Better Learning?

Two hands holding a video game controller
Playing a Video Game

I remember one particular week when my daughter was trying to learn the nine types of nouns for English class. She would be tested at the end of the week on her ability to label them in given sentences. Although she was a serious and conscientious student, my daughter struggled with some types of learning, especially memorization. She spent evenings that week, heroically and sometimes tearfully trying to distinguish common nouns from proper nouns, from collective nouns, from verbal, compound, abstract, concrete, countable and uncountable nouns.

Meanwhile, with our attention firmly directed to our her efforts, our son was left to his own devices. He was less academically challenged, but far less serious about school work and spent that week playing a newly-rented video game. Without the manual, he had to trial-and-error himself into the game’s dynamics. He failed and succeeded, made observations, formulated hypotheses, tested his hypotheses and constructed a mental toolbox of strategies so that he could play the game and save the damsel or slay the dragon – or whatever the goal was.

That week of watching my daughter struggling while my son played left me wondering, “Who was engaged in the learning that might be most appropriate for their future? Was it my daughter, who struggled to memorize the qualities of nine types of nouns, or my son, who was teaching himself how to play a complicated video game?”

What if Curriculum was an Adventure?

Rules, in game play, are traditionally static — printed on the lid of the box. Is this so in real life? How many innovations are rule-changers?

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a conversation that was arranged by ISTE, exploring some of the potentially pivotal emerging issues in the ed tech and broader education domains. I was asked to go first, as I would not be able to stay long — and was consequently put on the spot, to think quickly, and clearly articulate ideas to some really smart people. So I blubbered something about a niche for some new and compellingly relevant digital and networked learning platform that will so effectively, efficiently, and elegantly facilitate all of the education philosophies that we are all so urgently trying to describe that it will change education as we know it.

Peggy Sheehy, being Peggy Sheehy (and rightly so) intercepted my fumbled explanation, campaigning for games as an integral part of that platform. I understood where she was going, said so, and she acknowledged it — because we’ve had the conversation before.  But there is a frustrating problem with Peggy’s mission.  Most people still see games as play and learning as work — and although many of us have become convinced of the learning potentials of video games  and begun to promote their use, the game is still what happens after the teaching.

Periodically, I’m asked to do a presentation called “Video Games as Learning Engines,” which is an introduction to video games (mostly for non-gamers) and an attempt to show how games are actually a form of pedagogy.  Yet, I suspect that what most attendees are actually looking for directories of flash-based educational games designed to help students master their multiplication facts or identify parts of speech. Those games are certainly out there, but they do not interest me.

One of the lingering mysteries that continues to intrigue me, in the waning years of my very long career, is what makes it a game — or more to the point, what makes it fun? ..and can we unfold the elements in such a way that they become handlebars in that learning platform I was trying to describe, from which we can hang more engaging learning experiences for our students.

I guess that a learning platform, integrated with games and play would be characterized by
More Less
  •  Surprise Predictability
  •  Rules that change, can be changed and are inability Static and constraining
  •  Focus on accomplishing personal goals Focus on achieving institutional goals
  •  Frequent, meaningful and empowering rewards Scheduled, symbolic rewards

For instance, one interesting quality of the games our children play is that they do not require you to learn the rules before you play the game. Learning about roles and rules is part of the playing, and they are often a surprise that has to be earned.  They’re a secret. In solving a puzzle or simply exploring, the player finds a magic coin, potion, or relic.  As a result of the find, she is endowed with new powers of flight, invisibility, or speed. The powers are a surprise and they change the rules.

Ewan McIntosh recently described a very simple but explicit illustration of this, concerning a school he is working with in Sydney, Australia.  There is a fairly nondescript and unreferenced book in a classroom that when moved, releases a switch that turns on a light.  Students find it by exploring the environment.  They explore because they expect to find secrets.  It’s an example of what McIntosh calls Secret Spaces, one of Seven Spaces of Technology in School Environments (watch the video).

So what if this learning platform held hidden information switches, such that when a student references a particular document in his work, he is suddenly endowed with new powers, an opportunity to visit previously blocked resource or tool, or an invitation to formally explore a topic of personal interest, or awarded points or admin rights to further configure his profile page with options and colors that were not available before.

What if curriculum was an adventure, and learning was the reward?

Schooly Games

I’m here, at NECC, for only two and-a-half more hours, so I need to squeeze in as much as I can.  So what am I doing?  I’m at the blogger’s cafe.  The interesting thing about such a big conference that is so multidimensional, is that you can hardly turn around without learning something.  I step in the Second Life Lounge, and not only am I re-introduced to some of my best virtual friends (without the purple hair), but I turn around and there’s Steve Dembo, presenting somewhere in this complex, but displayed on a large LCD.

