Are schools tutorials for life?

Most people playing video games probably know about tutorials, for both good and bad. Basically, tutorials exist to teach players how to play a game.

Some tutorials are removed from the actual game, and sometimes you don’t even get to play a tutorial, but merely read about how to play. In other cases, the tutorial is tightly integrated with the actual game, and you may not even notice, that you’re playing a tutorial.

In their essence, tutorials are always about learning, and thus I’d argue that designing good tutorials have important things to tell us about designing good educations.

Many game developers are talented at designing tutorials that work really well, and one such developer, PopCap, did a presentation on the topic at the recent Game Developers Conference, covered by Gamasutra. Reading about how PopCap eminently designed the tutorial for the absolutely hilarious, wacky Plants vs Zombies, I couldn’t help but wonder:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/mathiaspoulsen/status/180661490536292352″]

A tutorial prepares you to participate in and master the game, whereas school prepares you to particpate in and master life (at least in my ideal perception of school). So we might say that a tutorial is to a game, what school is to life, right?

Let’s look at PopCap’s ten principles for designing great tutorials in games:

  1. Blend the tutorial into the game
  2. Better to have the player “do” than “read”
  3. Spread out the teaching of game mechanics
  4. Just get the player to do it once
  5. Use fewer words
  6. Use unobtrusive messaging if possible
  7. Use adaptive messaging
  8. Don’t create noise
  9. Use visuals to teach
  10. Leverage what people already know

Some are more specific to games than others, but just looking at the first two reminds me of a few of the most prominent flaws of most of todays educations.

The first one might be the one which resonated the most with me. I often talk about how education should not be isolated from society, but rather be an active part of the world, influencing the society we live in (for instance here & here). When a tutorial is disintegrated from the game, it is most often boring, the lessons learned are difficult to apply, and it all seems a bit abstract. The same goes for school being disintegrated from society. Lessons become abstract, difficult to apply and – too often – boring. Useless is a strong word, but we might in too many cases be moving in that direction, sadly.

The second principle lies in direct continuation, stating that we shouldn’t merely read about how to play a game, but rather just be allowed to actually play the game. As regards school, we shouldn’t just read about how this or that aspect of the world works (or be exposed to traditional one-way teaching), but we should rather explore and interact with that world – do something in the world.

I like thinking about schools as a tutorial to life, and I think there’s some quite valuable lessons to learn here.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet played this insane & terrific game, you’re in for a treat (and it’s available on iOS, Android, PC, MAC, Windows Phone and a whole bunch of other platforms or right here in your browser)

Can students save the world?

Due to my huge interest in “games as learning machines“, I’ve been actively pursuing the idea of “challenge based learning” for some time now. In short, good games build a framework for exactly that – challenge based learning. Players are tasked with numerous challenges, and they must learn what is required to overcome those challenges in order to play the game.

At the same time, education is all too often not about facing challenges and solving problems (as I lamented on recently) and we tend to forget the importance of doing things in a context. Rather, it’s about learning subject matter in relative isolation and with no immediate application.

“Why are we learning this? – Oh, because the central curriculum states its importance”.

Luckily, we’re currently seeing many movements arguing in favor of radical change. Education needs to find a more healthy and dynamic relationship with society, and one where students are allowed a role in shaping and improving the world around them. Why do we instinctively believe, that we have to be socialised through education for 10-15 years before we have any contributions to make? Why don’t we allow students to “make a dent in the universe”, as Steve Jobs famously described our reason for existing. Isn’t it in a way disrespectful to treat our young generations like this, stowing them away in classes where they can cause no harm? Couldn’t we make better use of students as valuable resources in our ongoing pursuit for a better world?

Are we really just afraid, that they can do better than us?

One ambitious and interesting project, initiated by The New Media Consortium in partnership with Apple Education, is appropriately titled “Challenge Based Learning” and intends to explore and promote the idea of linking learning to concrete real-world challenges:

Yes, the video is only showing a very polished image of the actual projects, yet I’m repeatedly impressed and touched by the kid in the end. It really says it all, and better than I possibly could.

A new report is out, where the project studies are described in more detail:

CBL makes learning relevant by giving kids problems big enough so that they have to learn new ideas and tools to solve them, but immediate enough so that they care deeply that solutions are found. Young people want to solve real problems, and that is exactly what challenge based learning is designed to do — give students and teachers a framework that makes learning relevant, and then let them dive in

Can students really save the world, then?

Maybe not, but we should definitely create more meaningful educations, which, in the very least, allow them to try.