A Word About Education

What I had expected to be 1 post has now become 4.  For those just joining us, here is part one, part two, and part three.

I’ve been following Seth Godin’s blog for a long time now, and I’ve got a copy of his latest book which I’m trying to set aside the time to read.  But yesterday he posted something that tied in to what I’d been discussing here for a while, in a post entitled Accepting Limits.

It’s absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, “this kid can’t read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He’s a dolt and he’s never going to amount to anything.” No, we don’t say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things.

Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, “this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create…”

Just because it’s difficult to grade doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught.

This is a video that my mother, who works in children’s television, sent me a little while ago.  She found it exceedingly powerful, as did I.

I was a bright kid, but I was never exactly a straight-A student.  In kindergarden I took some standardized tests, and scored in the “highly gifted” bracket.  When my parents received my test results they asked for advice on what to do—whether I should transfer to a new school, etc.  The test administrators gave my parents what they later told me was the best advice they ever received about education, and that was this:  “No one has any idea what to do with highly gifted students.  The educational system as it is now is designed to accomodate people who are average.  People may tell you that they know what is best for your child, but no one knows for sure.  Ultimately, you have to make the choices that you think are best for your child.”

I barely squeaked by in my high school classes with Cs and the occasional D—mostly because I wasn’t doing the homework.  I had to make up a class in summer school every year, from 8th grade through 12th.  In my junior year I went to see the school psychologist, who recommended that I be tested for ADD.  I was whisked away to take a series of tests with a man named Dr. Colegrove, who I remember fondly to this day.  When he was finished, he wrote up a report to send back to my parent’s saying basically, “Casey doesn’t have ADD—he’s just really bored.”

When I graduated high school I attended community college for a year and a half, took a very intense six month course to become a recording engineer, and then went to work.  I bounced around the workplace trying to find the job that was right for me, and finally was lucky enough to be hired at my current company when I had basically no relevant experience (except for being a WoW player, which we have learned is more experience than it seems).  Now I’m taking classes online for a BA in Marketing, and eagerly awaiting the day when all these general eds are finished so I can learn something interesting.

In the whole of my life I have never found anything in the American educational system that did not come from the determined, singular effort of either myself—to make my own learning—or the handful of brilliant teachers who were willing to break free of the “educational system” and engage me.

And why would I? I was just like every other kid.  I would much rather be playing games.

Games are proving themselves to be the best way to teach, motivate and cajole the average teenager into doing something.  Let’s make games that teach them to be leaders, to run organizations, to inspire, to create, and to save lives.

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and Wowhead.com. I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

9 thoughts on “A Word About Education

  1. There’s something that’s been nagging me throughout this series of posts, which is the reward structure. Games may be structured differently than, say, a history class, but even if they were structured exactly the same, they wouldn’t necessarily be equally motivating, because the content – the rewards – are different. Learning about the ’60s’ counter-culture movement doesn’t necessarily appeal to me in the same way as kicking some hapless stormtrooper’s ass, even if I go about both activities in exactly the same manner. Structuring an educational activity as a game, even if you do so really well, seems to me like it’s only half the battle. The game structure is a delivery vehicle; you’ve still got to find a way for it to deliver something compelling.

    This isn’t a problem unique to games-as-more-than-entertainment, of course. I’d venture to say that one of the big differences between successful and unsuccessful students, no matter how they’re taught, is how well the students can make their subject feel compelling. If one student feels incredibly badass when he writes an intelligent analysis of Moby Dick and another student feels like he’s just ticked off another box on life’s to-do list, I’d bet the first student is likely to get more out of his lit classes.

    So, suppose instead of lecturing these two students on literary analysis, we create a game that will teach them how to do so. I’m not sure it follows that either student will be more engaged in the gaming format than in the lecture format. If one student finds literary analysis to be fundamentally boring, will he care that it’s being presented to him via game mechanics? Not everybody gets excited about mechanics (I’m reminded of H.T. Parnell’s recent musings on that subject). I really like WoW, but if you duplicated its structure and made it about football, I don’t think I’d play that game.

