Get great games into schools

I’ve repeatedly said that games are not going to save neither the world nor education.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t think games can be very relevant and valuable in schools.

They most certainly can.

It only means that they shouldn’t be considered anything but a little piece of the big educational puzzle – how do we create more meaningful education, that empower kids to change the world?

When looking at the big, sprawling field of “games & learning”, many of the most interesting tendencies are tied to games that are not “learning games”. They’re “just” great games:

Civilization.

The Walking Dead.

Minecraft.

Sim City.

Portal 2.

Gone Home.

None of these games are developed to support the formal learning goals in education, and they don’t do so if all you do is play the game (no games or media do that, by the way).

The secret behind the use of these “entertainment games” in school is deceptively simple, as it’s (in almost every case) initiated by great teachers performing creative experiments (which is also, incidentally, the only way I see real change happening in education).

I’m fortunate enough to know a fair share of these amazing teachers, in Denmark and around the world, who are constantly in the midst of these experiments, and who are consequently huge sources of inspiration.

One of the issues all of these teachers are trying to solve and one of the big barriers for “games in schools” (but far from the only one, mind you) is getting access to the games.

It’s currently quite the undertaking to A) find relevant games and B) acquire the relevant licenses for students, and there’s no one way of going about it. Often teachers engaged in this are simply playing games themselves and either buying “deals” (e.g. in Steam sales or in the Humble Bundle) or using their own or students’ copies of the game. Some go the extra mile and initiate a conversation with the developer, who actually more often than not are willing to make a particularly good deal or even give away their games for free (major props to any developer supporting the use of games in schools like that).

While I salute the effort of these passionate teachers, I can’t help but wonder:

Wouldn’t it be better, if teachers could focus on what they love more than anything: teaching?

I have actually written about exactly this issue before, but maybe this is a better moment in time?

What we need is something along these lines:

A central hub/website, where great games are curated based on their potential use in education, and where cheap and easy access to school licenses are readily available in a flexible way.

These licenses should be negotiated with the developers, who will probably have to be interested in partly sponsoring games to schools. They would gain access to a new market (education), create awareness and build massive goodwill (more about this in the old post).

The actual initiative behind the effort could be a new, independent non-profit, or it could be affiliated with existing initiatives:

I think it’s important that any initiative in this direction should be a non-profit, as it’s not about making more money off of other people’s games.

It’s about providing access for teachers. That goal should be completely clear.

I don’t know if I should really get involved in something like this (I did say I’d talk less about games), but if that’s what’s needed to make it move forward, I’ll make myself available.

Who wants to talk about the idea?

We’re the stupid ones!

Most people working within education are probably familiar with the widespread notion, that during the recent decades, students have been growing less and less intelligent.

Students today, it is said, are simply dumber than they used to be.

To me, this is nothing but self-deception.

Using the “stupid students argument”, we keep reaffirming ourselves, that what we do is not the problem.

Students are.

We’ve been doing like this for years, so why should it suddenly be wrong? Isn’t it just a matter of trying harder? Of making students today understand, that they must align with our methods, our perspectives, our way of thinking?

No.

Why?

Eactly because we’ve been doing like this for years and the world is not a static place.

However condescendingly obvious and self-evident this may seem, we haven’t really accepted it in education.

Yes, we have acknowledged, that there’s something called the internet and that computers may have a contribution to make.

But we’ve been obsessively trying to apply ICT as tools to reach the same goals in more or less the same ways.

What we need is a radical change.

If students appear to be stupid, it’s because we force them into a structure, which frames them as stupid. A framework, where they’re not recognised as the humans and students they are, but as the humans and students we would like them to be. This image, this persona, is, however, a retrospect. It’s a thing of the past.

We (as individuals, as schools, as entire educational system) should be self-reflective enough to look inwards when we encounter problems. We have the power to redesign education, to make it relevant, and we should be willing to accept, that the responsibility lies with us.

Why don’t we dare to do that? Why are we so eager to blame the students?

Students are not the stupid ones.

We are.


Credits: Nick Dewar

Break down the walls

When looking at the way we structure educational systems, I’m always immediately struck by all the artificial borders we have  created in and around schools, effectively walling off education from surrounding society.

When children enter primary school, they’re grouped by the somewhat arbitrary parameter “age”, and remains in most cases divided in this way.

Once organised into these age-homogenous groups, education is again further divided into subjects, which are predominantly taught isolated from other subjects and in bite-size chunks, making most schedules look something like this timetable from Töyrynummi Primary School:

Those are borders within education. That’s important issues, yet what’s probably even more problematic is the borders we’ve been building around education.

