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Living in Dialogue: Can Digital Games Improve Our Schools?

With The Game Believes in You, Greg Toppo joins the ranks of great authors like Anya Kamenetz and James Paul Gee, who articulate a new, dynamic, creative, and holistic path to 21st– century schools. Like Kamenetz, Toppo shows how assessments embedded in computer games could inform authentic learning without the inherent downsides of today’s test-driven pedagogies. When combined with video gaming, these digital tools could unleash a golden age of learning. Like Gee, Toppo understands, “’Nobody has successfully underestimated a child.’” And, as Toppo concludes, children live inside a magic circle and know how powerful it is.” We adults “need to step back … then trust their creativity.”

Toppo’s basic political message is solid:

At exactly the same time that schools have taken the questionable path of implementing more high-stakes standardized tests keyed to the abilities of some imaginary bell-curved students, games have gone the opposite route, embedding sophisticated assessment into gameplay … becoming complex learning tools that promise to deflate the tired ‘teach to the test’ narrative that weighs down so many great teachers and schools.

Although my view of history is closer to that of Larry Cuban’s skeptical appraisal of how technology does and does not produce change, I would like to see Toppo proven right.  While I know nothing firsthand about these newfangled games that kids are all playing, when I first began teaching we received great professional development on turning group learning into a game. Those fun lessons produced great results throughout my career, even after they were dismissed by test-lovers as silly progressivism. So, I welcome the potential of digital games to make school more engaging.

I also respect Toppo’s scrupulous neutrality in regards to education reform wars. While I am not his editor, I can play one in the blogosphere.

Toppo acknowledges that “teachers have had good reason to keep new technology at arm’s link,” and part of the reason we do so is to maintain control. One part of his conclusion, however, could have been written by a top-down corporate reformer; he says that schools were “designed by the people for whom school was easy, who have always done what they were told.” But, education systems weren’t designed. They are a product of history, not rational planning.  They are full of internal contradictions, artifacts of lost battles, compromises, and systems that no rational person would “design.”

Similarly, when describing the way a D.C.- area middle school uses a point system to control students’ behavior, Toppo approvingly quotes an educator  who says that schools are “a badly designed game,” that its behavioral incentives are all wrong and education’s feedback system is too delayed. The implication is that once-designed systems could be redesigned by people who think they know best.

Toppo and the famous scholar, James Coleman, may be correct that schools provide “maximum rewards for minimal efforts,” but there are reasons why education systems evolved that way. The first reason why schools developed into such risk adverse institutions is that we must protect students, as we respect the wishes of their parents. Education serves all types of children – not just the ones who love competition. School systems have no right to impose behaviorist models and value systems on children and families who don’t welcome such approaches to learning and to life.

In one of the best passages in The Game Believes in You, Toppo cites Stanford’s Nick Yee who describes a “cordoned-off portion of reality,” a virtual world with fantasy roles that only matter in that game world and where arbitrary tasks earn points. The kicker is that this virtual world applies to both – digital games and football. That’s true but not all children are required to participate in the smash-mouth sport. Even if they wanted to, football coaches don’t have the power to impose their ethos on all students in all classes. This contrasts sharply with the ambitions of reformers, such as those of Rocketship charter schools, which had a goal of 1 million students by 2020, and which could have resulted in poor children of color and their headphones being hooked to online tutorials with classes of several hundred students.

Toppo agrees with James Paul Gee that games are not good or bad, per se, and their benefits and harm depend on what you do with them. He also writes, “If media can teach us to be better people, can’t it teach us to be worse? It can’t simply be a one-way street can it?” So, while I appreciate the way that Toppo addresses the harm that can be done by games, I believe the issue should be phrased somewhat differently. In education, we should live by the maxim, “First Do No Harm.”  The question is when a policy has been proven to be safe enough and widely accepted enough for the purpose for which it is to be employed.

Toppo rejects the idea that games cause violence, while acknowledging that in extreme cases games can be problematic. The bigger question, I believe, is whether games can produce “other-directed persons,” and a disconnected culture alienated from nature, and other parts of society.  Or, to again borrow from Gee, the computer-based “School of One” could easily degenerate into  a quest for Lonely Groups of One.” I suspect Toppo would agree that games may or may not cause harm.  But, educators must not treat our kids like lab rats, introducing new things into our schools because they may not be any worse that other threats to the health and mental health of children.