    So I guess what I’m wondering about is this: I agree that games are a useful model for how to deliver content in a way that is easily learned or retained. But do they have anything to teach us about how to make that content itself compelling?

  2. Yeah, I think this is the next chapter of the problem, and I think it’s where most of us get hung up. My goal with these posts was primarily to get people past the initial hurdle—the idea that games cannot (or should not) be more than simple entertainment. I want people to think of what you describe here as the problem, so we can all tackle it together.

    As far as specific answers to this question go, I think it depends a lot on the content you want to teach. Teaching someone how to use a tool or application has a pretty straightforward method, the way Danc demonstrates with Ribbon Hero. Teaching social and cooperative skills (like via WoW guild management) is a little more meta-game, but WoW proves it can be done. I think with some practice, we can figure out ways to do this intentionally.

    I think teaching specific subjects—history, literature, etc.—will be harder than teaching skills, or good habits. But I think it’s still possible to teach the content by making it into a game—our whole generation has fond memories of Oregon Trail. And maybe I’d rather play a game about dragons than a game about wagon trains, but I’d rather do either than just read a book about it.

    The real holy grail is creating games that teach us not only good habits, but good morals—and do it in a way that’s seamless and effortless, without ever being preachy.

  3. In the field of education, in my mind the trick is to move beyond the subject-based educational games to skills-based ones. We’ve had subject-based educational games for a long time – consider the typing games we grew up with, for instance. And one can certainly imagine subject-based games in other areas, as you point out with Oregon Trail. We could probably build those games better now, but the fundamental idea is about twenty years old, and didn’t revolutionize education.

    The reason for that educational non-revolution, I posit, is not that the games weren’t designed well enough but that they didn’t really get at the heart of subject-based education. I would argue that we do not primarily learn the subjects we get taught in high school for their own sake, but rather as testing grounds for the two basic skills that you’re supposed to come out of high school knowing – (i) how to write a good analytical essay and (ii) how to do algebra (speaking a little crudely). Analytical ability, and not command of subject material, is the real educational goal of high school (that is, kid who comes out of his history class able to analyze and argue an issue but with no historical facts memorized has had a more successful education than a kid who can spout a million historical facts but doesn’t know what to do with them, though obviously we prefer students to be able to do both).

    That is the sort of content that, if we could create an educational game (or, rather, an industry of educational games) to deliver, would I think constitute a real educational revolution. I’m not quite sure what such a game would look like, but I do note that it wouldn’t necessarily have to have an academic “setting” to be educational. If you just want a game that teaches kids about late 19th century American history, you pretty well have to set your game in late 19th century America. But if you want a game that teaches kids how to analyze facts and synthesize them into a coherent argument, I’m pretty sure you could set that game wherever and whenever you wanted – even Azeroth, the GFFA, or Thedas.

  4. I’m somewhat relieved to read this post. Tomorrow I have a doctor’s appointment, and I intend to take the opportunity to ask if I have ADD. Given my current progress in homework, it sure looks that way to me. Then again, I could just be bored; I certainly have no focusing problems when it comes to gaming.

    1. My situation was similar. I certainly won’t say that you DON’T have ADD, but your situation sounds similar to mine.

      This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have a problem, of course, I did—specifically I had a problem with self-discipline. I never really learned how to buckle down and do things that weren’t fun or which I didn’t find intellectually stimulating. This remains a problem for me to this day, and I have had trouble in several jobs because I thought I could coast by on good looks and charm, and it turns out I can’t.

      I’ve only managed to squeak by now by finding a job that I really, really care about.

  5. Natalie: I think you got at the heart of what I wanted to say before I was able to formulate my thoughts. I don’t know that I agree with you that those two goals are the only ‘primary’ goals of high school education—but I certainly agree with you that the true goal of high school education should be skills-based rather than subject-based, and this is something that our education system doesn’t seem designed to support.

    Games are uniquely equipped as tools to teach people skills, even more than subject matter—and that I think is what we need.

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