Walking throught one of the large open halls, I run across the Games & Simulations Lounge where I talk for a minute with Jeremy Koester and then get the five minute pitch on a couple of the games featured there. 

As context to my reaction, I go back to the Leadership Symposium yesterday, and some of the general theme of conversations here at NECC — that it is a time to blur the walls of schooling, to recognize and respect the opportunities that we and our students have to learn outside of our classroom walls.  The Internet and the new flow of information that has resulted from Web 2.0 applications offers an anytime/anywhere learning environment — where learn becomes a lifestyle, not just something you do in school.

Yet, both of the games I learned about were constrained by the rules of the grant providing organizations, a desire to produce a game experience that could be safely administered in traditional classrooms.  Both of the representatives I talked with admitted that the games would have been something different, and probably better, had it not been for the insistence for  classroom-ready products.  They wanted the games to be schooly — and in my opinion, they stopped being games, at least from the perspective of the gamers that many of our children are.

We need to object to this and to be more vocal in our proclamations for learning lifestyles that are independent of time and space.

I’m finishing this up at the San Francisco Airport, one more leg to New Zealand.  It’s currently 8:20 PM on Monday, and I’ll land around 5:00 AM on Wednesday — somewhat west of the DateLine.  Blows my mind.

Eco-games for Kids

I leave today for an eight-day tour that has me in Richmond, Lynchburg, suburban Boston, New York, and those are the ones I remember. What’s remarkable is that I do not get on a plane until the last day.  Cars, trains, cabs, subways — I love it.

I wanted to add this one thing to my blog before I get back to the one remaining writing deadline I’m struggling with and starting to plan the brand new keynote I’ve promised for the 1:1 conference in Pennsylvania week after next. 

I was scanning through USAToday on my phone and found this article, Eco-games help kids to do good.

The first of three described is “The Greens.”  Created by WGBH and partly funded by National Geographic Educational Foundation, the site offers 11 episodes (webisodes), “..short video stories -that cover a wide variety of issues about living ‘green.’

Featuring cousins Izz and Dex, the site presents real-life eco issues through the eyes of these hip teens. In the most recent episode called That’s a Wrap, Dex unwraps a large present with numerous smaller boxes inside to discover that the sender has given him a small notecard stating that a tree has been planted in his honor. Wryly, Dex notes: “But you have probably used a whole tree with all these boxes and wrapping paper.”

Time to get back to work, but look at the article and check out the other two games, “Elf Island,” a virtual world where the player is an elf and “Emerald Island,” another virtual world entered as animals.

200 Virtual Worlds for Kids

Club Timemachine [click image to enlarge]

I am still working on this article on virtual worlds in education, an ran across this report from January 26, 2009.  According to Virtual Worlds Management, more than 200 youth-oriented worlds are currently live or in development.  This is an increase from 150 known youth-oriented virtual worlds in August of 2008.

I pulled the listing into a spread sheet and did a little inquiry.  Here are some of the things I found:

  • 38 of the virtual worlds products are explicitely intended for children six and younger.
  • Two are being developed in Australia, 2 in Belgium, 8 in Canada, 2 in China, 3 in Denmark, 4 in Finland, 2 in France, 4 in Germany, 3 in Israel, 5 in Japan, 4 in Korea, 2 in Spain, 2 in Sweden, 14 in the UK, and 126 in the U.S.
  • One is in Alpha, 10 are in closed beta, 36 are in open beta, 7 are in concept, and 26 are under development.  Most of the rest are live.

“200+ Youth-Oriented Worlds Live or Developing.” Virtual Worlds Management. 2 Feb 2009. Show Initiative, LLC. 26 Jan 2009 <>.

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Ready for Work?

Flickr Photo from Matthew Stenzel

A couple of days ago, I worked with the school district of the Chathams (yep, two Chathams), a few miles west of Newark, New Jersey.  It was a facinating and very appealing community and I was reminded, once again, how hospitable people can be and not be from the south (sorry).

Most directly, I worked with a local education foundation, which has funded a number of technology projects for the system, including projectors and interactive smart boards, video game systems (Nintendo DSes, and a cyber social learning center at the high school.  They asked me to come and talk about video games, their associate superintendent having met me at an NJ conference a year ago.

