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Lessons from the toilet: Shifting the focus of education back to the learner

learning = the activity of getting knowledge
value = importance, worth, or benefit

(Definitions from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

Consider a recent time you wanted to learn something:

  • How did you know you needed more information?
  • What was your process for “getting knowledge?”
  • How did you know you were finished learning; that you had learned enough?
  • What was the value of this learning to you?

A few months ago, water began gushing from my toilet tank when it was flushed. In response, I inspected every inch of the toilet. I loosened and tightened bolts. I poked, pulled, pushed, plugged, and pounded on it. I searched the Internet for gushing toilets and possible “do it yourself” ways to fix them. I read articles. I looked at step-by-step directions with pictures. I watched videos on YouTube. I went to the home-improvement store and consulted with experts. When I attempted the actual repair, I used a guide I found on the Internet, I re-watched one of the videos of a plumber making a similar repair, and I went back to the home-improvement store for additional supplies and advice. After several hours of research and application of my new learning, my toilet was fixed! Proud of my success, I posted the experience on Facebook. As luck would have it, one of my friends was a general contractor who knew more about plumbing than I did. He offered some additional advice to prevent future leaks, which I immediately implemented. Several months later, the toilet is still leak-free and I feel the self-satisfaction of having learned how to repair it successfully.

I have the opportunity to interact with children in K-12 public school classrooms on a regular basis. When asked about learning, students typically only consider experiences they have within the context of the structured school setting. They know what to learn because their teacher tells them it’s important; their process for learning is to follow the instructions provided by the teacher; they know they’re finished learning when they’ve satisfied the teacher’s objectives and are told they’re done; the value of the learning is the final grade given by the teacher.

At a recent visit to a middle school in Wisconsin, I met a pair of 7th grade boys. I observed them silently reading and taking notes out of a shared textbook for approximately 10 minutes during science class before approaching them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Learning how to use a microscope,” one responded. There were no microscopes anywhere in the classroom that I could see.

“I wonder if there is another way to learn how to use a microscope. What do you think?”

Puzzled, they looked at one another, glanced at the whiteboard where the “Daily Objective” was clearly printed, and after a long pause, one hesitantly guessed, “Maybe we could try using one?”

Their responses to further questions I posed about learning were very similar to those described in the previous paragraph. When I suggested they might broaden their thinking about where, when, how, and with whom learning might take place, they became quite animated and excited to share their authentic learning experiences with Minecraft.

According to these boys, they play Minecraft because they like it and it is fun. They seek out opportunities to learn more about what they can do within the game because they want to be able to play and build better things. They learn by playing, watching videos, and asking friends. They know they’re finished learning when they feel they successfully accomplished what they set out to do, or they determine they are no longer interested in continuing with that particular learning. Often, they are so excited about what they’ve created within the game, they share their successes through recording and sharing videos on YouTube so others can learn from their experiences. When I asked if they needed a teacher to tell them they had satisfactorily completed the learning and assign a grade to represent their knowledge of Minecraft skills and techniques, they laughed.

“The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it.”

When we are interested in something or recognize a personal need for information, we seek out learning opportunities and continue gathering information until we’ve satisfied our curiosities and learned enough. We have developed skills, strategies, and resources for learning; and when we determine we need to seek out additional sources of information, we do.

When I first asked these boys about the kinds of learning they do at home, their responses were framed around homework assigned by their teachers. Like many other students with whom I interact, it didn’t occur to them that what they’re doing when they develop their Minecraft abilities is learning. The difference for these students in learning done at school and learning done at home, is value. The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it (e.g., fun, personal satisfaction, or function).

The following questions are often used to frame teachers’ thinking as they develop lesson and unit plans:

  • What do you want the students to know and be able to do (i.e., what is the standard/objectives)?
  • What activities or learning tasks will you design for students to complete?
  • How will you monitor students’ progress on these learning tasks as they move toward mastering the standard/objectives?
  • How will students prove they’ve mastered the standard/objectives?

What’s the difference between these questions and the questions I posed above?

Learner focus.

Using my original questions, learners design their own experiences to satisfy self-developed curiosities, desires, and needs. Using the teacher-developed questions, mandatory learning is decided by someone else and forced upon learners regardless of their curiosities, desires, and needs.

