Video game school? GREAT IDEA.

I stumbled across this fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine about a school in New York City (of course, where else?) named Quest to Learn that uses video games as a central educational resource. There are so many different facets of life and education that the article directly and indirectly touches on, that this blog post will probably become over-long, but hey, where else am I going to post this?

What I want the reader to understand is that I'm not anti-video game. Dear God, the hours and hours I spent in the days before worries playing on systems from the Atari 2600 to the XBox 360. I also am not saying that a video game design course couldn't be integrated into existing curriculums and used interdisciplinarily to great effect. It's just that some of the ideas and philosophies driving the Quest to Learn school indicate what amounts to a scrubbing of all pre-21st century pedagogy in favor of funneling learning through video games.

Video games, essentially, teach us how to be more robotically functioning - greater response time! improved dexterity! increased peripheral vision! There has always been a decision-making function. In the great, old Atari game Pitfall it was, should I cross the lake by hopping on the croc heads or by swinging on that there vine? Decisions happen every day, nearly every instant, as physicists in favor of the infinite universes theory can tell you. So while video games can give us improved military skills and heap more decision-making on us, what they fail fundamentally to be able to teach us is the why in life.

Let's get to the thick of things. The article states, "In a speech given the day before the start of the 2009 G-20 economic summit, Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, offered his own tacit approval, suggesting that playing video games, especially online multiplayer games, fosters collaboration, and that collaboration, in turn, fosters innovation — making it good training for a career in technology. 'Everything in the future online is going to look like a multiplayer game,” Schmidt said. 'If I were 15 years old, that’s what I’d be doing right now.'"

But that's just it, Eric - I'm not 15. Nor are about five billion other people on the planet. Just because video games are fun, and because there are grown-ups who find dealing with them easier than dealing with being a grown-up, does not mean that a diversion meant primarily for people who don't have responsibilities 18 hours out of the day is suddenly supposed to be all we ever do and see.

Interestingly, the school implemented a social network for the students, staff, and parents called Being Me that is essentially Facebook on a smaller scale. "In the coming weeks, mostly through the school’s wellness class, students would work on learning things like how to tag photos, update their status, credit the work of others, comment meaningfully on blog posts and navigate the complex politics of 'friending.'"

In other words, teaching them how to use Facebook, which I'm quite sure many of them already do.

It continues: "It was another effort on the school’s part to look at the things kids are already doing — social networking, playing video games, tinkering with digital media — and try to help them do it with more thought and purpose, to recognize both their role and their influence inside a larger system."

Facebook doesn't require thought and purpose. That's the point. You know what does? Writing an essay. Collaborating on a research paper. Putting together a science project. Learning a new piece of music in band or orchestra class. Those are all things that require thought and purpose. But not nearly as much as is required to "friend" someone, I guess.

In one particular paragraph, a short list of technologies kids quickly master nowadays is given - social media, Youtube, gaming, music sampling, cell phones - yet Michael H. Levine laments that because schools today put a limit on or ban such things inside their walls, "it does little to teach students how to live in the 21st century." Really? How so? It seems to me that, by that list, kids are doing just fine outside of school learning how to live in the present day. They should be going to school to focus on things that TV, radio, movies, magazines, and video games are not out to teach.

The school has a set-aside space called Smallab in which "[s]tudents can thus learn chemical titration by pushing king-size molecules around the virtual space. They can study geology by building and shifting digital layers of sediment and fossils on the classroom floor or explore complementary and supplementary angles by racing the clock to move a giant virtual protractor around the floor."

In my opinion, this is the kind of technology we should be focused on. It allows students to learn by experiencing  the subject matter in a heightened and visual way, in an exciting way even, in a way they couldn't just a short time ago, without turning the subject matter into a "video game." Not to say that there can't be game-like elements - I mean, teachers have been turning subject matter into games for decades (hello, Spanish Bingo!) and yes, it makes things more fun for everyone. That clearly is not the same as saying "video games are winning over school, so let's cave in and bring video games here and hope the students like us for it." Which is essentially what this school is doing.

"'I think games are the future in education,' Wilson said in an interview with the game designer Will Wright last year. 'We’re going through a rapid transition now. We’re about to leave print and textbooks behind.'"

So will there be a video game about the conquests of Hannibal? A video game about Emily Dickinson poems? A video game about the telltale symptoms of bipolar disorder? Why is it that when something new comes along, not only are there people desperate to completely saturate the world with it, but to treat it as though it is unquestionably better than anything that pre-dates it?

One of the teachers, Al Doyle, expounded on how so-ten-years-ago the twentieth century is, along with all of its skills. "Why memorize the 50 states and their capitals? Why, in the age of Google and pocket computers, memorize anything? 'Handwriting?' Doyle said. 'That’s a 20th-century skill.' Realizing this sounded radical, he amended his thought, saying that students should learn to write, but that keyboarding was far more important. He took aim at spelling, calling it 'outmoded.'"

I'm pretty sure that anyone who thinks about it long enough will realize that memorizing information is important because 1) it increases your knowledge set, and 2) how do we know that Google is going to be around until the end of time? It's called "give a man a fish and he eats for a day." Honestly, sometimes I feel like the endurance of advanced civilizations are being sabotaged by people hiding behind halcyon visions of a "future" that's as indetermined as your waking up tomorrow. They get so caught up in ideas and gaming utopias that they fail to pause and consider (as we all learned in Jurassic Park) not "can we?" but "should we?"

Should we become a society that is no more than an extension of technology that could fail at any moment? Should we stop making paper and pencils and become unable to craft a simple grocery list without our smart phones? Should we proclaim the building blocks of written communication "outmoded" for reasons that, honestly, I can't even figure out? (Why in the world does spelling get lumped in with everything else? Are communal language systems somehow holding us back?)

Honestly, I get so pissed at people who clearly are intelligent and have much to offer but instead stand around and yap "new, new, new!!!" without ever coming up with the logical inference that old things/old ways are not by their nature bad, wrong, or a hindrance.

I think the Smallab they have going on at Quest to Learn is completely on the right track - it teaches tried-and-true subject matter while utilizing new technology to allow students a more immersive (and easier to remember) experience. I think the video game angle sucks. "We learned about pyramids today - now let's create a game using a pyramid!" No, how about we learn about how the pyramids were made, what they were used for, how long we think they'll be around, etc. etc.

I don't think the minds behind Quest to Learn ever heard this crucial and modern maxim: Don't give kids what they want. Give kids what they need.


Diana Mieczan said...

That is incredibly interesting...I am going to read the whole article right now:)

Ps: I am hosting a sweet GIVEAWAY today :) Hope you will join in :)!!!

Sparrow's Nest said...

I really think people need to learn to function without the internet, lol, *says the girl who spends about five hours a day online


Don said...

Maybe you and Tim agree on this: Kids need to be made ready to become contributing members in a rapidly changing world.

What you don't agree on is the how.

I think education must teach students to:

1) master content
2) learn the processes of mastery
3) increase affect towards learning.

Put another way:

1) learn something
2) learn how you learn
3) learn to love learning.

The state education systems have thoughtfully mandated the content (1).

The good education systems foster #2 and #3 as they go about accomplishing #1.

Perhaps Tim has gone too far on #3, at the expense of #1 and #2.

All three are necessary conditions to accomplishing the mission: fostering the development of responsible contributing members of our society.

Just sayin'.

(By the way... you do have depth, passion, and logic beyond the norm.)

Just sayin'.

Saphron said...

Thanks you all for reading the post. :)

Don, I think you're pretty much right (including the compliment, hee hee)... ;)