Monthly Archives: May 2011

gaming the (educational) system

i’m not (too) ashamed to admit that, at key times, my iphone has been an excellent parenting companion. henry has been commuting back and forth to school with me for two years and there are times when he and the train rides we take just don’t get along. i don’t blame him, as they can be exceptionally awful. so, every now and again, he’ll make some tapping gesture to me with his thumbs on an imaginary iphone and i’ll know that it’s a decent time to let him play on the iphone. a year and a half ago, letter tracer saved the commutes, keeping him occupied whie learning how to write letters. but we’ve taken on some other iphone classics… tiny wings, doodlejump, cut the rope, ninjatown, and angry birds. 

here’s the thing about angry birds… it’s serious stuff. it’s not an in-depth study of ornithology, but aside from great graphics and fun gameplay it also has a serious amount of problem-solving and physics. it’s not marketed as a kids game, but it’s certainly a game that any four- or five-year-old can pick up and instantly “get.” i forget where i read it, or even when, but an article on gaming in education years ago talked about how games like first-person shooters and myst were great for developing deep problem-solving skills because players were provided with absolutely no context for what they were supposed to do and had to reason it out. angry birds provides a bit more context, but it’s still a complex system wrapped up in a simple game. how are you going to get those pigs, or in the screenshots i provided, free those birds? there’s some trial and error involved, and a whole lot of reasoning, understand what’s going to happen when a certain kind of bird hits a certain part of the layout, lots of “if… then” thinking. there’s room for deep engagement there while still being fun and simple at the same time.

maybe it’s time to worry when your kid starts coming up with escape plans, in scenarios that look eerily like angry bird flight trajectories.


this trimester, i’ve started an afterschool activity called school of rock that builds on rhythm video games and progressing to creating music in garageband. last year, i was thrilled to see that rock band 3 came with some new pro instruments that would let “pro” players actually use real notes and chords to play along with their favorite songs, and there was no way i wasn’t going to take advantage of these instruments in some way. thankfully, i was allowed to create an activity that took advantage of this, and we’re starting to slowly bring it into our technology classes in music units and culminating final projects. 

the great thing is that the kids are getting it. they’ve been playing along to beatles rock band using the “traditional” rock band instruments so there’s a lot of button-mashing going on, though the drumming is getting really good. next monday, we’re going to move up to the pro instruments and rock band 3, and we’ve already got some keyboards going on with garageband. things are getting interesting… and loud.

a colleague at another school recently posted a link to the right to learn, a whitepaper that came out of the 2010 big ideas summit. i’m anxious to read it, mostly because of the luminaries attached to the whitepaper (karen cator, milton chen, sugata mitra among a very long list). but the pull-quote that was posted to the email list i’m on was 

we need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of somethinga primary educationto a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to. The goal is about eliminating obstacles to the exercise of this rightwhether the obstacle is the structure and scheduling of the school day, the narrow divisions of subject, the arbitrary separation of learners by age, or othersrather than supplying or rearranging resources. The shift is extremely powerful.

i get the thinking, and i like the thinking — yes, i know i need to read the whole paper — and maybe i’m just spoiled, but i feel like this is exactly the kind of thing that i’ve been asked to teach. this wasn’t a shift for me, but more of a “we’re already doing this” realization. again, maybe i’m just lucky and have a good set of curriculum guidelines (getting even better) that lets me experiment with things like social media and video games in the classes that i teach, but in this day and age, these kinds of experiments should really be a given. our students need to engage with their environment and learn from what’s around, and be given the opportunity to do some authentic exploration. we need to take advantage of what’s around us, and in the best case it’s a world class museum, but i’ll settle for an ipod or a wii when there’s nothing else around. there’s some good stuff there that can’t be overlooked, and a lot to be learned.