I presented an afternoon workshop with educators, sandwiched between two sessions for parents and the community, one in the morning and one in the evening.  It turned into a long but very enjoyable day.  As you might expect, there was some initial skepticism about the educational potentials of video games, and I did not alleviate all of it– nor should I.  We should all remain cautious about new technologies and new techniques.  It is too easy to go overboard, blinded by the glare and seduced by the glitz.

We tend to form our opinions about what is new from our past experiences, and when talking about education, we all have fairly rich experiences to draw on — and though they not always positive experiences, they are indelible.  It was during the evening session that the most push-back occurred, as I shared some findings indicating that the video game generation is more sociable and better collaborators than the previous generation.  This ideas is especially difficult to easily grasp when it goes against the experiences of watching our children spend hours alone, at the screen, game controller in hand.

One particular woman challenged this idea, stating that employers are complaining that young workers are unskilled at personal interactions and do not easily adjusting to work life.  I should have asked her where she was hearing this and under what circumstances, but being pressed for time, I simply responded that these video game and social networking experiences do not make our children and that we all had difficulty adjusting to our first jobs.  I also brought up one of the studies, published in Got Game, by John Beck, Senior Researcher for the USC Annenberg School’s Center for Digital Futures.

Part of the message of this book is that because of their video game experiences, today’s youngsters are gaining skills and insights that may be especially useful to today’s business and industries.  However, those skills may not be easily apparent, that to see and leaverge these skills we have to alter our expectations and even aspects of the work environment and schedule and even the nature of our assignments.  The woman seemed less than completely convinced, but I went on.

After the session was over, a young man came up and introduced himself.  He has recently taken a new job at a small publishing house, but before that worked at McGraw Hill.  He said that he supervised a number of employees and that he found the younger folks to be a delight to work with — that they were creative, good communicators, and eager to please. 

He also mentioned that McGraw Hill had offered generational training to its supervisors, informing them of the differences between the work styles of younger workers and older ones.  He said that one thing he remembered was that younger workers want to know that they are doing a good job, that they need frequent reinforcement — an idea that makes sense in view of the constant reinforcement provided by video games, and even social networking activities.

This is not to say, again, that the kids are perfect communicators and or collaborators or that they adjust easily to new work environments.  The issues are far to complex to express in one hour.  However, it is essential that as we continue to value our own experiences and the lessons of those experiences, we must be willing to open our minds to the value of new ones. 

It’s not a new lesson!

Video Games in Chatham, NJ

Presenters Deborah Evans and Erik Yates

I’ve been working in Chatham, New Jersey, today, for their Education Foundation.  The organization has invested a lot of money in the schools, including a cyber center in the high school, a section of the cafeteria where students can lounge and have access to laptops for surfing and working together — social learning.

I’ve been doing my thing about video games as learning engines for parent groups and teachers.  My presentation is followed by Deborah Evans, who is a self-professed gamer.  What impresses me is that she is almost my age.  She started with a Commodore 64, on which she and her kids played Zork.  She said she would never forget that Christmas. 

After that, her children started using educational games to master math facts.  But things got interesting again when they discovered SIM City.  Deborah went on to adventure games but is now entrenched in World of Warcraft.  She makes the point, as she shows a typical WOW scr

People with a British Accent are so smart! 

Eric Yates, the district’s K-6 tech integrationist, then talked about his experience of brinking Nintendo DSes into his elementary classroom.  He got the idea, when he first ran across Brain Age.  The Education Foundation invested in ten DSes and Erik has learned a lot about using them in elementary classes.  One of the best features of the DS, he says, is that it is wireless, and multiple devices can communicate with each other. 

He is basically using them as a learning center.  As groups are doing differentiated activities, one of the options is using the DS and math software.

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Games Sell

Photo by Tonbabydc
This is how we interacted with David Bowie in the old days

This was only one of the interesting things I learned this morning through the “tech tab” on AP Mobile News Network, my favorite iPhone App.  To start things off, the December 19 story, Music Industry Drops Effort to Sue Song Swappers is a welcome and much anticipated indication that the music industry may be realizing that to survive in this new information landscape, they will have to adapt.

The next story that caught my attention provided more evidence — Music Sales Rise in Harmony with Game Appearances

Photo by Jon-Paul LeClair

The story speaks most directly to two video games that, if you have not heard of them, it can only be because you’ve spent the last two years sequestered in a monastery behind the tallest peaks of the Himalayas.  If you have spent the last 730 days in meditation, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are two games that come with plastic guitars and drums, connected to the game system, and programmed for you to play famous and gut-throbbing rock songs, by watching musical notes (so to speak), scroll your way.  You miss notes, and you lose points, to the disappointment of the other members of the band.

