Games in the Classroom 6: cultural modeling and education beyond abstraction
20 Aug 2007

Games in the Classroom 6: cultural modeling and education beyond abstraction

Do kids just naturally get it? Are

20 Aug 2007

Do kids just naturally get it? Are they just good at games, computers, phones, and all things digital?

My experience and common sense says no, although I wish it were a general truth.

Do kids need to learn about games in school?

Yes, if we want to guide them in optimal usage, and maybe learn something from them.

This post looks at formal and informal learning and begins to make connections between what is done in school: formal learning and what is done out of school: informal. The importance of this inquiry is to look at how we can recruit these informal processes to create leverage and development in formal learning situations. What is generally true for informal learning is that the learners are learning spontaneously and then moving to the next experience. This spontaneous learning is often thought to be tacit, or below the conscious awareness. One may be able to do a thing, but may not be able to describe the process they created, much less know a name for it. Conversely, in classroom, or formal learning experiences, we hope that students are being guided through learning experiences with structured reflection to give the process and elements of the process a formal name: like reading is a process.

There are four pieces to this post:

  1. Are the kids just born with gaming skills?
  2. Should we teach with them? Games as embodied informal models of scientific reasoning and the role of play.
  3. Why we should recruit culturally relevant knowledge like games and other out of school experiences?
  4. What happens when we honor the culture, language, and experience outside of the classroom by bringing it into the classroom to connect with formal academic culture, language, and experience?


Are the kids just born with gaming skills?

Kids today are not born with digital code imprinted in their DNA. They have to learn the language of technology, just like adults.

There is a digital divide between kids that have the new technologies and those that do not, and there is also a divide between those that have the games, and those that have the games and the people to help them understand how to use them.

I have documented this with video after spending many hours in a video game after school program in Hopkins, Minnesota. What I discovered is that most of the kids did not know what to do when they were stuck in a complex game. We were playing Metroid Prime, and until Darius came, none of the boys could figure out how to get into the first air lock. Metroid Prime is kind of a complicated game. But that is what makes it worthwhile. It is an open environment game that demands that you make sense of the world and find your way. There is a hint system in the game, but for some reason, it was turned off. That was very convenient for me to watch and see what they would do—not that I had anything to do with that. The cool thing is that there are many ways that a person can get through each problem. This allows for expression through play—an aesthetic. This open-ended approach to game play was discussed in my talk at the Professionalism in Practice conference. In the slides from that conference, I described the idea of non-linearity in game design. That is, you cannot necessarily predict the steps in a progression in a game. Even a simple one like Chutes and Ladders. Because of all of the chutes and ladders being dictated by the spinner, probability makes strategizing futile. Kids can begin to estimate and hope for the spinner to land on six, but they cannot plan for it either. This might be a difficult pill to swallow for educators, but when you assess for nice and tidy answers, are you assuming that life is full of nice and tidy answers? This is the challenge, there are many similarities in life, experience, and people, but it is variation that allows us to prosper and adapt. If we did not allow for variation, we would have no innovation. We would be living on rails from start to finish.

Back to Metroid Prime

They turned on the game and mashed the buttons on the controller; each taking turns trying to make Samus (the character) do something. It seemed clear to them, in the video footage I recorded, that there must be a way to get into the space station. They figured out how to shoot things, but that was about it besides walking around.

This was different from the genre of game that these kids played regularly. It demanded that they go through the process of elimination in pressing buttons, as well as finding different combinations, and then to do the same thing by pressing things in the game environment. It took patience and a methodical approach to trial and error. But none of the boys had this patience or persistence.

Should we teach with them? Games as informal models of scientific reasoning and the role of play

Well, what is formal scientific reasoning?

Isn’t it hypothesis testing? Isn’t it reduction then looking at different combinations of the reduced elements together working as a system? It is observation, modeling, and testing in and out of context.

It is patience, tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to withhold judgment until a proposition is disqualified through the process of elimination. It is critical thinking. These are elements of complex games as well as scientific reasoning

It seems weird, but in games, kids have to go through scientific process where they tacitly use abductive, inductive, deductive, and analogical reasoning. In essence, they were using informal scientific reasoning. But by tacit and informal I mean that they were making it up as they went and sometimes, they could replicate what they did, and sometimes they just got lucky; and in times past the game held their hand to get them through and made them practice until they got it. Not this time though.

The point is, games are complex and dynamic interactive systems that demand decisions and thinking on your feet. And although games require this, and some kids do enact these formal processes, I am telling you now that this language is not generally viewed in the wild folks. It is taught. And the knowledge is either tacit, in that you can do it but you can’t explain it, or it is explicit, where you have a name for it and you know how it works.