In most occassions, students are being taught or working on assignments, which has nothing to do with…anything, really. Anything beyond the classroom & curriculum, that is. Students might comment on contemporary events, yet they do so mostly in the closed ecosystem of the classroom.

Is education caught in industrial society?
Is education caught in industrial society?

These characteristics remind me of  industrial society, which we so often claim to have left behind years ago. Society as a whole may have moved on, yet education seems to be helplessly stuck in the past. All the distinctions and borders are (to the best of my knowledge) not established for creating optimal learning conditions, but for convenience’ sake. We do what we do because it’s a nice, easy and comfortable way of organising and structuring education, providing us with an illusory sense of order and control.

In my book, that’s not an acceptable argumentation.

This situation worries me for numerous reasons, the common denominator being the increasing gap between education and the surrounding society, in which education is situated.

From the student perspective, there is no obvious link between “school skills and competences” and the actual application of said skills and competences. This frequently leads to a feeling that education holds no relevance, as it is very hard to decipher the future use of what they are expected to learn.

From the perspective of society, we see an enormous resource left almost entirely untapped. Whereas students could potentially influence society, they are rarely allowed to work on anything but assignments limited to unfold within the confines of the classroom.

We should change our perception of students from someone merely preparing to participate in society to someone who are actually able to actively contribute to creating a better world. In general, we should stop thinking about education as something seperated from society, and allow for education at all levels to much more closely resemble and interact with society. Besides adressing substantial contemporary issues, this would also require us to reconsider the internal boundaries. Where in society do you meet problems confined to the domain of one school subject? The world does not respect subjects or disciplines, and learning how to navigate in chaotic interdisciplinarity becomes pivotal. Also, almost exclusively working with similarly aged peers does not exactly promote the ability to interact in heterogeneous group, which is labelled as a “key competence” by OECD.

Could we imagine an educational system, which is much more integrated with society? Where no rigid time tables exist, but where students of heterogenous age groups are collaborating to solve substantial contemporary problems and thus influencing society in a wide array of positive ways? Where learning is not directed by abstract curriculums divided into subjects, but by the actual problems?

Who would have the courage to radically break away from the current paradigm of education?

Anything less than that is not enough.

The simple beauty of a duck

As already stated, yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in the very inspiring “NEXT KIDS TECH 2011” conference hosted by the LEGO Foundation in Billund. Besides “just” participating in an exciting conference, I was struck by the culture permeating the organization which is LEGO. I’m fully aware that this experience cannot be separated from happy childhood memories, intensive corporate branding and my personal opinion that LEGO is cool.

Even so, the core values of LEGO (some of which are caught on the image to the right) all seemed very credible to me and I returned home with a reinforced conviction, that our schools should be more like the informal, autonomous, open-ended and exploratory learning, which the LEGO bricks so brilliantly facilitates.

Less scaffolding and rigid rules, more freedom and exploration.

All these important lessons were beautifully illustrated by the little yellow LEGO duck. At the end of the day, we all received a tiny bag with just six bricks, and were told to each make our own duck as we thought a proper LEGO duck would look like. Everybody engaged passionately in this, and few ducks ended up looking the same.

“There is no wrong way to build with LEGOs, only right ways” we were told.

Of course this is all a relatively cheap (yet effective) trick, but two things struck me as being perfectly encapsulated in this little intermezzo (besides all the allready established LEGO-values).

First off, the idea expressed above. There are no wrong ways, just right ways, and in addition, if you have enough LEGO, you can build just about anything. The same should go for education – there should be no wrong ways, but rather a multitude of right ways, all depending on your individual preferences, and we should definitely support the notion, that with the right amount of creativity and hard work, you can build anything.

Secondly, by building our own little duck, we all experienced a strong sense of ownership over our little creation. Most people kept their ducks, showing them off, and bringing them home to support the memory of a mighty fine day. What if we could instill the same sense of ownership with students in our educational systems by allowing them a more autonomous role in “building” their own education?

Definitely worth thinking about, and yet another reminder, that most informal learning (e.g. LEGO or video games) are way better at fostering intrinsic motivation, and that we simply cannot afford to ignore this in formal learning contexts.

Oh, and my overall impression of the entire day wasn’t in the least ruined by a bit of bribery:

Bribed to be creative?

Jamming in education

Nordic Game Jam (ITU)

I never stop thinking about the perils and challenges of contemporary education, and the pivotal component of my overall mission is thus contributing to improving education.

How can this be done?

This is a silly question, as it somehow indicates that it can actually be answered.

Obviously, there is no one answer and none of us will probably ever comprehend the true complexity of our intricate system of education in its entirety.

