The Key to Fun and Learning

For many years, scholars have debated the aesthetics of film (or, with greater pretense, “cinema”) and the mass culture associated with television (or, with less pretense, “TV” or “the idiot box”). Videogames make for more interesting study because they combine the sound and images with the 21st century version of interactivity. Stories aren’t watched–they’re played. Characters aren’t observed–they’re enacted by the participant. It’s rich stuff.

So here’s my new hero, Constance Steinkuehler, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor who studies the intersection between videogames, science and cognition. Currently she’s on a leave of absence, working at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. I first encountered Ms. Steinkuehler while listening to NPR’s Tell Me More in April. Then, I found a video, and I realized how much I/we could learn from her.

So I took all of our plans and I threw them out the window. Structured stuff? Not going to work…If I talk at them, they are not going to listen to me. So, we’re just going to do this weird, radical thing. We’re just going to…play next to them. When an interest comes up, we’ll be like, well, you know, the place to read more about that would be “x”…Once we turned it around to a ‘follow their interests’ kind of a model, everything shifted. And it worked.

She’s talking about how learning works. And she’s using videogames as the basis for that learning. Among teen boys who were part of her project, chosen because they did not do well in school. She paid attention to the ways in which they preferred to learn, and here’s what happened:

So for example, we had a reader who was in tenth grade who read at the sixth grade level. [He was not] doing well in school. I handed him a fifteenth grade level text (from the game) and he was reading it with absolutely fine comprehension, 94, maybe 96% accuracy…”

Why?

When they choose the text, when they actually care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems…”

These quotes are lifts from the video below.

Steinkuehler is not the only academic who is thinking deeply about videogames and learning. This page does a good job in providing an overview of the videogame industry, and includes several videos that will stimulate your thinking about what games mean and why they are important. (The embedded TED talk is quite good because it covers bits about the industry and bits about game design.)

In this field, one original source of light is James Paul Gee, who explains, simply, that every videogame is a set of problems to be solved in order to win. His excellent book, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, is an excellent place to begin thinking seriously about videogames. So, too, is this introductory video:

Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell will take your thinking further. He’s a game designer, an author, and someone who is thinking about games and learning in very exciting new ways. You may have seen Jesse’s TED talk, but you may not have seen his TEDx talk which is, ultimately, about how games (by design) encourage collaboration and shared learning styles, and how well-designed games respect the learner in ways that school often does not.

BTW: Score yourself 100 extra points if you recognized this article’s title, “The Key to Fun and Learning” as the tagline that appeared on most Milton Bradley board games. Double your score if you recognized the bearded man as Milton himself, a pioneer in games that were fun and also provided a learning experience. Triple your score if you knew that Mr. Bradley started out by making game and puzzle kits for Civil War soldiers to occupy their time in camp (remember, those guys were, mostly, teenagers.)

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