It seems that real performers, whose songs have been featured on either of these two games, have seen their record sales (downloads) increase, sometimes dramatically.  Here are a few examples of download increases:

Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987) released on “Guitar Hero III” up 153%
Pat Benatar “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” (1980) released on “Guitar Hero III” up 180%
Aerosmith “Dream On” (1973) released on “Guitar Hero III” up 15%
Red Hot Chili Peppers “Suck My Kiss” (1992) released on “Guitar Hero III” up 200%
Nirvana “In Bloom” (1992) released on “Rock Band” up 543%
KISS “Detroit Rock City” (1976) released on “Rock Band” up 89%
David Bowie “Suffragette City” (1976) released on “Rock Band” up 55%
R.E.M. “Orange Crush” (1988) released on “Rock Band” up 256%
Smashing Pumpkins “Cherub Rock” (1993) released on “Rock Band” up 843%

There is no message in this from a direct instructional intent. But what it reminds me of is how important this world of video games has become.  It is being integrated into a greater economic engine, and it is a part of our children’s foundational experience — the good and the bad.

It simply means that we, as educators, young and old, need to be paying a lot of attention to this.

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Just had to Shout this One Out

I in my day off in Hong Kong.  It’s a Chinese holiday, and I’m fighting to get the final proof done on Redefining Literacy 2.0 before I get busy again.  Today may be my last day off in weeks.

Spore EverywhereAnyway, in testing links, I found myself at Will Richardson’s blog, and scanning through his report on his first 90 minutes with Spore.  I’ve not gotten it yet, but texting my son, found that he was in outer space in less than six hours.  But he said that the fun was in going back and just playing around with the possibilities, testing ideas about adaptation. [Image ((“Spore Everywhere.” Shadowstorm’s Photostream. 16 May 2006. 14 Sep 2008 <>. ))]

One of the 18 comments on the post came from someone named Ryan.  He didn’t include a blog URL, and although I could speculate on who he is, I’ll not here.  The conversation was about instructional integration, and Ryan said,

…we need to quit looking at tools and saying, ?How can I make this educational??, we need to look at an educational need and say, ?What tool that exists can fill this need?? or ?What needs to be built to fit this need??

So many posts about, ?trying to figure out how to get twitter into the classroom.?

Don?t try to cram every cool new technology into the classroom ? it?s bad for our cause!

This is so very true.  It doesn’t mean that we should avoid paying attention to these things, and playing them ourselves.  I think that it is important for us to understand these experiences and what and how our students are learning in them — even if they are not part of the st-st-st-standards.

Thanks, Ryan…

Listening to Interview with James Paul Gee

I’m listening to a podcast interview with game guru, James Paul Gee. I highly recommend giving it a listen [link]. Here are just a few notes that connected with me. The Interviewer, Barry Joseph, asked for some basics of what make games important to education. Gee said that there are two. The first is that games result in learning, because they make the player a knowledge producer, rather than consumer. There are obvious examples of this, such as building objects in Second Life. But…

To play a game, you have to think like a game designer — think like a producer.

The second element is the “Principal of situated meaning.”

Traditionally, we learned with words. To learn a new concept, we were given a definition to learn (a bunch of words). With games and virtual worlds, “You’ve got to deliver more than words, you’ve got to deliver the world that the words go with.” ((Gee, James Paul. “RezEd Podcast, Episode 12- James Paul Gee on Virtual Worlds and the Power of Situated Learning.” [Podcast Podcast] ResEd. 11 Aug 11: 12. ResEd. 12 Aug 2008 <>. ))

The conversation went on to discuss other issues and projects, notably Our Courts. The first paragraph of the summary reads,

Our Courts will be a free, interactive, web-based program and eventually a virtual 3D world designed to teach and engage middle-school students in civics. Through the lens of the judiciary, Our Courts will allow students to participate in realistic simulations of government and to grapple with relevant social issues. They will investigate and argue actual cases and controversies using real law, and they will view these cases from the perspective of the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. Our Courts will also encourage young people to act, by voicing their opinions in their communities and to their elected representatives. ((“Project Summary.” Our Courts. Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University College of Teacher Education & Leadership, and Sandra Day O’Connor Project on The State of the Judiciary. 12 Aug 2008 <>. ))

There is also a good video intro from Justice O’Connor. What I found intriguing was how she came to understand, while attending the Games for Change Conference, that Game, in a sense, is another word for world, and that makes games an appropriate avenue for learning and education. I also liked the way that Gee admitted to being a baby boomer, and that he was getting out of the way and letting younger game developers actually design the Our Counts game.