These kids were at an afterschool remedial reading program. And honestly, these kids did not have the informal skills described. They were stuck outside the space station on Metroid Prime. There were no hints to follow and imitate. As much as they all tried , they were getting very frustrated.

It wasn’t until Darius came that they were able to get into the space station. And Darius is the product of the mentorship and modeling his dad provides and the texts he reads to help him

This does not mean that Darius has formal skills. He has tacit skills where he can tell what to do, but does not have a name for the process.

In school, language is important. It is our ability to make a concept or process formalized. That is, something that can be observed and replicated. Learning this kind of language can be arduous. The key to doing this seems to be connecting to the things kids already know and give them hook a to hang it on. In essence, you can think of the experience of school as kind of a cognitive hat rack, where we create terminology and methods that are transparent, generally accepted, and not necessarily descriptive. Ontogeny anyone?

An example of tacit knowledge of a process is reading.

How many of you can define reading right now right here?

Not many, and it is not because you can’t do it, you are doing it, right now as you read. You have to reflect and think about what you are doing. You are decoding symbols and having ideas that are represented by words that you have learned, and in some cases, you are learning new ideas in the context of what you already know. You are formalizing tacit knowledge to explicit, conscious knowledge. Reading is thinking cued by text. The letters tell you what to see and hear in your mind from our common language. You are building a model that is mediated by your memories and experience. In some cases you are creating new ideas through comparison, combination, and reduction, and also making predictions and analogy.

But this is not guaranteed.

How do I know you do this when you read?

We generalize through scientific method, the methods generate this theory of what we do when we read.

Language is how we share formalized systems, and how we create them from tacit experience. A group of people get together, decide what it is and give it a name.

There are a lot of names in school. Just think of how you use academic language. Do you use the word base? How many meanings does it have through the school day?

Mathematics Base 3 numbers
Chemistry Opposite of an acid
Social Studies Political base
Shop Base of the shelves
Language Arts Figurative language “what do you base that on?”
Music Homonym – play the bass, bass note
Gym First base

Kids are consistently asked to develop language from content registers, which are specialized languages from fields and professions in school. The trick is to connect it to what they know—(abduction). They connect through seeing a pattern, such as A created B (deduction), or guessing that a,b,c,d are all connected to some single cause (induction). Do they do this naturally? It seems to be the case in some instances. But it is rare to see it formalized anywhere outside of school. Formalized means that it is a named, observable, replicable, conscious (explicit) process. School is that process of socialization where we negotiate and sometimes learn a new language, and with it, new competencies and new ways of interacting with the world.

Should we teach with games?

I wrote about this a week ago, Yes, games whether they be video games or instruction designed like a game, the learning principles in games provide embodied experience that can be reflected upon and formalized with our monopoly on naming. L earning is really not a big mystery, and games understand play. Play is powerful learning. We know what it looks like, and we tend to create taxonomies and hierarchies. Here is one I made. (Observed stages of play).

After my children were born, I watched both of them become conscious of their limbs, learn how to grasp, learn to manipulate the things they grasped through the motor skills they had developed through trial and error, and then to use tactics to figure out how to make the stuffed dog bark; eventually they began just watch to mom and dad do it; and they became quick studies as they sought mastery of the tools that made mom and dad seem super-powered and oh-so-independent. So they began to develop agency through activity. Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory complements this with the idea that we seek to belong, to be competent, and have autonomy. This is often created through the ability to act in the world and be respected for what you can do. There is plenty to support this if you read Brian Sutton Smith, you will find him connecting play to Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary theory. He makes the case that play and learning go hand in hand, and play has been a necessary part of evolution, as it has created the variation necessary for adaptation.

Sadly, have moved away from play in education, even though we are a play culture. It seems like during the push to have efficient methods for delivering information, we only considered the efficiency of the teacher, and made the teacher the focus rather than being student centered. To be student centered, we might have to move out of the direct instruction model and allow kids to get their hands dirty and have great ideas. And kids do have great ideas. Look at research by Piaget. Look at and read Duckworth’s book called, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, where she found kids able to have great ideas. Ideas that are being consistently rediscovered and are the roots of formal scientific reasoning; The ones we teach as methods for inquiry in most, if not all of our content areas. It is through school and culture we hope to speed up the process. But we have done through using these formal systems that must be memorized abstracted from experience, rather than through discovery and reflection.

What I have found through reading, watching, and reflecting is a process of learning that looks something like these observed stages of play.

