On Game Based Learning

Of course, anytime Bill Gates decides to shower money on public education, it’s news. And, while it is hardly surprising that the manufacturer of the X-Box supports “game based learning,” I find it surprising that anyone takes this as a sign of the efficacy of game based learning.

So often, as games are touted as educational wonders, one hears tales of flight simulators, battle simulations, biohazard and terrorism response simulations, and Myst. Myst. Seriously. Students narrate their fantasy world of Myst and explain their problem solving along the way, and that’s a great language arts lesson. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I believe that students have real, analog lives worthy of narration – real or imagined (remember imagination?). Surely young people are solving problems in life, maybe even in our classrooms, in more compelling ways than choosing which door to walk through or decoding digital runes in a make-believe land with gentle background music. So, while spinning up student interest in writing about reality may take real, concrete instructional steps including instructor modeling (What? Me, write?), and involve a fair amount of non-sexy time in which students work together, talk, share, laugh, play, get off task, come back to the task, and ultimately write, I can’t help but wonder how electronic game play beats life?

Answer: Because stuff blows up engagingly in video games. Let’s keep in mind the overwhelmingly martial usages of game-style simulators, which have become most authentic these days via Predator drone attacks currently being flown remotely from southwest American desert bases in far off countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya to name only the most obvious and least classified. In the case of Predator piloting, I totally see the logical link between game play and actual authentic tasks. I can also see a time in which students play “Operation: Baby Pig” on their iPad app instead of doing actual dissections, which has no authentic benefit over the real thing. Martial simulations are acceptable substitutes to combat because nobody gets hurt in video games, and we can always get Elf food and drink or locate a cache of extra lives and ammunition under a stairwell. Academia should be a simulation of sorts as it is, an opportunity to explore, to try, to succeed, to fail and try again with a new approach. Adding an additional, electronic layer of simulation to a simulation that is already becoming wildly divorced from that which it is meant to replicate, at least in some ways, seems silly at best.

The benefit quietly touted is cost savings, using resources as best we can – and those resources are always financial. Would Bill Gates go to a doctor who had done his cadaver work on his PC? Done residency with a team through “Scrubs for X-Box?” Probably, but probably not a physician who worked on iDissect; count me out for both. When the dust settles, game based learning is likely to mean that every kid gets to fly a simulated plane, but no feet will ever leave the ground. Every kid gets to be a Guitar Hero, but the orchestra pit is vacant. Every kid gets to write about her Second Life, while the first atrophies from a paucity of attention. I believe everybody wins when “FIFA 2011” is turned off and a game commences in the backyard, and I believe our kids should be making actual products and messages with their technological tools, rather than wallowing in the virtual ether, unaware of what they are missing.

Why Consider a Gap Year?

When I ask students about the idea of a gap year prior to entering university, I almost always hear the same thing – I can’t fall behind, I don’t want to miss out, I don’t want to lose a shot at the best school, or, worst of all, what would I do? Only once – this year – have I ever met a college bound secondary student interested in a gap year, which may be defined as a year of minimal structure and maximum exploration prior to entering university. Well, for any student concerned about what the bigwigs are thinking about gap years: here’s Harvard College, a medium sized institution of higher learning in New England of some repute, weighing in on the topic.

Among the many rather non-startling revelations in this piece from Harvard are that high stress, high pressure environments aren’t successful for everyone, or enjoyable for many. Under the subtitle of “Fallout,” the good folks in Cambridge, Mass, hauntingly point out that

It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of someone else’s expectations, or that they simply drifted into it without pausing to think whether they really loved their work. Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.


And yet, again, not surprising. Now, while it’s tempting to blame Harvard for its own success, I won’t. Harvard doesn’t make people crazy to get into Harvard, people make themselves and other people crazy to get into Harvard. Or Brown. Or, or, or.