The real question then becomes, can we shift the focus of learning at school back to the learner? As educators, we owe it to our students to trust their abilities to identify topics of interest, develop and engage in their own tasks and activities to support knowledge gathering, and recognize when they’ve learned enough to thoroughly satisfy their curiosities. This is how people create personally-meaningful value in their learning. In reality, the skills and strategies those 7th grade boys use in attaining and applying Minecraft knowledge transfer to other areas of Minecraft, to other games, and to other situations, including (should they be curious about these topics) fixing toilets and using microscopes.

Play harder: An interview with Philippe Greier

At the 2012 Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria, I met up with Philippe Greier. He is one of the minds behind Playmakers Industries, a real-life game development company with a presence in both Brazil and Europe, and is one of the principals behind Present-e. He designs scenarios and games to help individuals tap potentials that they otherwise thought that they would not have. As part of his organizations’ gaming elements, they tap into players’ social capital. When people feel that they are playing in a game, they are willing to experiment, make mistakes, and learn in new ways.

The short version of the interview appears above. But, it is worthwhile to watch the full-length video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQBDOHWVaG8 (length: 18:28).

Mid-summer news roundup

As we continue to enjoy our reduced workloads over the summer, here is a summary of developments from elsewhere of interest to the Education Futures community.

  1. NASA and Virtual Heroes (@NASAgames on Twitter) launched Moonbase Alpha, a game designed to spark youth interest in exploration beyond Earth. In the first ten days of release, over 105,000 people downloaded Moonbase Alpha. The game also placed in Steam’s top 30 most popular games out of more than 1,100 and was one of a handful of free games in the top hundred as well. The developers set up a NASA Games community on Steam where players can meet and discuss the Moonbase Alpha and other games. The community also includes a chat room and other features. Find it at http://steamcommunity.com/groups/nasagames
     
  2. The Peter Drucker Society has launched an Essay Contest which, in the spirit of Druckerian duality of teaching and learning from the young generation, is organized as a contest for students, young managers and young entrepreneurs. All those aged 35 and under who are passionate about the future of management and society may submit their essay. More information is available at http://www.druckerchallenge.org
     
  3. 3. Finally, we’ve followed Sir Ken Robinson a bit in the past, and here’s another —but excellent— video of him in action. WPSU-TV recently interviewed him Robinson in a series called “Conversations From Penn State” where he elaborated his views on the problems facing the education system and suggests ways to improve it (by promoting creativity):
     

AMD’s game changer?

This morning, semiconductor producer AMD announced “AMD Changing the Game,” an education initiative designed to empower youth to learn critical life skills through games with social content. The launch accompanies AMD’s sponsorship and participation at the fifth annual Games for Change festival held June 3 – 4 at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

Starting with a limited scope, AMD Changing the Game will support the following non-profit partner organizations that serve their mission:

  • Girlstart (Austin, TX): created to empower girls in the subjects of math, science, and technology
  • Global Kids (Brooklyn, NY): seeks to transform urban youth into successful students and community leaders
  • Institute for Urban Game Design (Washington DC): teaches science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills through the hands-on creation of digital games
  • Science Buddies (Carmel, CA): offers a variety of web-based tools that help K-12 students explore science through research-based projects often done at Science Fairs and other school and community events
  • 5th Annual Games for Change Festival (New York, NY): dedicated to creating and using digital games for positive social change

…and, it appears they’re welcoming additional grant applications.

Digital Media and Learning Competition winners

17 projects will receive up to $238,000 in funding as part of the first ever Digital Media and Learning Competition funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered by HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory). While my proposal wasn’t among the less than 2% of submissions awarded funding, all of the winning projects look awesome:

