Game-Based, Traditional, and SMALLab Learning

25 October

There are several big movements underway that are worthy of debate and possible consideration as we look to help education become the 21st century, user-centered, on-demand, engaging, technology-centric activity that it has not been for much of its existence. Game-based learning (GBL), or gamification, is one of the models that commonly gets touted as a cure-all for the problems with education because of the popularity of gaming in our society (New Media Institute). Justin Marquis Ph.D. writes for Education Unbound,

While there are problems with the gamification movement as it currently stands, the model has several areas in which it differs sufficiently from traditional education to make it an intriguing possibility. Justin Marquis talks about the differences as we show how SMALLab Learning fills in the gap.


Project-based learning, which is generally considered to be the among the most authentic situations for classroom learning (Stepien & Gallagher), often relies on students working on less-than-authentic learning exercises in a classroom… unless you can enter a virtual world within the classroom.

Games allow students to experience simulations of reality that can replicate real world circumstances, and theoretically can elicit the same emotional and learning responses in the brain as actually doing the real activity.

While those playing games and doing simulations may not be using real tools for the task they are engaging in, they can use realistic analogs within the game and are using authentic tools to play the game. There is an inherent value in any computer use that transfers to the everyday and professional activities that people do. From the physical activity of using a mouse, keyboard, or gesture-based controller, to developing familiarity with operating systems, and using a wide array of applications, students who use technology more and engage more deeply with it have an advantage when it comes to developing technological literacy (Marquis, 2009).

In a SMALLab scenario, the teacher is the guide through difficult concepts that students may not be able to visualize in the real world. In Chemistry Titration, students are able to follow the process of titration using a “virtual flask” – they see the molecular formulas change in the space as thet react to the water and other molecules.

Chemistry Titration at Elizabeth Forward Middle SchoolStudent Engagement 

The hidden agenda of games and play is to teach. This is why animals play and why we encourage our youngest children to play games. So that they develop an understanding of the world around them and the social relationships that they will need to engage in to be successful members of their group. Games are also fun. That is the reason that we like to play. GBL works to engage students in ways that are more powerful for most students than traditional teaching methods, which, while effective, present obstacles to engaging deeply with each individual student.

There are teachers who can successfully engage their students in a traditional classroom format, but you still get a much higher level of engagement through game play. Jane McGonigal calls this “blissful productivity” – deriving enjoyment from working hard to overcome obstacles where the players often lose track of time in the real world.

SMALLab Learning scenarios are created for embodied learning. With game-like challenges, scenarios are kinesthetic, collaborative, and multimodal engaging students in a meaningful way.

Creativity and Innovative Thinking

While it is not impossible for the traditional classroom model to inspire students to be creative, the standards-based approach to education, particularly in K-12 schools, works in direct opposition to this goal. A standardized curriculum, with results evaluated by standardized test cannot support individuality and actively discourages students from thinking outside the box. The best games not only allow creativity and randomness, but demand it.

In Particle Interaction, student designers learn about systems thinking. They are able to create rules for interactions where balls would bounce, kill, replace or multiply. This basic model can be applied to various lessons. 

In an eighth-grade pre-biology class that is focusing on ecology, SMALLab fits right into the lesson about understanding interactions in complex systems.

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette Eighth-grader Ethan McLay tries his hand at playing SMALLab's "consumers and producers" game. SMALLab software can create a variety of games, then project them onto an interactive screen on the floor.

“The goal was to be able to identify the difference between a producer, which is any organism that can create its own food as through photosynthesis, and a consumer, any organism that needs to consume a producer to get energy,” explained science teacher Ward Cochenour.

Solid colored balls represent plants and bacteria and any other organism that can produce its own food, while striped balls represent consumers. Green balls represent a type of species that multiplies quickly.

Score is kept as students choose how many balls they want to contribute to the playing surface, with an end goal of striking the right combination of producers and consumers to balance the ecosystem. Rules are configured that define the interactions between each of the particles. – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


GBL requires that each student have access to computers or other gaming devices for a far greater percentage of their instructional time than is generally possible in schools. In addition to the cost of equipment, games themselves can be expensive to purchase. There are not generally site license options for commercial games, and while there are many free games available, aligning them to instructional needs is a challenge.

SMALLab Learning environments and scenarios are developed for schools, aligned to Common Core Standards. They are designed to complement teachers and are easily integrated into their lessons with the help of our teachers’ guides. One SMALLab serves an entire school. One Flow with an existing technology investment turns a classroom into an embodied learning environment. It is a low cost alternative at $495 for a 1-year content subscription complete with professional development and ongoing remote support.