Even so, we should never cease asking hard questions and providing new and creative solutions to the challenges ahead of us, leaving the beaten track without the old and possibly worthless maps of yesteryear.

As I am constantly navigating the intersection between education and video games, I consider looking to games development for inspiration a feasible suggestion.

Some time ago, I read the article “Game Jam Your Studio!” by Blake Rebouche from BioWare Austin. He argues, that doing experimental game jams with your game studio “is so much better than bowling, the normal team exercise everybody does”.

Where it is obvious to do gamejams within a games company, the idea of “jamming” may very well be adopted to the area of education.

Looking to the Nordic Game Jam, which is part of the Global Game Jam, we could ask – “why participate in a game jam?” and find the following answer:

And why go through 48 hours of: very little sleep, hard work, great ideas, crunching, problem solving & technical issues? Because a game jam encourages innovation and experimentation. It is one of the vehicles behind the new generation of game developers that can experiment with platforms and game ideas in an intense and yet still informal atmosphere. This is the space where the new generation of talents can be found.

Nordic Game Jam > Nordic Education Jam?

In addition, the game jam is described as being “more like an “idea space” rather than competition, where participants can challenge their skills and ideas”, which again indicates the value of these intense and problem-oriented projects.

We need “innovation”, “experimentation”, “idea spaces”, and “challenging skills and ideas” everywhere in society, but perhaps first and foremost in education.

Actually, we need to think of education as an idea space in itself, and as a site of constant experimentation, where we maintain a desire to challenge what we think we know. Think about “education” as a dynamic concept, which never reaches any final stage.

Doing an education jam along the lines of the far more widespread game jams might help us reach upon such an understanding.

It can be done at the level of the individual institution; gather your teachers for an entire weekend of creative experimentation, where all the traditional concepts of education are challenged, and everything is possible. Build a somewhat structured framework, perhaps with a set of “rules and constraints”, like most game jams do, and allow groups of teachers to imagine scenarios, build prototypes and concepts and afterwards try them out in class.

Another possibility would be to do a Nordic/Global Education Jam.

Imagine that; summon a large number of dedicated, creative teachers and relevant practitioners, release them from the everyday constraints (if only for 48 hours) and indulge them to work out new experimental solutions.

What’s not to like?

Leave the map behind

Jon Krakauer & Sean Penn in the wilderness

The other day I watched with admiration as the tireless adventurer, mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer along with actor/director Sean Penn talked about the inspiration for writing and filming the book “Into The Wild” (which is a marvelous story for a would-be adventurer like myself). The book and movie portrait young Christopher McCandless, who went aimlessly and maplessly into the alaskan wilderness. Krakauer pointed out that he actually understood the motivation of McCandless, who ended up dying in his pursuit of meaning. What Krakauer seemed to understand was the urge to leave the map – not just leave it behind, but actually leave it, moving off the map to carve a new path for himself:

“People don’t get it. He didn’t even have a fuckin’ map; what kind of idiot? THAT was the point. There’s no blank spots on the map anymore, anywhere on earth. If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind.”

This somewhat contradictory statement immediately resonated with me (even though I would probably never wander into any wilderness without the safety of maps, a gps an so on). Krakauer implies that as the entire world is now carefully mapped, we must ignore these maps if we desire to explore the world anew.

I am now thinking about this idea of “leaving the map” as a clear analogy to the work I’m doing with education.

I like analogies. They can help us see things, which we might just ignore or write off, and they help us see those same things in a new perspective (they can also confuse and muddle things, but that’s another matter).

For centuries, we have been developing “maps” – conventions, traditions, habits, “solutions” – attempting to completely illuminate and navigate within the complexity of education.

These maps may very well be growing obsolete and useless, pointing us in the wrong direction down blind alleys.

Thus, we must be willing to leave the existing maps behind, explore society and the territory of education once more, draw new maps – and continue to do so.

Or, according to Ken Robinson in the very inspiring TED-talk found below, we must shift our focus from evolution to revolution:

“Every education in the the world is being reformed at the moment, and it’s not enough. Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need […] is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else. One of the real challenges is to innovate fundamentally in education. Innovation is hard, because it means doing something that people don’t find very easy for the most part. It means challenging what we take for granted, things that we think are obvious.”

As humans, we hunger for easy solutions, but sadly, no such thing is readily available in this case.

Even so, we should consider leaving the map behind a crucial part of our solution. We should continually encourage experiments and a willingness to risk failing by challenging conventional wisdom and old assumptions on what constitutes good education.

Failure is definitely an option, and one we must embrace in order to move forward along the right tracks.