For most of my life I have been unhappy with the education that has been offered to me. Few countries know how to deal with gifted or troubled students, and only a few teachers are able to act properly when they find one. The bane of the genius and the idiot is to never be understood, they say. Well, I did a little thinking, some more talking, and finally decided to do some writing on the topic as well. Why do we often find education inadequate, and why are students growing increasingly uninterested in the classroom activities?
A simple answer would be something like “They are not interesting.” Well, let’s stick with this and try to figure out how to make learning more interesting. After all you can be the greatest teacher the world has ever known and will ever know, but if your students are not interested in the stuff you are talking about, almost all of your talent is wasted. We can look at neurobiology, or at religion, or at psychology, or at philosophy, and we would probably find some pretty good answers. However, I would like to offer you a drastically different approach to the problem – let’s look at games.
Games, unlike dry learning, are by definition interesting. Some of you may remember my blog from a while back – Gaming Can Make a Better World. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend reading it and watching the video, it has some points relative to what I am going to talk about here. If you don’t want to – that’s fine, I am not going to base this blog on the other one.
So let’s get to the core of the problem. Studying is rarely interesting. Gaming usually is. So if we could combine the two – somehow – we have a potential recipe for success. Maybe if we looked deeply into what makes games interesting and look at what makes schools boring… then we might be on the tracks of a revolutionary redesign of the educational system as we understand it, and have understood it for hundreds of years. And just for the purposes of this blog, I am going to take World of Warcraft as an example of a game, and the American high school education as an example of schooling system.
Achievements & Failures
In yet another blog I talked about what attracts me to WoW. I won’t ask you to read it if you haven’t, but my point there was that one of the most addicting elements of WoW and all the other MMORPGs is that fact that they are virtually endless. There is always something that’s just beyond reach. In a way, you can sense a feeling of continuity – you’ve spent weeks trying to slay Heroic Professor Putricide, Blood-queen Lana’thel, and Sindragosa. It was hard. It was time consuming. But now all three lay dead at your feet, you feel a surge of exhilaration from the colossal achievement you’ve accomplished… yet the Lich King is still within an arm’s reach. What do you do? You don’t stop raiding for a month basking in the glory of the fact that you’ve destroyed those very hard fights. No, tired you get up on your feet and run to the Lich King, because you know he offers a new challenge to you and your fellows. You will likely fail time and again before climbing this mountain. But what do you do when failures knocks your door down? You try again. And again. And again! And then you succeed. And there is another goal to aim for, and you know that after you conquer it, there will be another one. Yet you don’t give up, because you know the game will never end – you keep moving towards this mysterious final challenge.
So what did we learn? Games offer infinite number of attempts to succeed. Games always offer you one more “level” – and that level feels like the next piece of a giant puzzle. Games don’t punish you for failures, yet they stimulate you positively towards success. “Congratulations, you won! Here’s a prize.” or “Aww, you failed. It’s alright, I’ll just hold on to the prize until you win :)” – that’s the basic philosophy of all successful games I know of.
School, you will notice, is quite the contrary. Usually you have only one shot to do a test, exam, quiz, or homework assignment correctly. Wouldn’t you say that the goal of our schools it to teach students that they should either do something correctly on the first try, or suffer the consequences? It certainly looks like that to me. In addition to this, whenever you were being lectured, how often has your professor or teacher prompted for interactivity in the classroom? You might come from a school better than mine, but in my own experiences I have very rarely caught myself thinking “Hmm, we didn’t really discuss this particular case in this lesson. I wonder if the next one will be about it.” or “Oh, this makes sense! I should have known that, this is clearly how the world works!” Instead I have often wondered why we are learning this particular thing, since I would normally be unable to put it in any context. Only rarely would a following lesson feel like an extension and clarification of a previous one.
And the big one in my eyes – failures in school. Failures are severely punished, and chance for redemption is very rarely given. As I mentioned above, shouldn’t the goal of our education be to learn whatever we are supposed to learn? And if that is the case, why does it feel like there is a little “but you have only one chance” attached to the end of this mission statement? Let me introduce you to the concept of positive/negative reinforcement and punishment, all four of which are generally psychological concepts: the “positive/negative” part refers to adding or subtracting something to or from an individual’s environment respectively; “reinforcement/punishment” refers to the goal of encouraging or discouraging specific behavior. Or in other words:
- Positive Reinforcement – adding something good to an individual’s environment (positive) to encourage a specific behavior (reinforcement). For example, increasing a student’s grade when they do an extra assignment they were not asked to do.
- Negative Reinforcement – removing something bad from an individual’s environment (negative) to encourage a specific behavior (reinforcement). For example, lifting the requirement to turn homework in on time for a week when a student does an extra assignment they were not asked to do.
- Positive Punishment – adding something bad to an individual’s environment (positive) to discourage a specific behavior (punishment). For example, giving a student’s extra homework when they don’t do their original homework.
