For Administrators

Why Students Need More Exposure to Game Theory

By Brian Gatens October 31, 2013

Are your students playing enough games?

Odd question to ask in this day and age of Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and the endless drumbeat about student performance, but I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that somehow we’re missing something in the classroom.

Game theory can help children learn to think analytically and strategicallyI visit many classrooms and while I see many opportunities for children to experience direct instruction and to work together in class, I don’t see a lot of healthy head-to-head competition between children. Specifically, I don’t see them playing board or card games.

This leads me to wonder about the role of game theory in the classroom, and to ask if perhaps we need more of it.

Games theory is the study of strategic decision-making. While this sounds like heady stuff for a classroom, I think teaching children how to make reasoned and logical decisions is as important as helping them master literacy and numeracy. In an increasingly complex world with multiple sources of information to sift through and seemingly endless options, you’ll be doing your students a tremendous favor by teaching them some of the basic games that help to sharpen their minds and to anticipate outcomes. How to get in the game:

Start with the classics

You can introduce game theory to your classroom with basic strategy games. After accounting for your students’ developmental level, start with checkers and move on to games such as Othello/Reversi. A simple online search will yield many opportunities to play these games for free.

Don’t be surprised at who succeeds

The ability to think strategically and make analytical decisions may emerge in students who might not have the strongest understanding of literacy and numeracy. Some of the most analytical thinkers have a difficult time in school, so don’t be surprised if “struggling” students show an aptitude at these games.

Teach patience and tolerance

All children need to learn to be a “good winner.” Having the children take part in healthy, head-to-head competition will help them develop the ability to win and lose with grace. I make certain that I’m just as clear with those who may gloat as those who may grow upset that neither behavior will be tolerated.

Go cross-curricular

After spending some time teaching the skills and concepts behind game theory in isolation, you can create opportunities to apply them to works of literature (Why did it make sense for Huck Finn to run away?) and math problems (What’s the game theory approach to purchasing a car?). Your students will enjoy the opportunity to apply a deeper set of skills, as opposed to the simple recitation that many state tests expect of the students.

Research note

In my research on this topic, I came across the work of Bruce Bueno De Mesquita, a noted game theorist. His work can’t be purely applied to the classroom, but he makes for interesting reading. Check out his book “The Dictator’s Handbook.”

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