Monday, June 20, 2011

Learning Environments: Video Games vs. Making Stuff

It is with very mixed feelings that I have been reading about efforts to create learning environments within the context of video games.  I'm not against using video games as educational tools, necessarily, but I still have this thought in the back of my head:

Why do we need to give kids more screen time then they already have when there are so many more fabulous things they could be doing, like making stuff?

Keith Devlin gave a really worthwhile presentation at the NCTM annual meeting in Indy back in April about the potential of video games in mathematics education and has a new book out on the subject.  He's all for it because gaming is a lifestyle for many kids already -- why not meet kids where they're at with what already motivates them?   His argument (as expressed here) is that well-designed video games "can help develop mathematical thinking, but they are a lot more difficult to design than a simple skills-tester." 

Essentially this means game developers need to think well beyond the basic number skills, factual recall, and symbolic systems that most people think of as 'math' and instead create a game context that engages kids in mathematical thinking and problem solving.  Developing a game like this, Keith says, is unfortunately a huge task with little return on investment and so, until someone comes up with the money, we are relegated to a host of math-fact recall games like this one

So, kids like video games, that much is clear.  But, well designed or not, how much more screen time does a kid need??  I read somewhere that many/most kids spend as much time gaming as they do in school (that may have been from Keith Devlin's NCTM talk, actually). My biggest concern, given my commitment to getting kids away from their desks and physically engaged in a thinking/solving/creating process, is that the 'We' with a capital W continue to ignore evidence (and more evidence and a really good argument presenting evidence) that not only do kids need to move more but that...

...real, true comprehension of subject matter and thinking is something that happens in concert between the learner's body, brain, mind, heart and soul.

I recently found something that speaks to all these parts of us called the Tinkering School:

"The Tinkering School offers an exploratory curriculum designed to help kids – ages 8 to 17 – learn how to build things. By providing a collaborative environment in which to explore basic and advanced building techniques and principles, we strive to create a school where we all learn by fooling around. All activities are hands-on, supervised, and at least partly improvisational. Grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and intuitive leaps of imagination are, of course, encouraged and fertilized."

Gever Tully, who started the Tinkering School, has just described my ideal learning environment for all kids!  A guide, some materials, a few questions, a lot of play, some answers, and then more questions.  So I was thrilled to find his post which approached the issue of video games from my perspective -- as someone who makes things and thinks all kids can benefit from such activity.  Here's what he wrote:
Video games and kids – it’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, I was inspired by games on the Apple II to learn how to program, arguably a seminal period in my life, on the other hand games can clearly seduce the distractible child away from even their own projects. However, I occasionally find these moments where games inspire us to actions we might not otherwise take. Jane McGonigal makes the point that in games we can do the things and be the people we imagine ourselves to be. It seems true, to some extent, but I wonder if habitually playing games slowly changes our definition of success to match the accomplishments programmed into the games (and I appreciate Jane’s work mapping game mechanics onto real life to combat this).  The moment in question today came from Erik’s blog today. His blog offers a plethora of details about everything from zero-carbon houses to Sudbury schools, but I was charmed by this recent entry where he says:
Minecraft and the Tinkering School (it’s a camp) have me inspired to use power tools and knives more with the kids.
Consider that for a moment. The experience of constructing a virtual world inspired him to introduce his children to real tools. Perhaps Jane is right.
In the end, I have no answers and no final opinion, just the hope that we can all maintain perspective about the rush to use video games in education just because kids 'like' to play them.  For now, at least, kids still have bodies that need to move and are well worth harnessing in the pursuit of learning.  We also need to find many more opportunities to help kids be in charge of their own learning.  Certainly, one feels in charge in a gaming environment but, as Gever says, success comes within the confines of the programmed game structure.  Real life is much more open ended and complicated and for these reasons there's nothing more empowering than mastering the unpredictability of life by learning to make your own stuff.


  1. I would add that the computer is a completely valid platform for expression. It's not so much a concern about the amount of screen time, as it is a concern about what they are doing with that screen time. I also worry sometimes that we are training ourselves (recent blog post) to respond only to external rewards.

  2. Thanks, Malke! This is great. I count myself among those who are concerned with increasing screen time for children, period. I'm very wary of the "the horse is out of the barn, the train has left the station" argument. Here's to conversation, frustration, faces, and movement! Making something, our goals can change minute by minute, and the reward can be as simple as a moment's satisfaction.

  3. As a math teacher who used to do video game development, I think the best way to use video games to teach kids is to enable students to make their own video games.


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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