I am used to telling people that in my parallel universe careers I am a doctor and/or an actor. I think I took care of the latter by becoming a teacher – and perhaps the former, too. All teachers I know aim to heal an ill – they want to waken sleeping brains, inspire the uninspired, bring justice to where it is missing. And so it was with great anticipation that I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco last weekend. The organization’s motto is “connecting educators to neuroscientists and researchers.” Um, yes. Please.
As is usual with these things, not all of the presentations were stellar. I am always aghast that conferences that talk about pedagogy can have participants sitting in their seats listening to lectures for two days, but fortunately it is a system in which I was successful, and I soaked it all in. The speakers who most captivated me with their presentations were Tony Wagner, James Gee and Linda Darling Hammond. All three are well known in the education world, and all three were downright inspiring (though LDH needs to work on her PPT skills, for sure). In addition to other topics covered, Dr. Wagner inspired deeper thought into the global achievement gap which he sees as the gap between what we teach and what students need to know to be successful in the 21st Century; and Dr. Darling-Hammond spoke convincingly of the need for authentic, teacher created, curriculum-embedded assessments, and compared the flawed US system of bubble-in tests with those systems of Finland and Australia.
But for me, it was James Gee who stole the show. Looking like an older version of Mr. Rogers, with rumpled khakis, a crew-neck sweater and crazy wisps of grey hair, Dr. Gee was not the person I expected to turn me on to game design as a theory of learning in education. Highlighting the immense amount of information that kids (and adults) learn by gaming, his basic premise was that humans learn from experiences, but not all experiences are created equal. Not that all learning has to be a game, but if teachers design lessons and experience well, students will learn.
In essence, Gee points out that good learning outside of games, like good learning within games, needs to be designed with the following properties:
- Problem solving.
- Clear goals (with the ability to rethink and change them).
- Copious feedback.
- Well-designed experiences.
- Mentoring in game AND in meta-game communities.
- Performance in the task before achieving competence.
- Well-ordered problems.
- A cycle of expertise that builds on itself.
- Smart tools used to achieve the goals and learning.
The best learning in games, he noted, comes with not only playing the game, but also interacting with peers and mentors about how best to confront the game.
The ultimate proof of a good conference was being there with other school and District colleagues who were equally inspired. Already we have talked about changing the name of our in-development “Classroom 2020” to 21st Century Learning Lab – a subtle change in name that belies a bigger change in meaning. It is invigorating to me how much my current professional worlds are colliding. A video that an influential mentor and colleague sent to me was also assigned by my professor. My favorite speaker at a conference was featured in a recent PBS production, also assigned by my professor. I feel as if I have landed in the right place at the right time.