Plus ca change, plus ce meme chose. When I was a boy, teaching went on in classrooms much like it had for over 100 years, and, besides the look of the environs, much like it had from the time of Socrates. A teacher, more learned than we, was the centre of our attention, and we sat, either metaphorically or literally, at her feet. She often began, as Socrates did, with questions, and would have us examine and sometimes overturn our existing ideas. (She had us do work, and this might have been a departure with Socrates, though I imagine even Greek students in Classical Athens practiced reading, writing, and geometry, and besides – such useful but boring tasks wouldn’t have found a place in Plato’s recordings.) Teaching, was a human art, practiced by humans, of finding common ground, of imparting, of making our minds like each other’s; the most technology we experienced was only tangentially – the mimeograph machine would produce exotic-smelling copies for us to hold.But times change: for me, it was somewhere in the third grade when we got our first taste of computers. We trundled to the library (now, in an increasingly post-book world we call it a ‘resource room,’ implying all resources deserve equality) to sit at large machines. I recall typing in the username and password, and playing typing games.
That was 1987. How far we have come. A Google search of the phrase “technology in the classroom” leads to nearly 35,000,000 responses. Students routinely spend more time on computers or game systems than they do reading. And why not? In Ontario, the self-styled education premier Dalton McGuinty has even suggested that even cellphones, once the bane of the teacher, can be used in class to great educational effect. “Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want to do is to be well-informed,” he said to CBC news. “And it’s something that we should be looking at in our schools.”
The New York Times Magazine recently showcased a piece called “Games Theory: Keeping Children Plugged In at School.”
The basic idea is that educators can exploit “The intrinsic qualities of games as learning spaces…. learning is structured in a game-like way.”
First, the obvious celebration of students eager to learn. And they are – look no further than the boy featured at minute 2:50: “I’m learning a lot of stuff, but only in a funner way.”
(At minute 2:54, we meet the parents. Lovely, obviously rich, sophisticated, worldly, and able to provide nearly anything to their son. You could substitute ‘video game school’ for ‘music school’ and get nearly the same response, I imagine, from a similar, stylish, rich set of parents of an equally eager son.)
But critiques of upwardly-mobile-middle-class parenting aside, the underlying philosophical message of the project should give us pause. The notion reported on, the success of a video game approach to learning, relies on several premises:
1) For learning to be engaging, it must be fun
2) By ‘fun,’ we mean something in a student’s pre-existing set of enjoyments
3) We should shoehorn larger curriculum goals into those things students define as fun.
If we insist on these premises, and many of us do when we pursue novelty over classical approaches, we shrink run the risk of shrinking a student’s set of opportunities. Children don’t leave the womb with an intrinsic appreciation of some of life’s most important, and beautiful, things. By focusing on their existing interests, don’t we impoverish them? And is it really true that for things to be meaningful to students, they must be fun? And how do we define that – is all fun digital?
And then there are the pedagogical concerns about teaching curriculum disembodied from its usual place and embodied in a video game. Does it really make sense to understand say, math, through an integrated project like this? How about literature? Maybe art, if we only focus on digital art, but how about art history? Will students have any context, will they participate in the traditions of our culture, of our intellectual past?
And of course, most will not protest these projects for two reasons, one known the other subconscious. The known reasons for calm is that young people engaged in learning stir the heart. The second, the subconscious, reason for calm is that so much of this is exactly like other school work: students work in groups to achieve a bigger, or more authentic piece of work involving complex and critical processes, and in doing so, achieve what the teacher featured describes (about the game project) as “The definition of higher-order thinking.”
We live in an age of computers, of course we will use them in a classroom. But it is useful to note that the processes of learning probably haven’t changed any more than our brains have changed.
The really useful parts of what is going on here are already common in our schools (the challenge is that they don’t always work, and that goes for nearly any engagement strategy, given the variability of human interests and disposition – teaching is, as Jacques Barzun so wisely pints out, not a problem to be solved, once and for all, but a difficulty to be met, each and every day). If you want to see continuity with your own school experience, look no further than minute 1:50, where the teacher lists elements of the project and the students, sitting at his feet, repeat as a class.
Plus ca change…