My favorite chapters involved public schools where gaming unleashed the vitality and individuality of students. For instance, one suburban middle school had great success with high-challenge students. Its librarian, who became a classroom teacher during the period in which Toppo reported the book, also complains, “We’ve totally lost our way” with testing turning schools into a “Race to the Bottom.” I was also impressed by Quest To Learn, a small school in New York City’s iZone. Co-founder Katie Salen was an artist who says that middle school students’ interest in learning exploded when they had the opportunity to design games. She says that visitors anticipate a video game school, not a place for low tech, as well as high tech innovation.

I’m concerned about the cryptic ending to the chapter where one featured teacher leaves Quest after a year because he is upset by students’ misbehavior. This seems to draw into question the process of scaling up games that celebrate students’ individuality – as opposed to digital systems to control and monitor behavior – in the highest-challenge schools. Students in such schools would benefit as much or more from gaming, but I have doubts whether systems will invest in the socio-emotional supports that such schools need for proper implementation.

Moreover, the school’s co-director protests that testing “is a huge deal.” She has to continually struggle to maintain the integrity of this innovative school with parents and higher-ups focusing on test scores. And, that brings me to my big complaint.

The person who deserves much of the blame for the New York City ideology that mandates soul-killing teach-to-the-test is former Chancellor Joel Klein.  After contributing as much as anyone in the nation to the test, sort, reward, and punish culture that Toppo criticizes, Klein becomes the head of Amplify which seeks to design better digital learning systems. Toppo quotes an Amplify designer who says, “If you want your school to work, don’t bribe and threaten people. … let them make mistakes.” But, nowhere does he recall Klein’s regime based on bribing and threatening educators and students, and his scorched earth campaign against educators across the U.S.

Toppo has some intriguing hints that might contribute to understanding of why digital innovators have behaved like Henry Ford in helping to turn schools into a sped-up Model T assembly line. If they were primarily committed to helping children, especially poor children of color, they chose a weird way to do it. This raises the question of hubris and the egos of corporate reformers. As Toppo notes, the game  “Doom essentially invented the first-person shooter game.” It is known as “‘id software'” in reference to “the lowest part of the psyche.”

Another intriguing hint may be found in a conversation with young adult novelist Matthue Roth, a writer on Lexica. Roth’s goal of devising new forms of reading great books sounds great to me. Toppo worried out loud to Roth that Lexica had the potential to “do to Tom Sawyer what Disney had done to Winnie-the-Pooh; pander to a modern pop sensibility and, well, dumb him down to a product.” Roth used the Hebrew Gaiva “pride” or “ego” in blowing off the concern and proclaimed himself not afraid to irk critics. Toppo observes that Roth “was bringing a kind of arrogance and irreverence to the task of getting kids interested in classic books.” My question is how many other top-down reformers are bringing the same domineering mentality to public schools which, of course, are institutions that few of them comprehend.

In other words, The Game Believes in You perhaps can best help us to understand how the would-be architects of a digital–driven education system went wrong when its intriguing anecdotes are read within the context of Gee’s The Anti-Education Era.  Despite what the Game believes, too many of its designers don’t believe in our schools.

Perhaps what it takes to design games with the appropriate stress on competition and teamwork is the antithesis of what it takes to conquer the market for those games. Gee calls for education institutions that model the culture of M.I.T.’s Building 20, where Noam Chomsky and other linguists, biologists, psychologists, and computer scientists built a fantastic interdisciplinary team. It provided enough people, with varying perspectives, with the opportunity to run into each other in unpredictable ways.

Sometimes discussions were “errant,” and sometimes unpleasant, but the “human friction” unleashed their creativity.  Gee’s lesson is that human intelligence “is not primarily tied to individuals operating alone, … it is not tied primarily to digital tools, virtual spaces, or fancy buildings. …” Human intelligence is blended with, “face-to-face interactions, physical spaces, and deep educational uses.” Toppo’s vision is consistent with that.

What do you think? Will digital games improve schools? Were it not for competition-driven reformers, could games become a transformative force for good?

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his n...