Commercial Games Teaches Special Needs Pupils to Concentrate

A new technique for using commercial games in special needs schools have shown very successful for the young Danish startup, Skolenispil, who now hope to take their product to the rest of the world.

Since August 2012, Stine Melgaard Lassen and Tore Neergaard Kjellow have been working on Skolenispil as a project at the special needs school they used to teach at. During that time, the project saw the students increase their effective concentration time from 15 minutes to 90 minutes, and some of the students have now even surpassed their peers in regular schools in terms of test scores.

The general idea behind Skolenispil is to use a combination of a gamified approach to teaching and Game Based Learning through commercial video games such as Starcraft to motivate the pupils.

“If we can get the kids “hooked” on Starcraft for instance, and then show them how they can gain an advantage in the game from being good at doing fast multiplication in their heads, they are much more interested in learning to multiply because the subject is useful right now, in a setting that important to them.”, Kjellow explains.


We talked with Tore Neergaard Kjellow about the future plans for Skolenispil and the role commercial games play in teaching students to concentrate. You can read the full interview below.


Could you please start out with explaining how you came up with the idea for Skolenispil?

The kids we were teaching all had some kind of trouble at school. Most of them were diagnosed with ADHD or had similar problems. They were unable to sit still in the classroom, could not concentrate for more than 15 minutes on end, and experienced all sorts of social conflicts more or less constantly. We found that when we were playing tabletop roleplaying games with them, though. They could do pretty much all the things they couldn’t in a classroom setting. They would sit concentrated for hours on end, take turns, do math, read, write and discuss social dilemmas like that was all they ever did. That was when we started to transfer game mechanics from the roleplaying sessions to the classroom. With great success I might add. In the humble beginning we simply started to reward the kids with in-game currency for off-game accomplishments. Things have kind of evolved from there.


You don’t make your own educational games, so what is the general thought behind Skolenispil – what is it, you actually do?

That is a good question, and in some way I’m inclined to say that actually we do make educational games. Just not in the regular way. We frame the classroom as a game. We do this by adding story lines, points, progress bars, achievements, challenges and more to engage the pupils, and then we use commercial games to teach a lot of different skills, like patience, communication, problem solving and team dynamics. We also play the games with the pupils to establish what we like to call “the need to know”. If we can get the kids “hooked” on Starcraft for instance, and then show them how they can gain an advantage in the game from being good at doing fast multiplication in their heads, they are much more interested in learning to multiply because the subject is useful right now, in a setting that important to them. Very unlike learning to multiply because your teacher said so, and because in 5 years you might need it for an exam. We believe we are able to create “real” students this way. Students who are actually personally interested in learning the taught subject. The game creates a meaningful context for the school subjects, and vice versa. The pupils often view upon playing games in school as a break from actual schoolwork. Now they get a sense that playing games actually improves their school performance, just as doing regular schoolwork improves their game performance. This is a great motivation for many students.


Where is Skolenispil now? And what are the plans for the next year or two? 

As of January 1st 2015, we have quit our regular jobs to be able to focus 100% on Skolenispil. We want teachers all over the world to start teaching using our methods, because we believe it works. January is already fully booked. We are also seeking funding to do a scientific study of the effectiveness of our method. We are doing this in collaboration with scientists Thorkild Hanghøj and Morten Misfeldt from Aalborg University Copenhagen and Andreas Liberoth Wadum from Aarhus University. If we get funding for this project, we will be using most of our time on it for the next two years, though we hope to be able to make time to propagate our method at the same time.


How well is the project working out, and are there any statistics you can share? 

The project is working out very well. When we started the project, we did it with the least teachable pupils. During the two-year span where we were teaching this class, the pupils went from being able to sit still and concentrate for 15 minutes at a time to 90 minutes at a time. This of course also affected their test-scores. Four out of six pupils caught up with or surpassed their peers in regular schools. This is no small feat, since some of the pupils were falling years behind when they started at our school. In addition, three of our former pupils have now returned to regular schools with success. This is also very dramatic, since most of the pupils that attend the school usually just start at yet another special school once they get too old to attend Columbusskolen. In regular schools we have yet to complete collecting our data, but so far it seems that all the teachers and pupils that have been involved are very positive about this approach to teaching. The method seems to improve most pupils’ perception of school, and their performance. Both academically and socially. Though we see the biggest change with the kids who either find school very hard, or the pupils who are usually bored because they don’t feel challenged.


Looking forward, what is the business model you hope to deploy?

We hope to help as many teachers and pupils possible by doing kick-starts, where we help the teachers get going in their own classrooms with their own pupils, and by general consulting, doing workshops and giving talks at conferences. We are also aiming to publish a book, and teaching materials that will support our method.


Sune is not only a gamer and writer who wishes his keyboard-typing-speed would translate directly into Nintendo 64 controller agility, but also the co-founder and CEO of NordicGameBits.

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