- Negative Punishment – removing something good from an individual’s environment (negative) to discourage a specific behavior (punishment). For example, removing a student’s privilege to retake a quiz when they sleep in class.
Now that I am done with the psychology lessons, let’s see what this means. Student works hard to complete a homework on time (behavior we’d like to promote!), turns it in, but receives a bad grade (adding something bad to the student’s environment). So we are adding something bad to the environment in order to… encourage behavior? You, dear readers, are correct – this is not on the list. It’s not going to work, because only a few people will think “Oh, I didn’t work hard enough, here, let me work even harder and hope for a better grade!” Most students will react with something along the lines of “I worked so hard on this assignment, I showed up to class, I turned it in on time, and I get a stinking C for it?! Why study if I am going to be getting low grades anyway?” I exaggerate a little here, but only a little. The seed of the idea is there. Think about an alternative situation – one where students were given a second, and third, and fourth chance. Think of a situation where the thing that was valued was the actual acquisition of knowledge, not its perfect display under stress, while being giving only one chance to do so.
Geography and the World
Let’s start with the gaming aspect of this again. I have often joked that I know Azeroth’s geography much better than I know our own Earth’s. The sad part to this is that it’s true. You argue that Azeroth is much smaller than the Earth, but trust me, I know so little of our planet’s geography, that it would barely cover a land as big as the Barrens. Granted, I am not a geography person, and it has never attracted me, but you would think that after taking classes about it for 3 years, I would know more than the 7 continents and a handful of countries. But let’s look at Azeroth now. Wetlands you say? Sure, south of Arathi Highlands, north of Loch Modan. Lots of marshes, populated by gnolls and moss beasts for the most part. Dwarves, Dark Iron Dwarves, Humans, and Dragonmaw Orcs represent the majority of the “high” races in this zone. Grim Batol, a major historical site lies to the east; Menethil Harbor, named after the Menethil line of human kings, lies to the west, where it serves as one of the major ports for the Alliance. Stonetalon Mountains? Between Ashenvale, the Barrens, and Desolace. Contested area where orcs and night elves fight for control, all the while goblins destroy the forests. Long story short – I know Azeroth better than I should.
Surely, there must be something to take from all this. I have long thought why I know a virtual world so well, and the best answer I came up with is the following – I can travel in it. Freely. I can walk through the Barrens’ savanna, look at the landscape, stop and enjoy the view, then continue walking south. There I can see the remarkable Thousand Needles, bordering with the Shimmering Flats, and the scorching deserts of Tanaris and Silithus nearby. I can see the entire world with my own eyes, I can denote its most interesting features, I can explore at my own pace, I can interact with the world. Let me make this more visible – I can interact with the world. Azeroth does not exist just in my textbook, nor does it take me thousands of dollars to explore it. It’s right here.
Geography teachers and software designers out there, read this carefully. What made my exploration of Azeroth an activity I longed and wished for was not its dynamics. No, it was the fact that I could go and see the world myself. Think back to the days when you were still in school – or back to your geography classes, if you are still in there. Now, imagine you were given – either freely or for some ridiculously low sum – a very specific piece of software, a little similar to Google Earth. It would allow you to go anywhere around the planet. It would, in fact, allow you to travel deep beneath and high above the surface. It would give you all kinds of information about the location you are in right now, but it wouldn’t be in form of long and excruciating lessons in a book. It would be more like little snippets. Or even better – you would be able to meet with people from all those areas, and they would have stories to tell you. Legends as well. You would always be able to inquire about a greater level of detail, and those people would gladly provide them to you. And you know what? Not only would they talk to you, but they would have accents, just to give the entire experience a more realistic feeling. Whatever team designs this might even decide to incorporate culture and history! Just imagine…
History and Character Association
My problem with history has been closely tied to the one I have with geography – all of it seems so dry. Dates, places, years, numbers, names, families, treaties, and whatnot. I could tell you more about the War of the Ancients than I could about the Hundred-Year War. I could talk about the Second War more than I could about the World War II. So we are back at the place we started at – history is detached from our immediate life, just like geography is. Or all the other subjects – but I will talk about that later on.
To bring this into context, I am actually going to refer to something other than games for just a brief moment – books. If you are a reader, you probably know that one of the most interesting elements in a book is the character building. We follow their journeys through space and time, we see with their eyes, we feel with their hearts. In a way we become their friends. I have found a similar phenomenon in good games. One only needs to look at our forums from a few months ago to see that I am correct. We had burning hate against Garrosh and Varian (hey, fictional characters, yes?); we had strong warm love for them too; we had people attack and defend Sylvanas with passion. I am sure you have some WoW characters you like, some you dislike, some you love, and maybe some you hate. Or admire. Or despise. Or loathe. In this Blizzard has succeeded, I think – it has created fictional characters strong and believable enough to make people across the globe feel for them.
