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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 15:37 GMT
Computer games are put to the test
By Kenneth MacDonald
BBC Scotland

When the bell rang for the start of school at St Columba's primary in Dundee pupils didn't put their computer games away - they switched them on.

Hand-held game console
Could playing computer games help school performance?

For 10 weeks, one lucky class spent the first 20 minutes of the day playing

with hand-held games consoles running so-called "brain training" software.

It was part of a pilot run by the curriculum body Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS).

The performance of the class was compared with another which was taught normally and, given the common prejudice that computer games are a mindless waste of time, the results were surprising.

Teachers reported improved maths scores, better pupil behaviour and cooperation and a greater focus on the work at hand.

Was this a small educational miracle - or simply too good to be true?

Derek Robertson of LTS was behind the Dundee pilot. He has no doubts about the power of the consoles to capture young minds.

He said: "We need to look at the educational experience of learners who are coming from a digital age, who have a cultural value of technology, of games.

"It's important that school reflects this as well and that teachers can use this innovatively and effectively to engage those who may be disaffected."

They can be fun to play, but I think focusing too much on this as a sort of catch-all cure for what people see as a lack of mental ability is misleading
Robert Logie
Edinburgh University

Whatever the cultural power of computer games - and their ability to amuse and stimulate our minds - others remain unconvinced of their educational value.

Robert Logie, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Edinburgh University, is among the sceptics.

He said: "I think that they're just games.

"They can be fun to play, but I think focusing too much on this as a sort of catch-all cure for what people see as a lack of mental ability is misleading."

There are several possible reasons why the brain training consoles apparently lifted pupil performance at St Columba's.

The "practice effect" may be at work - the children got better at the tasks simply because they repeated them regularly.

Wider study

Perhaps the games boosted their confidence.

Or it could be that big brand names like Nintendo and Sony do carry greater power in the classroom than a teacher at a chalkboard.

That is why Her Majesty's Inspectors of Education are backing LTS in conducting a wider study.

In 16 primary schools across Scotland - in Dundee, the Western Isles, Aberdeenshire and East Ayrshire - classes will spend 15 to 20 minutes a day playing the consoles.

Other classes will be taught normally, acting as control groups against which the results will be measured.

It is thought to be the first time a government-backed, scientifically controlled study of this kind has been staged.

It will be trying to see if the results of the pilot study can be reproduced. If so, the next question to be answered would be why they were having an effect.

In the end, we may learn it was the power of the brand that made the difference - or the St Columba's results may have been a fluke.

But it could just be that Scottish education has found a new way to win young minds for learning.

Listen to the full programme


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