This post is from a virtual roundtable on GETideas.org.

Effective learning requires an interactive experience, beyond browsing, passive listening or reading, or viewing. Games are an interactive experience.

Let me begin to explain why I believe this distinction is valuable and important. The organization I’m in serves the math content area. And math, of all subjects, is the most tightly inter-connected, yes? Most of what you learn in 2nd grade you will use again in 3rd. If you really didn’t get fractions in elementary school, you will suffer (and fail) in algebra. There is a logical and connected sequence of learning concepts and skills: place value should come before the standard multiplication algorithm.

In order to understand math and be able to continue to higher math, one needs to be constantly adding on to a conceptual framework of math understanding – a framework ultimately built and maintained by the learner herself, in the learner’s head. So, with higher math concepts in mind, imagine trying to learn math from scratch by browsing for web pages through Google. Imagine just browsing for the “answers” to specific math problems. Maybe you could even post the problem and get it answered by an online expert. Maybe you find a little bit of math concept on this website, and a little bit more on that. For me, this math-by-browsing thought experiment has me generalizing that Googling, or browsing, through many un-related bits of information, in search of answers, is an inefficient and likely ineffective way to develop a logical conceptual framework, i.e. to learn anything complex.

Unlike Google search results, lecture series and books on the other hand can describe complex subjects; each does have a lot of content designed to fit together. They have to have an underlying conceptual framework, the lecturer’s or author’s, which they intend to walk the learner through. The problem is that, no matter what shiny new technology delivers lectures or pages, from podcasts to YouTube to Kindles to iPads, asynchronous lectures and books are of course essentially passive. And watching an embedded video is still passive. Even live lectures, in my unhappy experience at a large and well regarded research university with 100+ student lecture halls, are fundamentally passive for almost all of the students in attendance. The problem with passive consumption of information is that while one might feel able to follow the thread of thought at the time, it all too easily breaks free from memory later. It takes an additional, often optional step of action to weave it in, whether that be active listening via smart note-taking; homework; or pausing while reading a book to synthesize, take notes, or draw diagrams on one’s own.

So, rather than requiring extra motivation and effort, how could we get interactivity and action to be the path of least resistance for every learner to take? So that new concepts introduced get the benefit of active learning, and get riveted onto a conceptual framework?

Here’s one way. There are two ingredients: i) A game-based learning environment, or more specifically puzzles within games. Puzzles are by their nature interactive: situation, objective, player action, game response, objective achieved?, new situation. Over and over, in a highly motivating way. Perception/action/perception is how people are designed to learn. ii) immensely challenging instructional design to create puzzles, sequences of puzzles, and games that are effective for learning.