Part critique, part proposal, David Williamson Shaffer’s How Computer Games Help Children Learn is about what kids need to learn and how they need to learn it.
Shaffer asserts that the common practice of school is already a kind of game, with rules rooted in the industrial revolution:
School is a game about thinking like a factory worker. It is a game with an epistemology of right and wrong answers in which Students are supposed to follow instructions, whether they make sense in the moment or not. Truth is whatever the teacher says is the right answer, and actions are justified based on appeal to authority. School is a game in which what it means to know something is to be able to answer specific kinds of questions on specific kinds of tests.
Back when a high-school degree led to a good manufacturing job, this version of school may have made sense. However, U.S. manufacturing jobs are somewhere between going and gone. That leaves the low-end service sector as the primary employer of the high-school-educated workforce. Thus, yesterday’s middle-class auto worker is today’s barely-getting-by burger flipper.
In Shaffer’s view, the only good jobs will increasingly be those beyond the traditional high-school education: jobs that address problems with many possible answers, that require creativity, and that reward innovation. Everything else will be automated, offshored, or marginalized to the low-wage economy.
So if society wants to leave no child behind, the education system needs to change its game. The key shift is from an emphasis on teaching facts to teaching skills. Put another way, Shaffer wants more learning by doing. He wants students to learn by making them participants in simulations of real-world challenges that engineers, urban planners, journalists, and other professionals face. And this is where computers come in.
Think about SimCity, the computer game where you manage a simulated city as it grows. It’s a simulation. It’s a computer game. It’s a learning experience:
[Players] see what happens when they make changes in urban ecosystems. For example, if you put more parks in a city, the cost of public utilities goes up because you have to keep the parks clean. If you put an industrial site next to residential housing, the residential land values fall and the crime rates rise. As a result, players must decide whether to raise taxes, decrease the green space, move the industry, or risk urban flight—or, more realistically, decide which combination of these choices and in what measure will lead to the best long-term outcomes for the city.
Immersing kids in such a world lets them learn key concepts and ways of thinking as they progress through the game. Succeeding in the game requires learning and understanding. Contrast that with reading a bunch of articles about urban planning and being tested on the facts. Will those facts ever mean anything to the students? How much more would a student want to read about urban planning after getting hooked on SimCity?
But Shaffer’s learning games (developed by him and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) are different than SimCity. Whereas SimCity is an imaginary place, Shaffer’s games take care to simulate real places, things, processes, and constraints from the real world. The computer simulation provides an extension of reality rather than a replacement.
For example, an urban-planning game he highlights...
...is modeled on the real world of the city players live in and the real work of planners who shape that city. Players are redesigning a city, but it is their city. They can see and touch the places they are redesigning and can see how those changes might make their lives and the lives of those around them richer and more satisfying. However, their choices are constrained by the economic, social, and physical realities of life in a city and by the norms and practices of the profession of urban planning.
Given this world, students learn key skills necessary to do urban planning in the real world. These include ways of thinking and talking about problems that apply well beyond urban planning—which is the larger point: The underlying creativity, critical thinking, and innovation are what these students will need to compete in the global marketplace, whether they become urban planners or anything else that pays more than subsistence wages.
Of course, this all sounds reasonable, but the games need to be good. SimCity was successful because of fantastic game design and execution, not because millions of consumers inherently craved a city simulator. So can a bunch of academics make something that both satisfies Shaffer’s educational vision and is compelling enough to keep kids at the screen?
Shaffer and colleagues’ games are at early stages and are themselves academic projects. Initial pilot results are promising, but the results are from tests with close participation from mentors and facilitators. While the human element is part of Shaffer’s design, how much mentoring and facilitating is necessary for success? Is that amount practical for large-scale use?
Finally, how do Shaffer’s games get integrated into schools? Here Shaffer has a surprising answer: Maybe they don’t, at least initially. Several of the pilot tests have been in after-school programs. He speculates that they could also be embedded in larger virtual worlds such as Second Life. Although some might see this as a cop-out, avoiding the main institution that Shaffer critiques, I see it as a practical path that brings change where it’s easiest to make change. If the change is good, it will spread.
As is probably apparent, I like Shaffer’s ideas. But if you want a good read along with good ideas, this book might not meet your standards. Although the prose is relatively direct, it carries two burdens. First, Shaffer often tries to use and/or explain his field’s jargon, which I’ve spared you because I found it a distraction as a general reader. Second, Shaffer spends many pages describing computer games using words and the occasional picture, yet the thing that makes the games compelling is their visual and interactive appeal. If the book’s content could be presented as a short documentary film or even a screencast, it would be far more likely to hold a general audience’s attention.
(This suggests an accompanying book: How Videos of Children Learning from Computer Games Help Adults Learn the Value of Children Learning from Computer Games. Or should it be a video?)
Bottom line: How Computer Games Help Children Learn gave me a fresh angle on today’s educational challenges while detailing the first steps of a promising way forward. For people already interested in the issues, the book will be well worthwhile. For anyone else that wants to put a toe in the water, check Shaffer’s Epistemic Games Web site, and if that gets you going, then get the book.