"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Raise the bar, dammit, RAISE the bar!

I don't have much to add to this story in the New York Times about a historical research quarterly written entirely by high school students (mostly public school students, by the way). These kids are researching, analyzing and writing up ORIGINAL RESEARCH for no school credit, no money, no headlines, no appearance on Jersey Shore. So why do it? Why does anyone want to be excellent? Do we really have to ask this question? (Yes, it will help with admission to college, but that has to be viewed as a secondary outcome, given the complexity of the task and the unlikeliness of one's paper being singled out.)

Here are some topics I found on the site currently: Austria-Hungary and the Compromise of 1867, The Paradox of Power: An Analysis of the Rise of Parliamentary Power with the Consolidation of the Monarchy in the English Reformation, and An Analysis of Alexander Kerensky's Handling of General Lavr Kornilov. I'm a bit of a history buff, and I find this stuff pretty arcane and sophisticated.

William Fitzhugh, who runs this journal, The Concord Review, is reportedly difficult and disagreeable. Maybe so, but maybe it's because he's swimming against the dominant school current of diluting and lowering standards. This impulse comes from a good place -- we want to provide success scenarios for all students, especially those who struggle and are likely to be frustrated. But the problem comes when we exchange interim, partial goals to be celebrated in order to spur students on for ultimate goals of excellence by objective standards.

The other reason that Fitzhugh may be difficult may be that his values conflict with parent's values, and those are always a problem for us classroom teachers. Let's be honest: the surest way to lower standards in education is to give parents more control. Parents are, as a rule, more interested in outward measures of success than in actual success. They press for higher grades for less work. They prioritize family activities, sports and other extracurricular obligations over school work. The Concord Review was not created by parents, nor would it likely to be run by them. It doesn't hand out "A"s or cash prizes or guaranteed school admissions. It's about learning a process, not rewarding an outcome. And the process should be its own reward.

Also, it's elitist. There's a mistrust of experts today, and that also comes from a reasonable place. "The Best and the Brightest" told us to trust them and led us into the Vietnam war. Experts lie and misrepresent. But that didn't make us smarter, didn't make us experts. It's not that we should disdain the hard work it takes to become expert in a field -- it is that we should question ALL AUTHORITY, including academic authority. Don't discard it, don't subvert it, but question it -- in an intelligent way, which requires being informed. Every time a politician compares the national debt to a household budget, you know either he's an idiot or thinks he's talking to idiots. The budget of a nation which has its own economy and its own currency is NOTHING LIKE the budget of a household. This is like saying, "I know all about defense appropriations because I own a Hummer."

We need smart, informed, hard-working people in the next generation and our school culture is moving in the opposite direction. Let's celebrate The Concord Review and identify the students we can get excited about writing for it, before it's too late.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Video gaming is the future of teaching

Since I started teaching, early in the previous decade, it has been accepted wisdom to treat video games like television, instant messaging and pop culture -- a distraction that pulls students away from a disciplined program of learning.

I've learned better. Video games ARE learning. We teachers need to not only accept this, but embrace it. As long as we abandon the field to commercial game-makers, we are surrendering important real estate in our student's brains which could yield better and deeper learning than we have seen in our generation as teachers.

I was converted largely due to this episode of On The Media, an NPR show I am seriously addicted to. The episode made two points that were clinchers to me: First - of all the things video games are teaching, they are teaching perseverance. So many of us are convinced that kids don't want to do anything that's hard or that takes a lot of time and has a lot of obstacles. Beating a video game is hard, takes time and has many obstacles to success. The key difference is that players are motivated to play and to win. That is obviously the piece that we are missing when we are teaching. We do not create tasks that students want to succeed at. Some will be motivated by secondary rewards like parental approval, better GPAs with possibilities for better futures, but not everyone is wired that way. That has nothing to do with our "modern high-speed culture." Twas ever thus. Most people need reinforcement while they are working and they need to be able to visualize the goal right in front of them. Video games do that.

The second clincher was this: 10,000 hours. According to this podcast, studies show that students will spend 10,000 hours playing video games during their school careers. Anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers knows that 10,000 hours is what is required to create an expert or a virtuoso. That's the amount of time young Bill Gates spent learning to write programs; it's the amount of time the Beatles spent in dirty German dance clubs learning to become a band; it's the time Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan needed to become who they are. So like it or not, are students are becoming experts, and the problem is that we don't know at exactly what yet.

Another important element, which I picked up from a book called What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee is that despite the stereotype of the lonely, isolated nerd, gaming at its best is intensely social. First of all, many games, especially online games require one to enter a milieu, adopt an identity and interact with others. Right away, the gamer is performing critical learning and synthesis functions, taking information about the environment and the persons one finds in that environment and transforming the data into tasks and choices. This is higher-order learning, and the learning increases. Moreover, one can work cooperatively with other players, or learn about cheats, shortcuts and easter eggs from other players. And most experienced players don't mind helping out novices, and teaching them how to avoid rookie mistakes. This is exactly the kind of cooperative learning that we are trying to implement in school, both because it is an element in workplace preparedness and BECAUSE IT WORKS. Students learn better by teaching and learning from each other.

Game playing transforms the learners relationship with text. As Gee notes, people under 40 don't pick up manuals to learn to play a game, they start playing. And if you pick up the manual before you play, it doesn't make sense. After you have some expertise, the text starts to make sense. So it is with reading. For a 14-year-old to pick up a 19th century novel makes no sense. The entire environment is foreign, and it works by rules the reader has not yet learned. How much more sense it would make in cooperation with an integrated course which included social studies which laid the groundwork for the novel and made acquisition of both texts more comprehensible and enjoyable.

I'm not saying that schools should buy video games with educational content pasted in to Make Learning More Fun. What I'm trying to say is that we need to understand how it is that students are becoming willing and enthusiastic learners for thousands of hours without coercion or compulsion, and use those discoveries to make our students into motivated learners, without regard to external rewards and punishments.

Here's an example: Learning is more engaging when it's embedded in narrative. I'm not saying everyone should teach literature. We English teachers have made the teaching of reading into a stunningly boring process by dissecting the beast, tossing the juicy meat of storytelling away and forcing students to chew on the gristle of literary devices and "authorial voice" and sociological interpretation and a whole lot of rubbish. So don't look to us to help. Here's an example. You have to teach trig. You have to. And as you begin to draw charts of sines and cosines, the students ask "why do we have to learn this?" and you get pulled down that boring road.

What would happen if you never mentioned trig, but simply started with a blood-spattered crime site, one which required you to figure out from the angle of the spatter on the wall, exactly where the bullet impact had taken place. What if you arrived at trig inductively from a narrative, rather than introducing the narrative AFTER the boring bits. Suddenly the "boring" bits become a means to an interesting end, and I would bet that students would breeze through for the opportunity to solve a murder.

That's just one example of what we learn about learning from gaming, and I for one will need more time and study to glean what I can. But I know that I need to start now.

A lot of real smart people have given a lot more thought than I have to this, and one of the most inspiring is Jane McGonigal, as you can see in this TED talk:

In the interest of full disclosure, there are educators, such as Ali Carr-Chellman, seen below, who believe in the actual use of video gaming in instruction, for the specific purpose of re-engaging young men who have become disengaged or even absent from school, a observable trend over the last 40 years. This is a more localized application of the concept, but may be of specific interest to some of my fellow teachers:

I've been kicking and screaming about kids playing video games instead reading Hawthorne for many years now. I'm convinced now that the video games are not the problem, but the way I've presented Hawthorne; and that, moreover, the solution is found in a discerning analysis of what it is that makes those games so compelling.