This model makes a case for a different kind of instruction in the classroom–one that begins to resemble games rather than someone lecturing at a podium. Students have to be highly motivated to learn in a lecture, unless of course they are learning they don’t like lectures. I am not against lectures, but how am I going to get a real sense of all of the kids learning if I am always talking? The structured interactions and performance as assessment aspects of games allow mastery learning and feedback, and thus much more interaction; interaction is the basis for improvement and self-measure. In trial and error, don’t we act and look for the result? That is the basis of trial and error and until we have some knowledge of the object in context – or systems knowledge. So what if we look at play and how people play as culturally relevant, not only as a teaching method, but as experience we can give to embody and share formalized concepts? That is making what we are doing conscious – moving into the realm of purposeful use of strategies.

stages of play & learningPeople begin with an interest in what a thing is and what it can do. If you recall the film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, indigenous bush people living by older tribal means found a coke bottle that was thrown from a small aircraft. It was used for anything and everything the villagers could think of: carrying water, mashing things into meal, and eventually, even as a weapon.

Without guided instruction, an object may not tell how you may use it, or what you may use it for. In essence, you can shape the tool, and the tool can shape you. It is through culture that our knowledge is transmitted—language, tools, rules, relations, and objects. So what seems basic to all of us, using induction here, is to assume that we are all curious tinkerers. Looking for interesting things to do, and we begin with trial and error based upon prior experience and our ability to reason with analogy—it looks like a hammer, it must be a hammer, thus used like a hammer.

Games understand this, but they are also aware that giving people what they see and experience in everyday life is not an escape. So in order to help us find easy and early success in the game – they do want us to play and buy the sequel, as well as tell others to play it—they build in hints and guides, and simplified training stages, where the game aids you in your tasks so that you feel like you are getting it right away and becoming the king of the thing.

Metroid Prime will lead you through with hints, but as I mentioned, not this time. Darius had experience with this game and was immediately adept at telling the kid with the controller – Chris—what to do next. Where previously the boys had taken the controller back and forth trying out their ideas; the one who had the success would move forward while the others watched and learned—waiting for a turn. Darius was okay with telling them what to do, but he eventually got bored and went to the computers in the back of the room. I let the camera do the recording on the boys playing and followed Darius; he had started looking around with a browser on a computer.

What I found out was that Darius played with his dad when they had weekends together, and that he practiced playing during the week (maybe this was why he was in this remedial reading program). His dad was really into games, and he showed Darius how to get information online as well as how to prepare and apply the information in the text into action. Kind of like reading instructions to that grill, those shelves, or that workbench you bought with all those parts that require assembly. Reading to act is complex–especially when the game or object demands mastery.

Just an aside here, but, do you read the instructions first?

Do you learn about the people and company where you are interviewing before you go in?

Do you Google people before you go on a blind date?

Is that cheating, or being prepared?

How about in a classroom?

Darius used computers and magazines to find walk-throughs, cheats, and other tips on how to get through the games with ease and give him freedom to play with some flair because he had prior knowledge. Thus, he played with an aesthetic: Play worthy of other people viewing it. Play as performance. He had created ideas of what getting through a game should look like. This was probably from watching other players, as well as his dad’s values and excellence—evidently his dad is very good at games.

Darius was supported by his parents through subscriptions to magazines like Game Informer. He had modeled play from his dad as well as through what he read in magazines and on the WWW.

In addition to Darius, I also interviewed a middle school student from Stillwater. He told me he watched g4TV and met regularly with his gamer friends to play multiplayer and single payer games together. They all watched these programs and read the magazines so they would know what were the good games, they also had the chance to see other people playing games, and this showed them what to do, and then practiced so that when they met, they would be able to show what they could do. There was a lot of “lemme try that!”

In a phenomenological study I did, I found that the young woman that was my informant played DDR because it was great fun with her friends, and that she practiced at home so that she could improve each time she met with her group. This was in addition to being in traveling band, International Baccalaureate, track, and soccer! She even shared that she brought the game on a trip to play against other kids in the band in the hotel. She described the way she figured it out as watching, trying, and practicing, and then more of the same.

The big question is, are we tapping into this at school? Can we recruit these experiences to make what we teach more accessible? Can we do it in a similar way?

We can tap into and develop teaching based upon our knowledge of what kids do and like.

And we can learn something from them. And as teachers, learning is something we should enjoy and constantly model. A natural curiosity and inquisitiveness that allows for the formal methods we have been trained with as subject matter experts in all of the content areas.

All we need to do is study, ask, and connect. And what we should be studying are our kids.

Why should we recruit culturally relevant knowledge and experience that can be connected to make tacit knowledge explicit?

There are many studies of people outside of school doing the things we learn in school, but better. I must admit, I have been intrigued by the studies of brazilin street children doing complex mathematics. As I have been reading Carol Lee’s new book, she has been using this research, as well as parallel and complementary research to build a curricular approach she calls Cultural Modeling.
In cultural modeling, we need to see that actions and behaviors outside of school can be just as deep and complex as what we do in school. It is a matter of the teacher deeply understanding their content area facts, processes, and creating contexts for connecting with cultural practices outside of school.

