Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Can Gaming Save Education?

I attended a presentation this week at the Marin County Office of Education with James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Gee's thesis is about the positive aspects of gaming and why we should use video games in education.

He says we can use games to help people (young and old) learn teamwork, how to work on projects, and how to be learners who voluntarily seek out information in creative fashion.

Gee also describes how in education today we "punish" students who get it wrong with bad grades which tends to make them feel as if they are failing, while in gaming failure can be a positive process that helps us learn from our mistakes and get one step closer to success, the next level of the game, and our ultimate goal of completing (or winning) the game. 

He also points out that this process of coming back from failure and striving for success helps make gamers more resilient and that resiliency is key to becoming a good learner and a successful person in today's competitive world.

These are all noble and important ideas which I believe are generally true. His examples from World of Warcraft and other games make sense.  However, I believe Gee puts too much emphasis on the tech piece of the learning process.

At the end of his talk Gee left us with a slide that said "Teachers as Creators." The idea he wanted us to take away is that it's time for teachers to become creators of games that can teach students what they need to know in the process of playing the game. After all, if the people who built World of WarCraft can do this so successfully, why can't our teachers do the same in education?

To me this is the same argument we've heard for decades. The problem is defined as education is failing and the proof is that students are dropping out, or worse, sliding through without learning anything. Students are arriving at college without basic writing skills necessary to succeed at this higher level.

The system needs reform and why not turn it all into a computer game? We've shown how playing games helps people learn, this should be easy to do in schools. Right?

When I asked him about this one on one Gee said he also believes the transition to a gaming emphasis in education should be lead by the techies and not educators despite the fact that he spent a good deal of time in his talk praising teachers and lamenting how government programs like No Child Left Behind have destroyed teaching and teachers role in education. 

In fact, I asked him if he had read Douglas Rushkoff's recent book "Program or Be Programmed" which suggests that people (such as teachers) need to learn how to create and manage the technology in our lives or risk being controlled by the programs that run our social, economic, and information systems. Gee scoffed and described Rushkoff as someone who says anything he thinks will help him sell books. 

The truth is that Rushkoff has gone away from some of his earlier ideas promoting and evangelizing the positives of technology in life and has begun to question what it's doing to our society and our kids in particular. In my view this is essentially opposite to what Gee is saying about using gaming in education. For Gee it's all about putting gaming (technology) into learning.

Ironically Gee kept saying in his presentation how it isn't an either/or proposition. This is the one point I left thinking about the most. Teachers use project based learning extensively. This aspect in teaching has grown significantly for at least two decades with the help of organizations such as CUE, ISTE, GLEF, and BIE and many more.

Schools have successfully integrated technology into the learning space on a massive scale and teachers are becoming more and more skilled at involving technology in their curriculum.

Teachers are creative learners who strive to make sure their classes are fun and interesting so that their students leave with a sense of the importance of being a life long learner. Education is filled with opportunities for students to learn teamwork and become information literate.

Taking into account the ideas Gee shows us from learning through games and integrating those ideas into our curriculum makes sense. We need to learn teamwork, how to work on projects, and how to be learners who voluntarily seek out information in creative fashion. Re-tooling education to be a computer game is not the way to achieve this goal.

Education doesn't need to be saved. It needs to be nurtured and improved to meet the needs of 21st century world.