“After school, kids are devouring new information, concepts, and skills every day, and, like it or not, they’re doing it controller in hand, plastered to the TV. The fact is, when kids play videogames they can experience a much more powerful form of learning than when they’re in the classroom. Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them. Doubt it? Just ask anyone who’s beaten Legend of Zelda or solved Morrowind.”
– James Paul Gee, Professor of literary studies, Arizona State University
I don’t play computer games. I find them to be too loud and too intense. So I don’t play. As a child I did play some games from start to finish but it was never something that I got hooked on. I played Candy Crush for about three months until I got tired of it. Then I deleted it from my phone.
This does however not mean that I cannot understand or appreciate why others play computer games. In fact, I have spent a good amount of the past couple of months exploring the world of game development and gaming in general. I have watched some amazing films documenting the resilience and genius creativity of game developers such as the documentary Indie Game: The Movie and two TED talks, one titled Gaming to Re-Engage Boys in Learning and another that inspired me greatly with game developer Jane McGonigal titled Gaming can make a better world. I have furthermore talked at length with my students about their favorite games and it taught me a lot about gaming. For example: Minecraft is the number one game among my younger students and one of my first grade students recently explained to me why it is so popular.
He said: “Anna, do you know why Minecraft is so fantastic!?”
“No” I replied.
“Because everything is square!” He said.
So there you have it, the mystery of why kids love Minecraft: solved.
The way I see it, because computer games happens to be the number one interest of my students, I have an obligation to honor and explore that interest with them – to latch onto their journey through life and through that assist and support them in any way possible to grow and expand, even if that growth and expansion takes them far beyond my comfort zone or realm of knowledge.
So I am not writing this to advocate why gaming belongs in the education system. There has been written thousands of reports and papers and articles about that, including the previous post I wrote on the matter.
In this post I will focus on the point of how we as teachers and parents can promote an educational environment of self-directed learning, where we as adults stands as catalysts and facilitators rather than as someone who is blocking learning opportunities because they do not fit into our preconceived ideas about education. I will do that through sharing an example from my work with gaming in class.
Ever since I started working as a teacher, I have tried to find ways to engage my older students (ages 11-15) to no avail. I have come to realize that they in many cases have been in the school system for so long that the school system in many respects have managed to ‘lobotomize’ them to the point where they will either go with the motions of daily school life in a zombified state or they will assume a position of reluctance and defiant apathy towards anything that is presented to them by the school system. They are not there because they want to be but because they have to be. Learning is not something they do to expand their horizons but because it is expected of them.
It has been a challenge to find a way to make learning authentic for them, as I to them am seen as yet another adult who does not understand what they are going through or what their life is like, but who nonetheless tell them what they need to know and when and why they need to know it.
When I embarked on the journey of using gaming in my work as a teacher, I had no idea just how far I would be able to reach the students through opening myself up to their interests. I had no idea that they had so many resources, so much passion and lust for learning – and that is in itself a disturbing fact.
As I mentioned in the previous post, the initial lesson plan was developed my one of my colleagues and I found his idea to use gaming to be so inspirational that I immediately took it, ran with it and developed it further.
In the previous post I described the projects I did with the younger students where we worked on developing board games inspired by computer games. With the older students however (ages 11 – 15) we embarked on a journey where the students created their own fantasy computer games. They got the task of coming up with an idea to a computer game where they were to write out a script describing the game environment, the characters and the background story.
We had a lot of fun talking about computer games, game music and game development and the students would share with me what games they played and what they liked about them. We talked about how their parents did not like them playing as much and they would share how much they learn from playing the games. What was interesting was that even though we did not actually play any games in class (we did look at trailers from games), and even though the students primarily had to write – they were more engaged than ever.
We also started playing with the idea of having their games produced as real computer games. We talked about how long that would take as several of the students asked if we could do it for real. I explained to them that it most likely takes several years (with the proper training) to create a computer game.
Then I had an idea: what if we got a hold of a game developer who could review the students’ games?
I searched online and within a matter of days I found a game developer who was more than happy to participate, having been a gamer himself and understanding the value of gaming in education. We set up a date where he was going to come to speak to the students and I told them that I was going to share their games with him and that we was going to come and review them. Knowing that a real game developer would look at their work completely changed their production process.
