An Untold Story

I listened to an incredible podcast the other day. It was Part 3 of Dean Shareski’s Telling the new Story series, an interview with award-winning Canadian educator, Clarence Fisher. I was glued to my headphones for the entire interview, listening to stories from a unique professional who gets the new information environment and is making it stick in his classroom.

But what intrigued me the most, were the untold parts of the story, the parts that were counter-intuitive to what we, progressive society that we are, might expect. One thing that struck me was that Fisher left my Class Blogmeister classroom blogging tool and chose James Farmer’s LearnerBlogs. The interesting story is that he left for exactly the reason why scores of educators from around the world are signing up for Blogmeister. They want and need the control that blogmeister is designed to deliver. Yet, Fisher found that it was the control that was preventing classroom blogging from working to the degree that he wanted. Therefore, he switched to Farmer’s WordPress-based blogging service for students, a system that is open, where student blogs immediately go public.

The other counter intuitive part of the Clarence Fisher story is that he’s not in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, or even Toronto. He’s in Snow Lake, Manitoba. See the map. Why is his story here, and not here?

Fisher Map
Fisher Map

To be fair, there are certainly incredible pockets of innovation happening in every city, state, and province. But I believe that there’s a story in where Fisher teaches. What do you think?

“Going Safely Into the Night”

Technology & Learning Magazine’s Editor and Chief, Susan McLester, has joined the T&L Blogerati with a piece about a virtual night club in San Francisco.

Techlearning blog: When the Virtual Overlaps With the Real:

The San Francisco Chronicle headline “Going Safely Into the Night” described a new virtual space where teenagers can go to dance, listen to music, meet new friends, chat, take photos and generally just hang out. Yes, it is another one of those social networking environments like MySpace currently under fire— but I’m not heading in the “right or wrong” direction here. Instead, I’m more interested in the phenomenon from the perspective of a “digital immigrant” adult. When I visited the site (www.pcdmusiclounge.com), I saw kid-created avatars (characters that represent them) lounging in groups or out on the dance floor. The chat was mostly wise-cracking, comments about favorite music, and other regular kid stuff. Though the scene was a familiar club setup and not exotic in any way, the environment was immersive like those of the more richly-rendered videogames. In the article, Doppelganger CEO Andrew Littlefield was quoted as saying, “You’re stuck at home. Your parents won’t let you out… You can text your friends or you can hang out in a glamorous nightclub.”

Here is the text of my comment to her blog entry:

…as for your blog, I certainly identify with it.  As fascinated as I am with video games and the video game experience, I personally don’t get it.  I lost interest after Pong.  My son goes off to college this year, and I am curious as to which game system he’ll be leaving behind 😉

All that said, from an older than 50 perspective, I suspect that this is just another instance where the kids will ask, “Why are you obsessing over this?”  I think that they see no divider at all between the virtual and the real.  It’s all their experience.  Separating the two has no meaning and serves no purpose.

My son walks out of his room and announces that he’s going to a movie and then out for fried chicken afterward.  “Who’s picking you up?”  “Alex!”  “Who’s going with you?”  An asundry of names of band-geek friends.  “When will you be back…”   (you know the drill.)

But it is clear and understood that he’s been with his friends already today, that plans have been made, changed, adapted, through on-going online conversations.  They operate in group mode, in a way that few people do, because the group is always around.  My son turns 18 this Summer, and he has not yet gotten his drivers license.  He simply hasn’t needed one, because he lives in group mode.  Enough of his friends are driving.

I suspect that we do obsess about it too much, because we’re from the old country, and speak with an accent.  It will always be that way.

It’s Not that they are Playing

I spent much of last week presenting to teachers and superintendents in New York and New Jersey. Then I drove back up to Newark, turned in my rental car, and then trained, walked, and bused my way out to Long Island, where my brother owns a house — without WiFi. The intensity of my recent presentation schedule along with two days, totally disconnected, left me with nothing to say today on 2¢ Worth. In fact, being my day to write for the Tech Learning Blog, I cheated, and found an old 2¢ entry to recycle into T&L.

All that said, I was sitting on the plane a few minutes ago (delayed on the tarmac), scanning through the April issue of Leading & Learning with Technology, and ran across an interesting piece, one of those “yes” and “no” arguments entitled “Can Games Be Used to Teach?“. Taking the “yes” argument was Alix Peshette, a technology training specialist from California. She was followed by one of my all time heros and tech visionaries, David Thornburg, taking the “no” side of the argument. This surprised me, but the interesting thing was that both parts of the article were saying pretty much the same thing — that it depends on the game. I beg to differ.

Thornburg described with distaste the site of exhibitor booths where conference attendees crowd around four deep watching a video game show being played by enthusiastic volunteer (well, they’ll get a T-Shirt out of it.) The winner will be the player with the most correctly answered questions. After listing several other drill & practice style scenarios, he suggested that…

…there are “gaming” environments of value — simulations of real-world phenomena. I gladly recommend SimEarth and other programs of this kind for educators.

Thornburg draws an interesting distinction between a game show (fill in the blank game), and the more open-ended simulation style of game. I would carry it a bit further and say that it isn’t the difference between the kinds of games being played, but between the learning expectations. One type helps students to memorize facts. The other helps them to master concepts, develop problem solving skills, and do so in a more authentic fashion.

Certainly, both types of learning are necessary. I would suggest (not for the first time) that in a time of rapid change that relies increasingly on inventive and resourceful problem solving and self-directed learning, the emphasis is tilting toward the conceptual learning and less on memorizing facts. Still, some facts must be known by members of a culture.

If it is important for children to know the multiplication tables or (for heaven sake) the capitals of the states, and a mock game show helps them do that, then I say, “Bring on the prizes.” If students need to understand the interdependence of cultures in an increasingly globalized world society, then strap on your roman helmut and let’s play Civilization.