She argues for educators having cultural understanding of knowledge, and asks that we consider structures that encourage participation and connection.

Lee asks, “are we giving poor kids direct instruction because we are convinced this is the only way they can catch up and learn?”

Lee asserts that we must establish routines to get students to persist; students may need help discovering relationships between facts that are memorized and patterns. On page 33, she says that “direct instruction and basic skills instruction are totally insufficient”, and that “a profound lack of understanding of the cultural displays of knowledge in the everyday practices of minority and low income students . . . has led to a pervasive culture of low expectations, to deficit models of student capacities, and to a myriad of misunderstandings within classrooms.”

One of the examples she makes along with the computational abilities of Brazilian street children is called signifying, which is a practice in African American English. You know what that is right? Let me model one that I heard that thought was funny: “your momma so fat, her blood type rocky road!” This is a rapid analogical exchange where insults and ideas are traded based upon representation and quick and clever turns of wit – where the person receiving has to quickly identify what is being signified, use the representation and turn it back on the originator. Lee suggests that this and many other cultural acts could support the most difficult things we do in Language Arts classrooms – identifying patterns and imagery in narrative and interpreting and extending them. Can we analogize this kind of analogical reasoning with our kids in class for books that might reflect their experiences? Can we use games which are even closer to what we do in school?

What Lee seems to be saying, is the same thing I have been trying to say—can’t we learn what the kids like, bring it in, and connect it to traditional academic reasoning structures. Isn’t there a place for new culture in the old canons? What we’re talking about here is good old transfer. Connecting skills from one experience to leverage something new quickly. This seems a much more efficient method than teaching formalized systems and then asking kids to make the connections themselves. They would have to think there is relevance to want to do this.

And why is what we are teaching more important than what kids are doing now? The question has been asked by Michael Apple –Whose knowledge is it?

Who decides what is complex and what is not. There is complexity everywhere. Simplicity is really only in our mind’s ability to abstract and reduce. According to Lauren Resnick (1978, in Lee, pg. 36), complex problems are ones for which the solution path cannot be fully specified in advance and for which there might not be simple right or wrong answers. Isn’t this what I described as a complex game? There are many paths built upon different reasons and experience?

This brings up issues of designing instruction: can it be different, but just as good?

On Friday, I was with a group of teachers and we were going through a mathematics activity where we were asked to give the perimeter of hexagons that were placed in three different series.

The math people created a table, showing how many sides:

1 = 6, 2= 10, 3 = 14 and then predict 6 connected hexagons.

I looked at them and noticed that there were six sides and that each time two were connected, you would add all the sides and subtract the two since they were no longer on the perimeter, so I just blurted an answer without showing my work.

They were a little taken aback, but I explained what I had done. They liked it, but it did not fit with the lesson. If we really worked on connecting it, we would have discovered a nice little equation underneath it (post a comment if you can figure it out)

It was not that they didn’t like it; they wanted to teach a formalized methodology. Because mine was emergent, it caught them off guard. I am an English teacher, what would I be doing with an algorithm anyway?

This was a teachable moment, and our kids are rich with valuable experiences that we can build off of.

So back to games.

They fit Resnick’s definition of complexity.

In fact, they are considered to be complex and dynamic systems.

They demand strategic thinking and planning. To win, and win with an aesthetic, one must build layered strategies, tolerating the ambiguity of each level to apply an appropriate strategy, rather than using the same tactic with every challenge.

This does not seem to come naturally. Kids need to have this modeled and imitate it. And it is. Kids play with adults and other kids who share and learn from each other.

Find out how many of your underachieving boys play video games and ask them to demonstrate them. When I did this with high school seniors, we got a clinic on Madden and NBA. You want complex dynamic games? Try one!

So are the kids digital natives? Not by birth. But they are surrounded by cultural opportunity to learn and use these devices if they are available.

What I have seen is that if kids have any of those digital devices, they must have time and have access to people who use them so that they can participate together. In this way kids become very proficient. But so do adults.

Are these two very different approaches?

It is called leveraging everyday knowledge and tapping into high interest activities like games.

We can use games to build and leverage complex problem solving. We can connect with cultural values, knowledge, and experience that kids bring with them to school, and we can relate them to the formalized systems that we attempt to teach as abstraction.

Making the connection to experience is powerful, and we can do this from multiple perspectives.

What happens when we honor the culture, language, and experience outside of the classroom by bringing it into the classroom to connect with formal academic culture, language, and experience?

I hope to find out from you.

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