Teachers can and should differentiate instruction with digital games

I’m going to assume regular games have been a staple in every classroom for a while now, so let’s focus on digital games for differentiating in the classroom.  Playing games in a virtual environment or using digital tools to learn by playing has much of the same appeal and impact as regular use of games in a physical classroom – students can learn content in an interactive way, in a different context, and they can transfer and develop skills through games.  Gaming and digital games add a new dimension because students learn through a different medium that requires another set of skills and strategies and teachers have a powerful tool for differentiated teaching.

A digital learning environment helps students try new things and explore new places.  Instead of merely hypothesizing, students can also experiment in this new place to answer their questions – What happens if I do this?  What happens if I change that?  How can I show how to use this tool?  How can I show what I know?  Digital games allow content to be explored through three-dimensional immersion, simulations, experiments, practice, trial and error, modeling, problem solving, building, mapping, and so much more!  We don’t just want students to be amazed and inspired by watching incredible video footage of space exploration, life on coral reefs, or time-lapsed construction of the world’s tallest building.  Why not let them explore all these places and decide what to examine, model cause and effect, simulate processes, and build their own versions?!

Digital games also make the process of learning more engaging.  Students can be motivated to learn or try new skills in a gaming environment where risk is encouraged and consequences only occur within the game; when the game is “over” students can reflect and strategize for next time and use what they’ve learned in a new type of game.  Opportunities for practice and trial and error make digital games another safe environment within the classroom for student learning.  Student ownership in a game means prioritizing individual interests and tasks as well as deciding on a process or approach to learning.  Reluctant gamers can go at their own pace and more advanced gamers can increase the complexity and difficulty of their tasks.  Students can extend the process of learning by applying their gaming experience outside of school and sharing their knowledge with others.

One of my favorite ways that digital games can be used for differentiation is in creating new learning products. I love paper, pencil, arts and crafts, posters, and paint, just as much as anyone; but the potential for students to create digital artifacts and evidence of learning is one of the most important reasons for digital games.  Technology helps us to capture our learning experience in amazing ways that continue to change very rapidly.  Digital games help students to create products of their learning in digital forms or virtual spaces that demonstrate proficiency, depth, complexity, context, and a timeline or progression of their learning process.  We don’t have to let go of the non-digital tools in the classroom but we should embrace the power of digital tools to capture a different picture of student learning.

Much of how we teach is based on how we manage as individual teachers responsible for guiding a room of students.  We are limited by time, support or manpower, and resources, yet even with plenty of these, we would still not be able to meet every learner, in every way, everyday.  Imagine a classroom where every student had a tutor or guide to support their learning, under the facilitation of a teacher.  What if technology and gaming can be used as a tutor or guide?  Now before we get upset that technology and gaming will take over our classrooms, consider what Shapiro (2014) writes,

“News stories abound: games make kids hyper, violent, stupid, anti-social. It’s not only that people are generally wary of the unfamiliar, we also live in a culture of heroism and progress that casts every innovation as a revolution. Rather than celebrating modification and iteration, we divide the world into what’s cutting-edge and what’s obsolete. We’re always afraid that the new school will completely displace an old school that we’re not quite ready to abandon.

But the introduction of video games in the classroom does not need to mean the end of books. Blended learning will not necessarily replace the lecture. Games, however, can supplement time-tested pedagogical practices with new technological solutions to long-term problems. We can have the best of both the new and the old. “

Muthler (2015) acknowledges that many educators agree that differentiation is challenging, imperfect, and can’t simply rely on technology:  ”

“If customized learning is so important, why not send students off to learn on their own private platforms? Because the social aspect of school is important.””

Teachers need support from administrators, other teachers, and parents to implement effective differentiated instruction; but there are also games and technology tools that teachers can use on their own.  Finding the right technology tools and games to support differentiation can take time and practice but can also build our expertise and ensure that we are intentional in our teaching practices.  Marinade on those thoughts and check out my resources for this week from KQED’s MindShift website:

Building and exploration games similar to Minecraft

Games that help kids make games

Apps That Rise to the Top: Tested and Approved By Teachers


Higgin, T.  (2013).  Beyond Minecraft: Games That Inspire Building and Exploration.  MindShift, KQED.org.  Retrieved from


Higgin, T.  (2014).  5 Games and Apps That Build Math and English Skills.  MindShift, KQED.org.  Retrieved from


Higgin, T.  (2014).  Three Awesome Games That Help Kids Make Games.  MindShift, KQED.org.  Retrieved from


Muthler, S.  (2015).  Differentiation Isn’t Perfect – But It Can Work.  Edudemic.com.  Retrieved from


Schwartz, K.  (2014).  Apps That Rise to the Top: Tested and Approved By Teachers.  Retrieved from


Shapiro, J.  (2014).  Benefits of Gaming: What Research Shows.  MindShift, KQED.org. Retrieved from


4 thoughts on “Teachers can and should differentiate instruction with digital games

  1. Mia, that is a great video you did! That is a good point to point out that with digital games students are more likely to take risks and try new things out. If they don’t get it the first time they have to the opportunity to try again. Yes differentiation shouldn’t just rely on technology, it should be other things that we do in our classroom as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shapiro’s comment was right on the money when he said that games can supplement time-tested pedagogical practices. They are not the final solution to educating children but they are a great addition to capture the attention of our students. I love the idea that students can take information they’ve learned and put it into a digital simulation. This allows them to manipulate the parameters and see first-hand what happens when the circumstances change. I also love that games don’t isolate kids from each other. Instead, they help students build teamwork through their sharing of ideas and tasks.

    Your video is fantastic. Using still shots of different locations and activities was easier to follow than if you had recorded video. It emphasized the things you wanted your intended audience to see without the distraction of characters bouncing around the screen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you are right about some of the strengths of gaming: the ability to experiment and to learn from mistakes (trial and error). This can happen in a traditional classroom setting, but it does not have the same effect–you may try to do something new or may try a new way if doing something you already could, but you have to wait until your work is graded to find out whether or not it was effective. That is the beauty of the kinds if things going on with Minecraft–kids learn from their own experiences more than they do in other settings, and that will stick with them a lot longer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great video!

    I totally agree with that last quote about how we can’t just place students on their own platform because social interaction is a very important aspect of school. I think that is where the “flexible” grouping comes into play. We need our students to interact with a range of personality types and skill levels. If they don’t, how will the cope with that boss or coworker they can’t seem to get alone with ever?

    Liked by 1 person

Any thoughts, feelings, opinions, suggestions?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s