United States ranked 38 out of 71 participating countries in math and 24 out of the same 71 countries in science.

Not everyone is surprised by the United States’ average rankings amongst other nations in STEM education, however. A Pew Research Center report from 2015 found that only 16% of scientists surveyed within the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that American K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education is the best possible or at least above average. On the other hand, nearly half of the scientists surveyed support the idea that K-12 STEM education as it is currently taught in the United States is below average standards.

Source: Pew Research Center

But why exactly is the American education system so lacking? How can it be that an innovation powerhouse like the United States that is capable of producing everything from Facebook to the iPhone to VR headsets is not excelling in all aspects of STEM? There is certainly no decrease in the availability of STEM jobs across markets that entice improvements in education. In fact, according to a report on STEM occupations by the United States Bureau of Labor, the United States had 8.6 million STEM jobs in 2015 alone. The same report states that 93 out of 100 STEM jobs had wages that were above the national average, with an increased growth rate for the field overall.

Yet the quality of STEM education in the United States remains noncompetitive when compared to that of other countries: the federal Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that in 2015, the average math scores of fourth- and eighth-graders decreased for the first time since 1990, despite the STEM revolution that has captured the country by storm.

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress

Nonetheless, the United States still sprints ahead of other nations in its research, business, and entrepreneurial endeavors. The ample successes of the independent thinkers born of the American education system seem to defy the very numbers that define our nation’s commitment to education. Of course, using achievement testing methods to assess the educational outcomes of students has been questioned in recent times: exams often fail to account for the unique problem-solving skills and abilities of individual students, often assessing knowledge levels from a skewed lens. Embedded in the very roots of our education system is a devotion to innovation and creativity that has surpassed the supposed limitations of achievement testing in order to produce countless brilliant minds. The education system in the United States has grown considerably with the rise of STEM and the country’s insatiable appetite for innovation.

But it seems that the goal of developing the American education system in order to maintain excellence amongst students at the highest levels has taken a backseat in the political sector. Rather than addressing the failures of the current education system to prepare students for the abundance of careers, STEM or otherwise, that are growing at an impressive rate, politicians are focusing on slashing education budgets to extreme extents. As EdWeek reports, President Trump’s recent spending proposal aims to cut $9.2 billion from the Department of Education (DoE), resulting in a 13.5 percent spending cut. This massive proposed decrease in education funding includes a $2 billion cut from a grant program aimed at improving the  student to teacher ratio in classrooms, as well as a $113 million cut to much-needed special education programs.

NPR also suggests that federal funds for the Trump administration’s proposed school voucher plan may come from cuts to the Title I budget, which provides low-opportunity school districts with additional funds. The Education Department seems intent on requiring state education programs to contribute more of their own funds to maintain quality education for students.

Source: Phoenix New Times

As policies are suggested and debated, one common theme in the education sphere rings true: despite the work and the best intentions of education advocates and policymakers, the discussion of the education system has shifted from the students it serves to the economic interests it fulfills. Suggested laws and regulations seem to reduce students to the minuscule numbers of a budget proposal or simple data points on a graph. This disconnection that converts students into statistics leads us to question if have we have forgotten the ultimate goal of any education system: a student’s education should provide her or him with the reasoning and critical thinking skills necessary to become an effective, efficient, and ethical member of society.

It is essential to support the organic growth of the American education system rather than succumbing to the apparent decline in resources that may soon affect schools nationwide. As teachers, educators, and parents, we must cultivate a love of education in the students we serve, encouraging exploration, interaction, and immersion both in and out of the classroom. These days, learning does not stop at the end of class each day, but is instead an additive process that takes place anywhere from the backyard to the computer screen. As the education system undergoes its own form of growing pains, we as a society must accept the responsibility to expand beyond the limitations of our current educational curriculum.

The recent trend toward slashing education budgets and deprioritizing students’ learning experiences may have very real effects on these developing members of American society. What appears to be a simple cut in classroom funding or after school opportunities could translate to a would-be writer going without access to a proper computer, or a budding high school scientist with a below average reading level losing access to public literacy programs. These cuts directly affect students’ actual and perceived ability to achieve their educational or career goals in the long run.