So why can’t history books do that? There are few historical figures we might have emotional attachment to, but they are very few. Hitler. King Leonidas? A couple of my own nation’s heroes of the past. My list is already almost depleted. By now you should have no doubts that I can give you the names and stories of over 20 key figures in Azeroth’s history. The reason I am able to do that and still be an Earth historical failure is similar to the one that causes my inability to engage in geographical studies – it’s out there, in the books, not in here, in my mind. To me, it was a memorable moment when I help Thrall and Sylvanas retake Undercity. It felt good, I was important! Definitely didn’t feel as excited when I was reading about France reclaiming its provinces lost to England 200 years ago. If only somebody could figure out a way to make history more personal… oh, wait. I had an idea like that a little up. Remember that piece of software I asked you to think of? Well, what if we added a modification to it? Let’s say you can now travel not only through space, but time as well. You can go back thousand of years. There (or then?) you can charge side by side with Roman Legionnaires, Persian Immortals, Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, Belisarius’ Cataphracts, Aztecs’ Jaguar-warriors, Hannibal’s Carthaginians, and all the other famous military units. You could sit down and have a tea with queen Elizabeth, discuss grain costs with Caesar, debate philosophy with Aristotle, joke around with Lincoln, or bask in the glory of Attila himself. You could be a pharaoh commanding his thousands of slaves to build him a pyramid; you could be a lord living in a castle of stone, where servants would stay up day and night, ready to satisfy your smallest whim; you could be be… anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. You could live history, you could help make history!
I spoke of the general philosophy of our education system, and how I think it could be improved upon – using gaming practices. I talked about two of the less “science-y” subjects, and how learning and teaching in them could be improved upon… yep, with gaming techniques. Unfortunately I am in no position to offer advice about how to teach math and science better - I have always been a quick learner there, and a teachers’ inability to teach has never irritated me as much. However I do have a few thoughts about how to improve the learning experience in general – it’s a method I have heard to be called integrated learning (or teaching).
The core principle of this integration is that classes in school almost always feel separated from one another. There is no apparent connection. You go to math, then you go to art, then you go physics, then biology, then psychology, then maybe some language, and you are done for the day. The point here is that if I asked you to applied whatever you learned in math to the next art lecture, you would look at me like I told you to make this bear ride a tiger to the local farmers’ market, or buy me some Saronite Bars so I can smelt them into Pygmy Oil. Even if you are in a sound school, chances are that your teachers won’t try to relate one class to another, so at the end of the semester, or year, or four years, you would leave school with a few bags full of knowledge, but have no idea what to do with it. Maybe you are a smart cookie and have already learned that out of the 8 classes you are taking, only 2 will help you with your career of choice. Awesome, you get your good grades in all the classes (so you look on resumes), but you only really know those 2 classes you found helpful. Maybe you even find the job you were looking for. But consider this for a moment: did the other 6 classes really only waste your time?
I am majoring in computer science, and am considering double-majoring it with applied mathematics. Pretty narrow field, isn’t it? Finish college, go write code, be happy. Not so. I am paying extra attention to my humanities and social science classes, because they teach me a lot about how people act. You can see how this will help me not only with finding a job, but also with maintaining it and growing in it. I am paying attention to my physics, chemistry, and biology classes, because there are a lot of applications for computers in those fields. If I was looking for a programmer to write software for my, say hospital, I would take somebody who knew not only how to code, but who knew his way around the various aspects of biology, so he could code optimally.
But I haven’t told you anything new. I told you that everything you learn is important, and kind of gave a few examples. Let’s talk about how we can take the education offered to the youths today and turn it into something useful not only for them, but for our society, nation, and world as well. Integration is what I spoke of in the beginning of this section. My good friend Google says the following:
“integration: the act or process of making whole or entire”
Make something whole. Take some chunks of stuff and make them something whole. What chunks, what whole? Chunks of knowledge, I say. Teach students how to combine them, teach them how to see the interactions between them, teach them how to apply principles from one discipline to another. Use your knowledge about geometry to do better art. Use your knowledge of psychology to explain why history happened the way it did. Use your knowledge of physics to explain internal bodily processes. It is all a single unit, and it should be thought as such – it is all knowledge. A little bit like a game. Or a character. My paladin has talents, but they are meaningless without spells. He has an experience bar, but it gathers rust without quests and NPCs. He has gear, but it helps me not at all if I keep running RFC with my Emblems epics. Singular relatively simple elements coming together to form Voltron something vast and complex. Reminds me of cells, tissues, organs, systems, organism…
“Divide and conquer.” Words said by a pretty successful man – you know his name. Kind of implies that dividing something whole to smaller pieces weakens it. I wonder if that man would have been able to accomplish all the things he did if the divided parts had come back together…
Gladiator image courtesy to adonihs.