I went to a good university, but not an epic top-tenner. Still, I would have benefited from a year of travel or directed service because I would have matured. I wonder what the result of that might have been – probably not too dramatic, but I might have made better use of some of my course selections and would have surely saved myself an extra semester, which would have saved thousands of dollars. Not a stunning hypothetical, I know, but what of the unmeasurable? My Peace Corps experience changed and improved my life, for sure, and so I think an opportunity like that before college would have been a net positive. A new gap year program called Global Citizen Year offers something that looks very much like a Peace Corps-esque opportunity for young people. It looks like a winner, and Harvard seems to agree.

Metaphors, Poetry, and Thinking – “Poetry for Everyday Life”

David Brooks is continuing his incredible run of synthesis between the social and cognitive sciences with his latest piece in the New York Times entitled “Poetry for Everyday Life.” Brooks begins by paraphrasing data from a

fine new book, “I Is an Other,” [in which] James Geary reports on linguistic research suggesting that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think, Geary writes. They are at the very heart of it.

Examples follow, building to the following conclusion:

Most of us, when asked to stop and think about it, are by now aware of the pervasiveness of metaphorical thinking. But in the normal rush of events. we often see straight through metaphors, unaware of how they refract perceptions. So it’s probably important to pause once a month or so to pierce the illusion that we see the world directly. It’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is.

Certainly, any good scholar of postmodern literature can appreciate this conclusion – language creates and defines our realities, a truth with deep political and personal implications. Whether it is to help with  “understanding new things,” understanding the ways our own brains work and function best, understanding how our personal affinities create the conditions and contexts in which we operate, understanding God or spiritual experiences, or discerning between what we believe and what we are manipulated through metaphor to believe, consciousness of the power of metaphor is a central awareness for successful thinkers. Brooks states

Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses.

Indeed, it is the recognition of patterns, blending of patterns (and subsequent creation of new ones), and mapping of relationships between patterns that lends heft to the study of literature in a world focused more on 140 characters than 140 pages. Metaphor is, of course, at the heart of poetry and fiction; Brooks doesn’t accidentally co-opt poetry for his discussion of metaphor. Through exploring metaphor – one – and connecting this understood metaphor to another, and another, and another within a text, or even between texts, we as readers build universes from the disparate clutter of words on pages. Ultimately, if this understanding of metaphor awareness is true in any fashion, then the resultant skilled thinking is transferable from literature  to life beyond texts, to other disciplines of study, to journeys of spirit, to any and all human endeavors. Behold the metaphor at work in the brilliant “Avocado” by Gary Snyder, electric scribe genius monk extraordinaire in his beautiful book Turtle Island:

Avocado by Gary Snyder

The Dharma is like an Avocado!
Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it.
But it’s good.
And other parts hard and green
Without much flavor,
Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.

And the skin is thin,
The great big round seed
In the middle,
Is your own Original Nature –
Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers –

gets away.

Now, that ain’t pedestrian, but if you get it, or even a piece of it, this message will resonate through you somehow – maybe not in the same way it does me, due to my constellation of connections differing in altitude, amplitude, and assonance from yours – the next time you’re making guacamole (2 ripe avocados, 1 medium tomato, garlic powder, cumin, salt, paprika; mash and eat it all, quickly). To David Brooks, the last word:

To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.”

Truth & The Examined Life by Cornell West

The way to truth, sustaining the journey to truth – deducing from evidence, drawing reliable conclusions, surrendering one’s arrogance and pride – “ways of acknowledging our finitude and fallibility,” with Dr. Cornell West, Class of 1943 Professor at Princeton University, “a blues man in the life of the mind, I’m a jazz man in the world of ideas.” Dr. West blends philosophy with the “funk of life,” music, poetry, examination. Why do we read, write, view, struggle? To understand ourselves and the world! I love what he has to say about reading and intensity – “to throw [books] against the wall,” which happens, the overwhelming by truth and reality. Anyway – here is one of Earth’s smartest men talking honestly. Check it out – it’s seven minutes well spent.