As policies, budgets, and programs are introduced in heated discussions at the congressional level, it is important to remember that the American youth are a reflection of the very education system in which they learn and grow. The United States’ staunch dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should necessitate an undying commitment to providing quality, equitable, and internationally competitive education for all of our young minds.

Discipline through liberty: Learning enabled with Montessori

By: Aubrie Amstutz

I had always dreamed of being a public school student. I went about my work as if instructed directly by a teacher, craving the traditional assignment and completion gratification cycle, wanting so badly to sit in neat lines with eyes pointed forward to experience what all of the young adult fiction, teen movies, and Disney channel shows portrayed. I imagined this experience in parallel to my own, much in the same way you imagine yourself the star of a movie. I fantasized that my teacher stood at a chalkboard when she really sat on the floor with a student. I imagined that the day moved through an orderly schedule of topics whilst an orderly chaos unfolded around me. I pretended I had one of those mysterious under-desk cubbies to store all of my animal shaped erasers and the forbidden notes I knew public school students wrote to each other. I longed to be ‘normal’ and to be part of a larger system that seemed organized, traditional, and unshakable. This rigid, idealistic paradigm I craved was the American public school system, but in reality I attended private Montessori schools from the ages of four to eleven.

A typical Montessori classroom, this example is in Japan.

Young children naturally gravitate towards belonging to a social group. However, the danger here is that the desire to belong can come at the cost of self-determination. As a child, I longed to be told exactly what to do, to fulfill those goals, and to be rewarded. In essence, I wanted the safety of conformity.

The choice we make as a society then becomes, what type of group do we want our children striving to join? One that values conformity, mediocrity, and the ability to outsmart a test? Or one that esteems independent thought, mastery, and innovation?

Instead of being handed a cookie-cutter rubric to success, I was forced to search out my lessons and I was encouraged to make a plan to reach the defined learning objectives. A key tenet of the Montessori classroom is that “discipline must come through liberty.” In daily practice, this meant both designing a plan to achieve goals and determining the criteria for success. I decided which activity would best address my needs as well as when I felt I knew the material well enough to move on.  I was a project manager in training at the age of five.

These skills are the hallmark results of mastery-based learning, in which a learner is expected to achieve mastery of a subject before moving on. Nearly synonymous popular philosophies are competency, proficiency, and fluency-based learning. Susan Patrick and Chris Sturgis’ five-part working definition of high-quality competency-based learning includes the following tenets:

  1. Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  2. Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Students receive rapid, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

It is important to note that young learners lack the meta-cognition of adults, so as a child I did not deliberately set out to accomplish competency. As a child, my innate interest guided the process, and I learned to listen to my inner voice – a voice which was naturally curious and motivated toward discovery. In short, I was given no choice but to develop self-regulation, discipline, and independence.

Maria Montessori and students circa 1951.

The Montessori philosophy was first put forth by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900’s and pioneered not only concepts of child-centered and competency-based learning, but also practical methods of implementation in a classroom. A Montessori classroom is comprised of collaborative tables and mixed ages to encourage peer-to-peer learning. The walls are lined with shelves full of individual activities or ‘work,’ each focusing on a particular learning objective, whether it be fine motor skills, multiplication, or phonetics.

In a Montessori classroom, each student has an individual learning plan, with certain objectives within each subject area. How long it takes for them to accomplish these goals is up to the student. If they want to do the same ‘work’ five or 50 times before they feel they’ve mastered it, they have the freedom to do so.

Generally, the distribution of a student’s time is naturally aligned with their capabilities. Students who need more practice with language arts spend more time on the language arts activities, and less time in areas where they naturally excel. The teacher is there as a guide, clarifying concepts on an individual basis and tracking their progress to provide personalized support. At the end of each semester, in lieu of grades or tests, a progress report is sent home with detailed information on how much time the student has spent in each area, which ‘work’ they have completed, and in what areas they have excelled.

Geometric solids, an example of a traditional Montessori material, are sensorial materials designed for the stereognostic sense (the process of feeling objects and recognizing them based on what is felt).

