What if you were walking alone in a prairie and all of a sudden heard the roaring thunder of a herd of buffalo, seeing the dust rise in puffs of white before you could even see them cresting the rise? The walls of the canyon rise up on either side, and there is no escaping. What would you do? Turn around, hold your arm up and yell STOP!? Bury your head in the dirt and hope not to get trampled? That is what I imagine about educators who are failing to consider technology and new ways of learning that are becoming automatic to our students and future generations. Actually, that is what I imagine those who make education policy predicated on bubble-in standardized tests are doing. The herd is upon us, and we must start running with them if we don’t want to get left in the dust.
I was at the ASCD conference this weekend, and the learning for me has come fast and furious. (More about the conference in another blog. Suffice to say that I haven’t been sleeping with all of the ideas swirling in my head).
Our assigned topic for class this week was gaming in education, and I was excited to read and hear more from the gaming guru himself, James Gee (about whom I raved after hearing him speak at the Learning and the Brain Conference in February). I can assure you that when it comes to technology and education, I am behind the curve, but when it comes to gaming, I am not even on the track. The last game I played with anything close to regularity (other than wii Sports) was Tetris back in the early ’90s, and it was Pong on Atari before that. I am so illiterate when it comes to gaming, that I find myself just nodding dumbly during discussions. But I am a willing learner, and with two young boys I’ll have plenty of help I am sure. (I started a list of games I want to learn, including Halo, Second Life and Portal, but I’ll take suggestions. Also, I guess I have to buy or borrow an Xbox gaming system).
When reading and viewing this week, I was reminded about another aspect to “gaming” that I heard a lot more about at the Learning and the Brain Conference, Augmented Reality (AR) (and in this realm, I don’t even know where the track is). Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford gave a talk on “Social Learning in Virtual Reality.” Through a series of fascinating experiments, Bailenson positioned people in virtual experiences and investigated how it changed their learning. Subjects whose avatars visually lost weight when they exercised were more likely to exercise longer and more often than those that stayed the same. Subjects whose avatars were taller or more attractive in AR were more confident in their alternate universe, stood closer to strangers when talking to them, and asked for more money from bosses. And most amazing, those behaviors stayed true to the subjects even after the virtual experience was over.
One of the most often cited researchers at the ASCD conference (stay with me – I’ll make this connection if it kills me) was Carol Dweck and her theory of a growth mindset. In her research, students were taught that intelligence, rather than being fixed as in a traditional IQ measurements, is something that can be changed through effort and hard work. Those students, taught only the tip of the iceberg on the research in just four 30-minute sessions, were more successful in school than students who only learned study skills. This work is extremely important if we educators are to practice what we preach in myriad mission statements – every child can learn. I am certain that in many places during my career, educators may say that, but they don’t ultimately believe it.
And so, putting all of this together, I imagine a game (call it a simulation if you have to, says Gee) whereby students embody avatars that look like themselves. They engage in meaningful problem solving, self-directed discovery, collaboration, and actual learning within the confines of an alternate reality. Students see themselves through their avatars, and see that they can be successful, and will begin to believe in themselves even after the game has ended. And when they believe in themselves, all students (young or old) CAN learn. Even just sitting down a group of disengaged gamers and showing them Gee’s video (or better yet, talking to the man himself) might go a long way toward giving them the idea that though they might not be successful in school as it is designed today, they are master learners. The buffaloes are here.