What they created was amazing.
All the students were engaged in their games and a fifth grade student who normally does not do any homework (in any class) would send me his scripts and not only that; he would edit them two or three times and send me the updated versions without in any way being prompted to do so by me.
Another student, a seventh grader who suffers from a learning disability and because of that normally only write a few sentences, wrote an entire page. At the end of one of our lessons he said: “by the way, I did some drawings at home.”
With an inconspicuous look on his face, he pulled four drawings up from his backpack and handed them to me. What he had done floored me.
He had drawn four drawings that must have taken him hours to draw, one depicting the character from the game, one the environment, one of the logo for the game and a portrait of the character.
He had done exactly what the other students had done in writing, only through drawing. And I had no idea that he could draw.
We had our meeting with the game developer once all the students’ games were finished. It was a huge success. He talked about his work, how games are created, how many hours of script goes into each game, how he became a developer. He showed us games he had developed and gave us the ‘behind the scenes’ tour into the world of coding and programming, much of which was presented in a highly advanced technical language that I could barely understand. The students nodded as they sat and listened in complete focused silence for nearly two hours.
Afterwards, the fifth grade student who normally does not do homework, have continued on to developing his own game, using a professional coding platform.
The seventh grader’s (the one with the learning difficulty who normally does not have many successful experiences at school) grandparents created a WordPress profile for the sole purpose of leaving a comment to his game on our blog where all the games are published telling him how proud they are of him. His mother had sent an email to their entire family sharing his game.
Another seventh grader created such an amazing story, with such rich detail and reflection on the inner lives of the characters that I suggested to him to keep developing it and maybe make it into a story. I eventually told his parents who had no idea how good a writer he was and who are now trying to convince him to write a book.
All the amazing results that came from this project can be contributed to the fact that I worked with something the students were interested in, something that is a big part of their daily life and that normally is not given any value or supported by adults.
I provided a structure and an idea in which the students could unfold and explore their creativity but all the work was their own. When they had an idea, I ran with it. When they wanted to change something in the lesson plan. I ran with it.
I have been amazed and astounded to see aspects of the students emerge that I had no idea existed and it has made me keenly aware of how much we as teachers and parents are missing out on by not engaging with children on a real and authentic level, to actually get to know them and understand them and what their life is like, without fear or moral judgments about what they ‘should’ be doing or becoming.
One aspect of this project that I am particularly satisfied with is how the project had a direct correlation with the real world. This is something that I have long advocated and this project underlines that perfectly.
When a real game developer became involved in the project, the students took the project seriously, because they were being taken seriously as having real and valuable perspectives to share with the world. They got to see a man who had chosen a career path doing something that their parents would judge as being a waste of time. It made a real impact on them.
This is something that could be easily copied to other subjects or themes or projects where, if a class or student is working with food as a topic for example, a chef can be invited to cook with them or taste their recipes. Or if a class is working with democracy as a topic, they can work with changing things in their local environment or school that they are not satisfied with. They can experiment with various democratic methods such as writing petitions or letters to the newspaper or even direct social intervention and investigate which methods are most effective for change.
Not only does it establish a direct and very real connection between schools (as life-preparation facilities) and ‘real’ life, it also provides the students with a entrepreneurial aspect that is remarkably absent from most schools.
If we are serious about making this world into a better place, we ought to be equally serious about the interests of our children, to listen to what they have to say, to support them to grow and develop their utmost potential, which may just be incrementally different from what we would have imagined or preferred.
I have stopped seeing myself as a teacher who’s job it is to transfer knowledge and information into the minds of my students. Instead I see myself as a sparring partner, as someone who has experience in various fields and who can assist them to develop and materialize their visions and goals into substantial and valuable content.
It is a position of honor and great privilege and it is a responsibility that requires the utmost amount of humbleness and courage because it requires us as adults to take a step back and admit that we do not know everything there is to know about the world. We have to be willing to let the children educate us and so transform us so that we may be fortunate enough to stand next to them as they direct their own learning and explore their potential in life.