Reblogged: An innovative dog needs a creative tail

This piece was originally published by the Macarthur Foundation on their Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning blog (original link).

How we measure learning helps determine how we teach. So to help children prepare for life in the digital future, we need better tests in the digital present.

I want to start this final entry in my brief stint as guest editor on the Macarthur Spotlight blog by thanking the Foundation for the invitation to join this important conversation, and more important, to thank the readers of the blog for their thoughts and comments.

I look forward to the continuing the discussion here, but also would like to invite those interested in these issues to my research group’s blog at, where some of the topics we’ve touched on here (and many others!) are examined in more depth.

I’d like to close this part of the conversation about what we know with a few thoughts on one of the critical issues for research on digital learning: figuring out how we assess what we think children (and adults) are learning from playing games and interacting with other digital tools.

Our current assessments – the standardized tests we read and hear so much about – focus on students’™ knowledge of basic facts and basic skills.

But here’s the problem:

To get good jobs in the digital age, to be informed citizens, to contribute to society, to express themselves, and to lead happy and fulfilling lives, young people need more than basic facts and skills. They need to learn to think in innovative and creative ways about complex problems and issues.

So if we assess games and other new digital tools for learning using standardized tests, what we’ll wind up building are better and better tools to teach the wrong things.

My own work looks at how we can build games where players learn to think about real problems in the same way as people who solve those problems think in the real world.

What we find in building these games is that people who solve real problems use more than just basic facts and skills. Of course, they do need facts and skills. But what our studies show is that learning to think about real problems also means learning the values that guide the use of those facts and skills. It means developing a particular way of thinking–of making decisions and justifying actions. And it means seeing oneself as someone who thinks and acts in these ways.

Measuring real learning, in other words, means more than just testing what someone knows and what they can do. It also means assessing the values they hold, the way they make decisions, and ultimately whether they understand how their knowledge, skills, values, and decision-making process come together to form a way of thinking that they recognize as being both part of a larger community, and part of their own sense of themselves.

In the book How Computer Games Help Children Learn, I describe these ways of thinking as ‘epistemic frames’, which is a useful term because it suggests how these ways of thinking color how someone sees the world: what questions they ask, what problems they see as important, and how they go about answering those questions and solving those problems.

That matters because:

Where a half-century of research in cognitive science shows that basic facts and skills learned by themselves are hard to apply to new problems and situations, our studies show that when people acquire a new epistemic frame from playing a game, they can use it to think in new ways about the real world around them.

So if we want to know whether a game (or anything else, for that matter) has helped prepare someone for creative and innovative thinking in the digital age, epistemic frames are one way to do it.

There may be other ways, of course. But one thing we know for sure is that when it comes to measuring whether someone is prepared for life in the digital age, our current standardized assessments just don’t pass the test.

GAPS is housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.