I read some interesting research by Postner, Rothbart & Tang (2013) about ‘Developing self-regulation in early childhood’ . I confess to having Googled several neuro-scientific terms in their paper, however what interested me about it was a potential correlation to commercial games in schools – and more importantly why curriculum design is key.
Firstly, I use two domains to talk about games. This helps me differentiate between scholarship and commerce. The first type are those developed as a result of, and in partnership with academic input. Example: ABC Splash’s games like this one. The other are commercial games developed for the popular game market, which claim to have educational value.
For me, an educational game has constructive alignment to the curriculum. This isn’ to say I believe the current curriculum doesn’t fail children and parents, or that educational games are better for children. This caveat stems from my general position that “ed-tech culture” is often based on dangerous assumptions that: kids don’t learn important stuff elsewhere; that they offer unique insight; that school teachers and parents are in an equitable biarchical agreement about media and how best to educate children and that they understand media. All of which are pompous, self-indulgent tropes that result in poor curriculum design and integration of technology – the ‘no significant different problem’.
So onto the paper, and how I think it connects to educational games.
The authors reinforce that to be a successful school-learner depends on the efficiency of the ALERTING network in their brain. Enter the world of controversy at this point, and take a seat. One of the central arguments for carefully regulating media with young children is that they are pre-wired to respond to these alerts — exciting or bored — Not all children develop these in the same way, and have their own preferences and influencers. Young children are less able to control this than older children or adults. It’s one of the reasons media-critics have been putting the boot into television, not least non-realist content like the Teletubbies and Iggle Piggle.
Video games, introduced into any classroom with trigger alert-networks in the brain. In some kids it will be excitement and others, concern. For example, kids whose parents are concerned about media might not declare their feelings at all, or respond with compliance in the face of authority (as they do at home). In this study they did test kids to see if they could train kids towards better self-regulation, which is also similar to how NASA trained space monkeys. What it showed is that kids could be trained to a point they could self-regulate at the same level as un-trained adults, measured by a further test.
What this means is, there is VALUE in simply playing a game which allows for conflict though sensory events. This leads to them developing connections to orienting networks and executive networks – and doesn’t need to have ‘educational content’ added to it at all. Kids who play, will do better in the future – even if that means reading course notes and taking a test. It’s pretty much what Derek Robinson has been saying for a long time about using Nintendo DS or other games. In themselves – games have unique power. Derek to me was seminal when it comes to using out of the box games with both success and evidence which educational authorities could related to, even if they didn’t like what it spelled for their approach to design and technology. If you have not discovered his blog, do so. He’s an amazing leader in the field.
Moving along, children also use ORIENTING networks for regulatory control. While game-heads often talk about ‘flow’ and being in the zone, there’s a case to argue that kids who are less able to manage their ORIENTING networks cannot regulate levels of distraction or amplify their choices towards tasks adults believe relevant at the time. As kids see and experience the world very differently to adults, when mum asks her to get off Minecraft, she simply isn’t able to regulate her alert and orienting networks to do so. The game throws up new alerts (events) and she’s orientated towards what she sees as most important.
Yelling wont change her mind or behaviour, only learning how to regulate her orientation networks will. Kids are pre-wired to orientate to play – which in many ways is functionally removed at the place they spend the bulk of their waking hours inside. Schools talk about kids being off-task, distracted and unable focus. In fact, their developmental inability to amplify input the teacher (or adult) is providing – such as “calculate this” or “get your shoes on” is the problem. Games are not the culprits of this, but clearly modern society – and media rich homes provide more alerts than at any time in history – and now they are in the classroom and in their pockets.
Stand on a busy train. Everyone is wired into their screens, zomg’d into their own half-realities. Regulating media is something that most adults cannot do. It’s ridiculous to expect young children to do a better job – or respond to adult authoritarian demands when they get it ‘wrong’. The EXECUTIVE network, which is involved with regulating conflict, the authors say, is important for self-regulation, emotion, cognition and behaviour. Again, most adults cannot manage this when given a phone and Facebook, which again make the moralistic ‘cyber safety’ chats at school a functional process, not a successful one. Kids will get onto these channels because they’ve seen adults do it, and as soon as its THEIR phone, then any parent who isn’t concept orientated will drive themselves insane trying to micro-regulate use.
What the authors outline is a need to consider how conflict tasks, working memory and executive function CAN be used to improve self-regulation. When you think about this, video games provide a potential (but dangerous) place to work on this. I say dangerous, because games come with cultural interpretations and constructions – heavily influenced by parents and siblings – not schools or teachers. Curriculums are not designed to improve executive function, nor to strengthen connections between these networks (Alert, Orientation, Executive). Play isn’t the foundation of school routine. Content, wrapped in conventions and testing. Using the alerts network is a way to get attention, but I’m sure we’ve all been in a class where using our orientation networks is regulated by threats rather than interest. I’m pretty sure it’s the same at teacher conferences, too many alerts, not enough orientation.
The authors point out that self-regulation is more important to success in school than many other factors such as IQ for example, and that it’s positively related to income, health and parenting style. One problem for using commercial games in school is that teachers (and game sellers) make no account for parenting style at all – as though it doesn’t have a huge impact on how kids see media. For example, the best research shows that at home, parents who generally allow games are permissive when it comes to using media, and see it as a way of children self-regulating. But they are authorative when it comes to education of their children. Conflict which games comes when the family schedule runs into children’s self-regulation flaws – even in homes where parent themselves have played video games (which is 85% of homes with kids these days).
In school, skills towards self-regulation of video games will be at odds with school regime itself and cannot be disregarded when it comes to what kids may or may not say they learn or enjoy verses their results – from a particular regime’s idea of evaluation.
A curriculum design for these ways of learning (in young people) would also allow educational games be developed towards common goals of society – better self-regulation when it comes to using media to learn – and expand skills and knowledge. On this basis there is an argument that allow kids to play a commercial game, without any teacher interference or ‘existing curriculum’ pressure is better than trying to integrate the two things. Ideally, games build from the ground up with use self-regulation to drive curriculum would be better. It also means that the need to use ‘edu-versions’ is based almost entirely on school-culture and what is more or less likely to be purchased — closely related to a teachers own enjoyment — of the game. Rather than help build greater self-regulation, this kind of activity might simply cause broader problems out of school, in which students feel playing at school is can be used to argue with parents that gaming is good at home — which to me crosses a significant border about the rights of parents.
Posner MI, et al. Developing self-regulation in early childhood. Trends in Neuroscience and Education (2013)