I know that David’s children are all grown. If he still had children at home and watched them playing today’s deep and engaging games, he would probably have written differently. So, what am I going to do next year when my son goes off to college.

I wonder which game system he’s going to leave behind. 😉

A Good Day in Tarrytown

Aside from traffic, I had a good day yesterday, working with superintendents and directors of technology from Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam Counties, New York. The group was very receptive with good questions peppered in. I had an hour and a half to deliver what is usually an hour long presentation. It’s amazing how a presentation seems to fill up what ever amount of time that you have to deliver it. It’s like furniture.

I worry, though, that what’s coming across are the stories that I tell during the presentation and not the larger picture — that we all need to be going out and telling stories. Many in the audience had already read The World is Flat, but there was interest in Richard Florida’s books and Got Game, by John Beck. Video gaming was a large part of the conversations after the session, and I think it is partly because these people have children at home who are playing video games (and IM’ing and have a presence on MySpace, etc.). People were especially intrigued by machinima.

I look forward to doing this session as a workshop, and having education leaders start sculpting their own stories that tie to the market place, deeply held values, and solutions we can point to.

2¢ Worth.

The Height of Video Gaming

This Spartan LifeAt the airport in Raleigh, yesterday, I received an e-mail from Steve Dembo, describing how he had read the April issue of WIRED Magazine on the train. He suggested that we hold a roundtable discussion about the influences of video games in education — but that we hold the meeting inside of Halo. He had read an article about a talk show, This Spartan Life, that is held inside of the Halo 2 video game environment. His production staff provides cross-fire to protect him and his guest from weapons-wielding players who happen to wander onto the set.

When I landed in Newark, I checked my mail again, with my phone, and saw another message from Steve. He’d written the second one to to acknowledge that I had probably already read the WIRED article, having seen yesterday’s 2¢ Worth. I must say that I am not interested in holding a meeting in Halo. I’ve tried it, and the only thing I can do, is fall down. ..and I don’t even do that gracefully. But what does interest me is a class of students in a Halo’esque classroom, with George Washington and Nelson Mandella, in seats with the students and joining in on a conversation about government. Or a similar classroom with a working atom in the room, demonstrating how it works.

What really interests me is that the atom may have been built by some of the students. Or that the entire classroom is designed and redesigned by students on an ongoing basis as part of the class.

Again, I’m not suggesting replacing the traditional classroom or even most traditional styles of teaching and learning. I’m talking about making education much richer than what can be done exclusively inside the confines of four walls and the two covers of a book.

I learn so much from blogging, from being a part of a huge, engaging, and valuable ongoing conversation. However, it come nowhere near matching how I am challenged to think and learn while having dinner with the likes of Steve Dembo, Will Richardson, and Rob Mancabelli. Face to face is the height of video gaming.

Video Game’s Impact

April WIRED MagazineIn the April issue of WIRED Magazine, Will Wright, the inventor of The SIMS, heads off an interesting series of pieces on the impact and direction of video games. In his introductory article, Dream Machines, Wright says,

Just watch a kid with a new videogame. The last thing they do is read the manual. Instead, they pick up the controller and start mashing buttons to see what happens. This isn’t a random process; it’s the essence of the scientific method. Through trial and error, players build a model of the underlying game based on empirical evidence collected through play. As the players refine this model, they begin to master the game world. It’s a rapid cycle of hypothesis, experiment, and analysis. And it’s a fundamentally different take on problem-solving than the linear, read-the-manual-first approach of their parents.

In an era of structured education and standardized testing, this generational difference might not yet be evident. But the gamers’ mindset – the fact that they are learning in a totally new way – means they’ll treat the world as a place for creation, not consumption. This is the true impact videogames will have on our culture. (Wright 110-112)

So many stories here. We live in a rapidly changing world. Who has time to write it all down, edit it, publish and print enough textbooks that can only be read — when learning in a dynamic world requires interacting with that world and playing with it’s information.

or

Living in a world that is so dependent on so much good information, it becomes just as important for children to learn to be good producers of content as it is to become good consumers of content.

or

Did you know that we are preparing our children for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet? Will they be better prepared by taking a test at the end of their high school, or by playing video games that they invent themselves?

When they were young, my children were very different kinds of learners. Like myself, my daughter has A.D.D, though she’s making much better grades in college than I did. Still, she spent several years in gifted classes, and she worked very hard, and we worked very hard with her. Once, one of her English teachers required her to learn the ten types of nouns (might have been five). I only know of two types and that was important, because one you capitalized and the other you didn’t. But she was learning about abstract nouns, concrete nouns, and others. I don’t remember.

Anyway, we struggled for a week to help her learn to identify in a sentence, the types of nouns.

Meanwhile, my son, two years younger, and able to learn his spelling words at a glance while playing a video game, was in his room, playing video games. Back then, he played hand-me-down video game systems that came from my parents, as they would upgrade to the newest Nintendo, or whatever. We would rent games for him from Blockbuster, and they almost never came with a manual. This was fine, because he would go into the game, figure out what the goal of the game was, what the rules were, and then figure out how to use the rules to accomplish the goals.

My question is, “Which endeavor was better preparing my children for their future, memorizing and distinguishing types of nouns, or reasoning out how to master video games.”

To be fair, there was, I believe, much value in reasoning out the types of nouns, which is my daughter’s way of learning, using logic and reason. But my son was learning to enter new information environments, to find or establish a goal, learn what the rules and constraints were, and learn to use those rules and constraints to accomplish the goal. They’ll both be doing that the rest of their lives.

I say, “Hack the system.” Turn our classrooms into learning engines. That’s what games are.


Wright, Will. “Dream Machine.” WIRED Magazine April 2006: 110-112.