  1. Always with You: Experiment in Hand-held Philanthropy: The Always With You network will connect young African social entrepreneurs with young North American professionals. Using mobile phone technology, which is now widespread, this network will facilitate both micro-funding and the exchange of professional advice to projects in Africa that promote public benefit.
  2. Black Cloud: Environmental Studies Gaming: Black Cloud is an environmental studies game that mixes the physical with the virtual to engage high school students in Los Angeles and Cairo, Egypt.
  3. Critical Commons: Critical Commons is a blogging, social networking and tagging platform specially designed to promote the “fair use” of copyrighted material in support of learning.
  4. FollowTheMoney.org: Networking Civic Engagement: FollowTheMoney.org: Networking Civic Engagement, a project of the Institute on Money in State Politics, is an online interactive site and users’ guide that supports civics research by young people and promotes their understanding of — and engagement with — electoral politics and legislative activities.
  5. Fractor: Act on Facts: Fractor is a web application that matches news stories with opportunities for social activism and community service.
  6. HyperCities: Based on digital models of real cities, “HyperCities” is a web-based learning platform that connects geographical locations with stories of the people who live there and those who have lived there in the past.
  7. Let the Games Begin: A 101 Workshop for Social Issue Game: The Let the Games Begin workshop is a soup-to-nuts tutorial on the fundamentals of social issue games.
  8. Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies (MILLEE): Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies, a project to be conducted in rural India, promotes literacy through language-learning games on mobile phones: the “PCs of the developing world.”
  9. Mobile Musical Networks: Mobile Musical Networks will build an expressive mobile musical laboratory for exploring new ways of making music with laptops and local-area-networks.
  10. Networking Grassroots Knowledge Globally: Networking Grassroots Knowledge Globally, a project of the Global Fund for Children, is a new community and “information commons” that will include blogs, video clips, sound slides, podcasts, and photographs to help share innovative practices for helping marginalized and vulnerable children.
  11. Ohmwork: Networking Homebrew Science: Ohmwork is a new social network and podcast site where young people can become inventive and passionate about science by sharing their do-it-yourself (DIY) science projects.
  12. Self-Advocacy Online: Self-Advocacy Online is an educational and networking website for teens and adults with intellectual and cognitive disabilities, targeted at those who participate in organized self-advocacy groups.
  13. Social Media Virtual Classroom: The Social Media Virtual Classroom will develop an online community for teachers and students to collaborate and contribute ideas for teaching and learning about the psychological, interpersonal, and social issues related to participatory media.
  14. Sustainable South Bronx Fab Lab: The Sustainable South Bronx Fab Lab project is a laboratory that allows people to turn digital models into real world constructions of plastic, metal, wood and more.
  15. Virtual Conflict Resolution: Turning Swords to Ploughshares: Virtual Conflict Resolution is a digital humanitarian assistance game that creates a learning environment for young people studying public policy and international relations.
  16. The Virtual World Educators Network: The Virtual World Educators Network will be developed to serve as an online hub to promote the use of virtual worlds as rich learning environments.
  17. YouthActionNet Marketplace: The YouthActionNet Marketplace is a dynamic digital networking platform for young leaders to engage in social entrepreneurship and address critical social problems.

How can we fund more of these projects?

SimCity Societies introduces social modeling

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SimCity Societies, the latest release in the SimCity franchise, is due for release on November 13. The game integrates a social and cultural modeling component. Characteristics of each user-run SimCity is determined by the user through development of six social, cultural, and economic factors: productivity, prosperity, creativity, spirituality, authority, and knowledge.

From EA:

Featuring an all-new, revolutionary feature set, SimCity Societies allows you to create your own kinds of cities and shape their cultures and environments. Make your cities green or polluted, contemporary or futuristic, rural or urban. Create an artistic society or a police state, an industrial city or a spiritual community—or any society you want!

Jamais Cascio notes that the game is finding real world applications, including climate education –from an unlikely source:

British Petroleum initially approached EA Games about a specialized version of SimCity that dealt with energy and global warming; rather than undertake a one-off project, EA agreed to partner up with BP to integrate these ideas into SimCity Societies. While this has elements of crass product placement — all of the gas stations in your city are BP, for example — it also suggest an intriguing opportunity to look at not just how energy and environment affect economic results, but how they change social behaviors, too.

Also read Dan DiPasquo’s commentary on the role of energy companies in games…

Games in the Classroom 7–game mechanics for creating learning

slide3.JPGOne of the big ideas from 6.0 was that kids are not naturally good at complex games. They often have the time, resources, but they do not always have the guidance of a mentor. Many kids are playing games designed by adults for adults. This is good and bad. Good in that the adult games have some complex problems and require some really deep thinking; bad in that they may just be provocative on their content without having very good game play. The point is, kids learn through play and our games are often cultural tools to transfer knowledge, develop skills, and get them ready to become adults. What we try to do as educators is pretty much the same. So why have we stepped away from using games?

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

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?
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