As Peter Sims points out in the Wall Street Journal, Montessori has produced some very influential people, among them are Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, video game pioneer Will Wright, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, cook Julia Child and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

The clear characteristic in common with these people is ingenuity, which leads Sims to allude to the possibility of a ‘Montessori Mafia.’ He even goes so far as to write that “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite.” In his discussion “Is Montessori The Origin Of Google And  Amazon?” Steve Denning points out that the collaborative environment and emphasis on self-directed discovery in Montessori education aligns more closely with the modern necessity for inventive problem-solving, saying that “looking at education as producing outputs (students who could pass the test) [is] a very 20th Century way of looking at the world, and out of sync with what is going to move society forward in the 21st Century.”

At the start of middle school, my wish finally came true. My first shock in the public school world came as I was confronted with a sea of non-uniformed students, despite the fact that the school had impressed upon us that a uniform was required. It was the first of many times I would feel foolish for expecting that there was more order in the public school system than in a Montessori classroom, as the sage on the stage paradigm had always seemed so orderly and neat. The reality of the divide between teachers and students was painfully apparent to me.  It was not cool to treat my peers and teachers as collaborators in a community, but rather as competitors and the hateful authority to be challenged.

I learned quickly not to raise my hand for every question asked and also what the term “teacher’s pet” meant. I learned what the grades A-F meant. I learned that it was best to flip over an A grade paper on the desk to avoid attention, but keep anything lower up-facing and visible and join in the grumbling about the unfairness of the assignment whenever possible.

Adapting to this environment was difficult; I excelled in language arts but quickly fell behind in math. I was forced to take timed multiplication and division tests in the back of the classroom over and over again until I passed, my face so hot with embarrassment I could hardly focus on the swimming numbers. Of course, this lost time only meant I was farther behind in the quickly paced curriculum.

I began going to after-school tutoring, but I was deeply embarrassed about it. Surprisingly, this was not because it meant I wasn’t doing well, but because it betrayed to anyone who witnessed me hanging out on campus outside of what was necessary the fact that I cared enough to try to improve. I felt as if I was discovering a deep, dark secret about myself, that I was not as intelligent as I thought, and I began to hear myself saying the all too common phrase “I’m bad at math.”

Early 20th century student completing addition work.

This critical juncture in my academic life was the genesis of my fascination with educational theory and the role of positive psychology in learner success. I am acutely aware of the bafflingly inefficient nature of traditional public schools; how a student can be several lessons behind in comprehension in one class, then spend half of their next class going over concepts they already understand. The most dangerous part of this paradigm is the shame associated with both extremes; both being unable to grasp concepts and being ahead and getting perfect scores.

Carri Schneider, in her article “5 Characteristics Connecting Montessori Ed & the Personalized Learning Movement,” writes that “education systems across the globe are rapidly being propelled into the realities of the future.” Choosing to address the outdated and faulty modes of our public education system now rather than later will not only improve the economy of our country, supporting the United States’ reputation for invention and innovation, but it addresses much deeper social and wellness issues. Reshaping our views of intelligence as being something multifaceted and unique, instead of something demonstrable on a multiple choice test, helps our children feel that they belong, and are worthy of belonging to the ‘successful’ class of entrepreneurs and creators. With the access we have to better systems, it is irresponsible not to address the systematic mis-allocation of priorities which discourage a love of learning and encourage compliance and a lack of critical thinking. Ironically, the place to look for inspiration for the necessary re-imagining of the future of education may be the 100 year old philosophy of Montessori.



1: Over, H., 2016. The origins of belonging: social motivation in infants and young children. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371(1686), p.20150072.

2: Montessori, M., 2013. The Montessori Method. Transaction publishers.

3: Furlong, M.J., Gilman, R. and Huebner, E.S. eds., 2009. Handbook of positive psychology in schools. Routledge.

4. Weise, M. 2014. Is there any difference between competency-based education and mastery-based learning?. Competency Works.

5: Sims, P., 2011. The Montessori Mafia. The Wall Street Journal, 5.

6: Denning, S., 2011. Is Montessori the Origin of Google and Amazon?. Forbes Magazine.

7: Schneider, C., 2012. 5 Characteristics Connecting Montessori Ed & the Personalized Learning Movement. Getting Smart